The Government has made two blockbuster announcements this week. Both have huge significance for our region:
- Release of an ‘exposure draft’ of its planned Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA), which would replace the much-criticised Resource Management Act (RMA)
- Restructuring of authority nationwide for management of drinking water, wastewater and stormwater services (3 Waters).
This article outlines the major changes signaled by the NBA; tomorrow we’ll address the 3 Waters reforms.
Critics of the RMA come from across the spectrum. Environmentalists rely on it to protect NZ’s environment, but decry its lack of national ‘bottom-line’ standards and its equal weighting of environmental and economic priorities. Businesses and developers blame it for unduly delaying or thwarting needed growth. No side has been entirely happy.
Into this morass steps the NBA. Because of the complexity of the issues and the need to give all voices ample opportunity to weigh in on aspects large and small, the Government, with Environment Minister David Parker carrying the ball, has initiated a two-step public consultation process.
First comes a more informal select committee inquiry, where all parties can react to the present draft and make recommendations.
Those will be sifted and sussed, resulting in the official Bill that will be introduced to Parliament in early 2022, triggering a second select committee process. “This is a once in a generation opportunity to get this right, so we want to make sure we do get it right,” Parker says.
The Government (Environment Minister) would set environmental limits to protect ecological and human health, establishing nationwide consistency for such regulation and lessening the authority of regional councils in this regard.
There is no doubt Labour and especially David Parker believe the RMA has failed to protect the environment, with the suggestion that this is partly due to weak-kneed local politicans having too much discretion to set the rules. Says Parker: “… the existing RMA has allowed cumulative adverse effects including degraded water, increasing climate emissions and soil loss.
“Clear direction will be provided to achieve positive outcomes for the quality of the environment, the protection and restoration of the ecological systems as well as outstanding natural features and landscapes.”
A background paper released by the Government noted:
“The NBA will include a mandatory requirement for the Minister for the Environment to set environmental limits for aspects of the natural environment, to protect its ecological integrity and human health. These limits will be framed as a minimum acceptable state of an aspect of the environment, or a maximum amount of harm that can be caused to that state. Timing and transitional arrangements will be taken into account in setting limits.”
The quality limits must be prescribed for “at least” these matters: air, biodiversity (including habitats and ecosystems), coastal waters, estuaries, freshwater and soil.
Farmers, developers, environmentalists and district councils – all parties – would have one playbook in terms of standards to be met throughout NZ.
The NBA would cover a broad suite of outcomes:
“Another criticism of the RMA is that it focuses too much on managing adverse effects on the environment, and not enough on promoting positive outcomes across all aspects of well-being. The NBA will specify a range of outcomes that decision-makers will be required to promote for natural and built environments.
“Outcomes specified in the exposure draft include environmental protection, iwi and hapū interests, cultural heritage, protection of customary rights, housing, rural development, infrastructure provision, and climate change mitigation and adaptation.”
So, simplification at the expense of local discretion is on offer. The intention is to have one mandatory natural and built environment plan for each region.
The NBA would strengthen the voice of Māori interests in these matters, requiring decision-makers at all levels to “give effect to” the principles of Te Tiriti, as opposed to the current weaker requirement to “take into account” those principles, a change that is rich in legal significance.
As sweeping as it is, the NBA is only one of three bills that will replace the RMA; the other two being a Strategic Planning Act (SPA) and a Climate Adaptation Act (CAA). The first two are expected to be introduced to Parliament early next year and passed in this term. The CAA will be consulted on in early 2022, with legislation not introduced until 2023.
Staff at the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, chief custodian of the RMA (but indeed all our councils), will be burning the midnight oil to sort out how the NBA will affect how ‘business is done’ in our region.
To abet that process, the Government promised “substantial funding for implementing the reform and establishing a well-functioning new system, including the guidance, processes and tools required.”
Here is the Government’s background paper laying out quite clearly the policy intent of the NBA. Probably more helpful than the Bill itself, unless you’re an RMA lawyer! For you lawyers, here’s the Bill.
Be assured, BayBuzz will report on the proposed NBA and its future evolution in depth.