In a Rotorua speech last week, Environment Minister Nick Smith outlined his further “Phase 2” plans for “reforming” the Resource Management Act (RMA), the current linchpin of NZ’s environmental planning. Here’s the official media release.
The proposed changes under consideration in the fast-tracked “Phase 1” have drawn significant criticism from environmentalists, some councils around the country, even a retired Environment Court judge, say the Labour Party and the Greens. For example, the Christchurch City Council estimates that it will cost councils around the country $100 million to change their district plans to bring them into compliance with National’s proposed “streamlining” of the RMA. A wide range of critics say the proposed changes will significantly reduce public participation opportunities.
National’s handling of Phase 1 RMA reforms has all the earmarks of Labour’s rushed and ill-considered passage of “reforms” to the Electoral Finance Act, widely conceded to be a mess.
And before the consequences of those initial changes will be absorbed and fully appreciated, now we face a Phase 2 that will include, per the Environment Minister:
* greater central Government direction to improve management of aquaculture, infrastructure, urban design and water;
* developing the scope, functions and structure of the proposed Environmental Protection Authority;
* alignment of the RMA with Building, Conservation, Forests, and Historic Places Act; and
* further reform of the RMA process “too complex” to be included in the current bill before Parliament.
All of this represents a mountain of proposed change that citizen environmentalists — no less than corporates, paid lobbyists and developers — need to digest, comprehend and evaluate.
But meantime, rest assured that our local territorial and regional councils will plow forward, as they did in Phase 1, with their own institutionally-driven submissions on proposed changes. You can bet your paycheck on this: their submissions will be dictated by their own parochial interests in the power play involved here between central government and local body control over environmental protection and resource exploitation. Those submissions will have little to do, objectively, with the public interest … other than as council staffs deem the “public interest” to coincide with their own imperatives.
There may well be a substantial public interest, for example, in more stringent national standards (i.e., central government-mandated) for various aspects of environmental protection, starting, let’s say, with water. One look at Councillor Christine Scott’s recent handling of water consents pending before the Regional Council’s Hearings Committee would convince you of that! Or look at our local bodies pandering on the air quality issue. Or their tolerance of sub-standard on-site sewage disposal systems.
Important balances must be struck in the distribution of governmental roles and authorities in the management and protection of the nation’s environment and natural resources. And the public needs to be fully informed and engaged in this process.
That should include:
1) Public consultation before local councils, driven by their current resource planning power centres (i.e., staff), take it upon themselves to advocate positions to Parliament.
2) And more leadership than any of our local MPs have shown in drawing local stakeholders into the RMA debate. So far, it would appear that our MPs, our National MPs in particular, are perfectly content to let their pals at the local councils — who many of us consider to be far from environmentally-friendly, or committed to public participation, or even neutral — dominate this process.
We need much more public involvement in the RMA debate than the efforts, as heroic as they are, of individuals like June Graham, a local activist who drove eight hours to Wellington and back last week for her five minutes before the Select Committee considering the RMA.
The RMA is too important to be re-written exclusively by bureaucrats (at any level), protectors of turf, and lobbyists and promoters of economic interests.