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Developers to Benefit From Latest Changes to RMA

The Government has released a discussion document outlining the next round of changes to be made to the RMA. The exact changes that will be made to the legislation are not yet clear. What is clear is that these changes, if given effect, move the RMA in a pro-development direction.

The Government has set out 6 objectives that are to be achieved by the changes. The common theme running through these objectives is to reduce costs and time delays for developers. It is obvious the Government is concerned with how the RMA and the resource management system are coping with the current economic climate.

The first objective of the proposed reform package is to provide greater nationwide consistency and guidance in dealing with RMA processes. It is suggested that changes are needed to reflect contemporary or current values and issues. The Government identifies an issue with the current approach of the RMA which gives environmental matters precedence over social, cultural and economic matters in the decision making process. It is suggested that this approach is out of date and the positive effects of certain economic and social activities are not being given enough weight. The suggested amendments will mean all environmental, social, economic and cultural well-being values are given equal weighting in decision making processes.

Further issues under this objective are identified with whether or not Central Government is able to provide enough direction in resource management processes nationally. The only tools available to Central Government at present are the ability to develop National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards and use ‘call in’ powers in assessing particular developments. The Government believes these tools are being used poorly and further guidance and criteria will be included in the RMA regarding how and when each tool should be used. There will also be an overhaul of how and when Central Government can direct plan changes. The intended outcome of this is to allow Government to have better control of the resource management process especially for nationwide issues such as housing affordability and natural hazard management.

The next objective outlined is to reduce the number of resource management plans having effect throughout New Zealand. Problems arise because of the difficulties associated with determining exactly what plans relate to specific areas, activities and land uses, what polices and rules apply and the inconsistency of plans. The Government suggests that a single plan format or template should be developed nationwide and councils will be required to include all relevant planning documents within this plan. Councils will also be encouraged to group together where possible to create one plan for multiple areas. The long term benefits of this will reduce the difficulties both applicants and decision makers have with interpreting plans and ultimately the number of matters decided by the Environment Court will decrease. The Government acknowledges there will be large administration costs associated with this but believes the long term benefits outweigh those costs.

Efficient and effective consenting is the next significant objective to be achieved. The Government believes resource consents are required in too many situations for minor developments and the costs, delays and uncertainties detrimentally affect development. New rules will be applied to “straight forward, non-notified’ consents requiring applications to be dealt with by councils within 10 days. Applications breaching rules in a minor way will be able to be dealt with under a new scheme allowing approved exemptions. Examples may include where the height or building footprint of a development breach a rule but only in a minor way. Notification rules will be weakened and the scope of conditions that can be placed on resource consents is to be narrowed. Significant changes are proposed that will mean a person is only able to submit on an application or appeal a decision on grounds they are directly affected by. Appeals to the Environment Court will no longer be de novo, meaning all evidence will not be reheard at an appeal. These measures are all aimed at decreasing costs and time delays.

As a result of the Christchurch earthquakes and other large natural disasters that have occurred over the last decade the Government wants to see natural hazards better planned for and managed under the resource management process. Natural hazards are to be included in the principles of the RMA and as a matter to be taken into account in any resource consent decision. Rather than just considering the likelihood of an event occurring a decision maker will also be required to consider the potential impact if an event occurs.

More effective and meaningful iwi/Maori participation is a further desired outcome of the changes. The document outlines there are differing expectations nationwide of how and when Maori are to be consulted and the role Maori should play in resource management processes. The Government proposes that it be a requirement for all councils to have an arrangement with local iwi on how they are consulted where such an arrangement does not exist. Any hearings panel established to determine plans or plan changes will also be required to have a member that understand tikanga Maori and the perspectives of local iwi.

Throughout the objectives emphasis is placed on improving Council practices. Councils will be required to properly account for the costs associated with assessing consent applications and the services they are providing. A system is proposed to measure how councils are performing, in terms of both costs of assessing applications and timeframes, so that comparisons can be undertaken between councils and changes can be made where required. An increase in transparency and a commitment to allocating funds to the processes they are incurred by will also be required.

Considering the current state of New Zealand’s economy and corresponding National Government policy it is understandable that the Government is looking for ways to stimulate development. Giving equal weight to environmental, economic and social factors in the decision making process, fast tracking the ability of Government to implement policy through the amendment of district and regional plans, removing rules requiring consents and removing public participation rights will undoubtedly speed up the resource consent process and reduce costs for developers. The question is, what price will the environment pay as a result of these changes. Political views will be divided on this issue and the Governments next task will be convincing people that such wholesale changes are necessary.

Adam Copland- Resource Management Solicitor
21 March 2013

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