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RMA reform speech to the New Zealand Planning Institute – Chris Bishop

Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today and I’m sorry I can’t be there in person. Yesterday I started in Wellington for Breakfast TV, spoke to a property conference in Auckland, and finished the day speaking to local government in Christchurch, so it would have been quite nice to round out the 24 hours by visiting the City of the Future, Hamilton. Perhaps next year.

I have been given the enormous Ministerial responsibilities of Housing, Infrastructure and of course Reform of the Resource Management Act.

I intend to use this opportunity today to lay out the roadmap for the Government’s resource management reform programme. Cabinet has agreed to this agenda and I will shortly publish the Cabinet paper outlining it all.

Our agenda

Let me start with two simple propositions.

First, it has become too hard and too expensive to get things done in New Zealand.

Despite being blessed with abundant renewable energy resources, it is too difficult to build wind farms, solar farms, hydro and geothermal power stations. Achieving our climate goals will be impossible without fundamental planning reform.

Despite being a country of only five million people on land mass the size of the United Kingdom, we have managed to design a planning system that locks up so much land we have some of the most expensive houses in the developed world, while thousands of families live in squalor in motel rooms.

A recent report by the Infrastructure Commission tells us that the time taken to consent a major project more than doubled from 2014 to 2019.

We are collectively spending a colossal $1.3 billion on resource consents per year for a resource management system that has consistently failed to deliver better outcomes, both for development and the natural environment.

My second proposition is equally simple.

We need to go as hard as we can to lift our economic growth rate.

Sometimes people talk of growth as a dirty word. Growth is what lifts our incomes and means better and higher paying jobs. It means better schools, better hospitals, a better way of life. It also means a better environment. Wealthy countries look after their environments because they can afford to, and they have the resources to make a difference.

So that means we need more roads, more farms, more congestion-busting public transport projects, more aquaculture, more mines, more housing, more transmission lines, more electrification, and so on.

We are a pro-development and a pro-growth government and we were elected on that mandate. Unlike the last government that talked big and achieved basically nothing, we intend to deliver.

That brings me to the RMA.

There are two broad objectives to our work programme. First, making it easier to get things done by unlocking development capacity for housing and business growth, enabling delivery of high-quality infrastructure for the future, including doubling renewable energy, and enabling primary sector growth and development (including aquaculture, forestry, pastoral, horticulture, and mining).

The second objective is to safeguard the environment and human health, adapt to the effects of climate change, improve regulatory quality in the resource management system, and uphold Treaty of Waitangi settlements and other related arrangements.

Across the two coalition documents there are 20 different commitments relating to the RMA which I am responsible for delivering. It’s an extensive work programme. I’ve formed a Ministerial Group to drive this reform called the Resource Management Ministerial Group.

It consists of me, the Ministers of Energy, Local Government, Transport, Agriculture, Forestry, Conservation, Maori/Crown Relations, Oceans and Fisheries, Regional Development, Resources, Climate Change, Environment and our Associates and Under-Secretaries. We’ve started meeting regularly and collectively we will drive the reform agenda across government.

We’re thinking about RMA reform in three phases.

Phase One

Phase One was to repeal the Natural and Built Environment Act and Spatial Planning Act. We did that before Christmas as we said we would. I don’t intend to spend any more time dwelling on that. The reforms were well-intentioned but badly designed and I’m glad those two acts are off the statute books.

Phase Two

The first part of phase two is our commitment to introduce a one-stop-shop consenting and permitting regime for regionally and nationally significant projects.

The Fast-Track Approvals Bill is based on the previous government’s RMA fast-track regime, but it goes further in three ways.

First, it applies to projects of regional and national significance.

Second, Ministers are the final decision-makers on the project that will be dealt with under the act.

Third, it doesn’t just affect the RMA, but other relevant statutes like the Conservation Act, Wildlife Act, Public Works Act, etc.

Projects of regional or national significance will become eligible for fast-track through one of two ways – either through a referral by Ministers of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, or by being listed as a project in Schedule 2A of the Bill.

Once a project has been referred into the fast-track process, it will be considered by an expert panel which will apply relevant consent and permit conditions. Panels will have a maximum of six months to do this before the project is referred to joint Ministers to either approve it with conditions, or decline it. Ministers will also be able to refer a project back to a panel if they determine the conditions recommended are too onerous.

We introduced the Fast-Track Approvals Bill to Parliament earlier this month and it’s now before the Environment Select Committee. I encourage you to make a submission on the Bill so we can help refine it and get it in good shape before it returns to Parliament later in the year.

Phase 2B – targeted amendments

Phase Two doesn’t end at Fast Track.

We will also be making targeted changes to the RMA, to reduce unnecessary regulation and help unlock development and investment in infrastructure, housing and primary industries, while ensuring the environment is protected.

This will take the form of two bills to amend the RMA.

The first bill, which for ease of reference I’m calling RM Bill 1, will be narrowly scoped and introduced in May. It will include changes to the RMA to clarify the application of the hierarchy of obligations in the National Policy Statement (NPS) for Freshwater Management to resource consenting, extend the duration of marine farm consents, and cease the implementation of new Significant Natural Areas for three years to enable a thorough review of their operation.

We are also considering a couple of other targeted amendments in this Bill, which I will announce in due course.

The second bill will be more substantive and will take some time to develop. I expect to introduce it to Parliament later in 2024.

Two big areas it will deal with are on housing and on renewable energy.

We have extensive commitments around housing supply in our Going for Housing Growth agenda.

The Bill will make the Medium Density Residential Standards optional rather than near-mandatory for councils, and require councils to ratify their use. It will also require councils to live zone 30 years of growth, and strengthen the National Policy Statement on Urban Development, particularly around mixed-use zoning. There will likely be other changes as we design the legislation.

On renewable energy, we intend to deliver on our ambitious policy called Electrify New Zealand, which aims to double renewable energy in New Zealand. This will involve a variety of changes to the RMA itself and also to national direction.

To help finalise the scope of the second amendment bill, I have written to Ministers, and will shortly write to key stakeholders, seeking suggestions for targeted changes to the RMA that will have the most impact in the short term while we develop a replacement to the RMA.

The other part of phase two is around national direction.

Our national direction programme is aimed at unlocking development and investment in infrastructure, housing capacity, horticulture, aquaculture, forestry, and mining while achieving good environmental outcomes.

We have proposed to amend, review or develop over a dozen national direction instruments.

It will not be feasible or efficient to progress all these processes separately. Some straightforward priority amendments to national direction will be included in the RMA amendment bills.

I intend that all other work on national direction is combined into a single process for decision-making and engagement. This will include the review of the NPS for Freshwater Management which will take 18 to 24 months to complete. A combined process will support policy integration and allow everyone to see and engage on all the changes in one place.

Work on this is at an early stage and I’ll have more to say as we firm up our plans.

Phase Three – replace the RMA

Building on these quick wins, phase three will develop policy and legislation to permanently replace the RMA, based on the enjoyment of property rights.

This is a massive undertaking and a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes over the past two years to develop our thinking. We start from two simple questions: what should resource management do? And where did the RMA go wrong?

In my view, the RMA failed for three reasons.

First, the purpose statement of the RMA puts the environment above development and other land use. That makes the RMA fundamentally incompatible with what people actually want by establishing a presumption against land use. Property owners must effectively prove their case for development or even to change activities on their properties.

It is worth noting that is not how the RMA was originally sold to people. It was meant to be a liberating statute compared to the Town and Country Planning Act. That is not how it has evolved.

The welfare of current future generations of people depends on more than a sustainable environment, important as that is. Welfare also depends on access to housing, public services, food and energy security, transport and the ability to earn an income. All of these things depend on the ability to use land productively.

The second problem with the RMA is its scope. The RMA’s purpose and principles statements refer to more than 20 outcomes including environmental, social, economic and cultural outcomes, and health and safety.

Sections 6 and 7 cover everything from culture to stewardship, amenity, climate change, historic heritage and the habitats of trout.

The RMA’s broad scope means councils are put in charge of virtually everything, regardless of whether plans and consents are fit for purpose for that task.

With a purpose statement that elevates the environment above land use and unlimited scope, it is hardly surprising that gridlock has emerged. Councils are all-but forced to consider all conceivable effects of a development. This is what drives the mountains of paperwork in consenting processes.

The wide scope of the RMA also invites councils to make impossible trade-offs. How should a council weigh the cultural benefits of a housing development against its effects on emissions?

The third problem with the RMA is that it does not give councils the tools they need to manage environmental problems.

Resource consents are simply not fit for purpose for managing environmental impacts which often occur at the catchment level.

Managing issues like water take from rivers or nutrient loads in catchments one consent at a time has turned into a disaster. Consents don’t allow for scarce and precious resources including water to find their best use. Consents encourage hoarding behaviour and re-consenting risk for businesses deters investment.

Without a toolkit to manage catchment-level effects properly, councils have defaulted to using resource consents.

What does all this mean for the replacement RMA system? I take many lessons from the RMA experience. Here are four that will guide my thinking as we move forward.

First, we have to be clear about what resource management is for. Plans and consents are important but they should not run economies, or manage competition, or trade off social, cultural, economic and environmental outcomes. The system can be simpler if it is targeted.

Second, the replacement system must have solutions that are back-to-back with the problems they solve. Catchment-level problems should be managed by catchment-level solutions, for example. The overarching principle is that problems and solutions need to be well connected.

Third, we should only direct resource management instruments including plans and resource consents at the problems they are best placed to solve. If our goal is to maximise the welfare of current and future generations of people, then property rights, covenants, contracts and dedicated legislation all have a role to play. We must reconsider where boundary between resource management and those other mechanisms should sit.

Finally, the new system needs a purpose statement that is consistent with human welfare. That means equal protection for the right to access to housing and other basic human needs alongside environmental protection. Both are essential and both will be protected.

Land use within environmental limits will be permitted.

I believe that with clear rules, the replacement RMA system can deliver economic growth and better environmental outcomes.

In terms of the new legislation, I favour clearly separating urban and spatial planning from environmental protection, possibly through separate legislation for each of these functions.

Our new regime will have the enjoyment of property rights as its guiding principle and of course it will include a commitment to uphold Treaty of Waitangi settlements and other arrangements.

We will be establishing an Expert Ministerial Advisory Group to flesh out the detail of the new regime. There is a lot of work to do.

The first step is for Cabinet to decide on and agree on the core design principles for phase three. I’ve outlined some considerations for that today. The Expert Group will do the heavy lifting alongside MfE and other agencies.

My aim is to get a Bill – or Bills – introduced into Parliament in mid-2025 and passed into law by the end of 2025. I realise that’s ambitious but I don’t want a repeat of the Randerson Review debacle and more wasted time and money.

I also want your input into this process. You are the experts and there will be plenty of opportunities to contribute. I look forward to your feedback and to discussing your ideas and mine.

Conclusion

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today and I’m really look forward to meeting more of you in person as the days and months go by.

 

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