Momentum grows to replace the RMA

Labour and Green parties increasingly convinced the RMA needs a full review.

Although the Productivity Commission's just-released report on better urban planning does not specifically recommend repeal of the 27-year-old Resource Management Act (RMA), Finance Minister Steven Joyce is pleased it has identified replacing the Act and other statutes with a single new planning law that governs both the built and natural environment.

The report comes as Environment Minister Nick Smith shepherds a long-stalled and increasingly controversial set of changes to the RMA through Parliament, with the government, forced to make highly specific "carve-out" deals with the Maori Party to achieve a watered-down version of reforms it has been seeking since its first term in office, in 2008.

The Labour and Green parties are also increasingly convinced the RMA needs a full review, with the Productivity Commission also recommending reform of the Local Government and Land Transport Acts.

The Environmental Defence Society welcomed the report and called for a royal commission of inquiry into major reforms, which it said needed to be depoliticised.

The report says the current urban planning system is characterised by “increasing legislative complexity, declining coherence and accessibility”, following extensive and regular reform to the RMA since it was first passed in 1990.

Although the report does not specifically recommend repealing the RMA, commission chairman Murray Sherwin says that its terms of reference only sought “to outline what a new regime would like if you were starting with a blank sheet of paper."

The RMA and associated laws had “lost its shape, leaving ministers contemplating whether a complete rewrite is justified."

Among its recommendations are allowing local councils to fund infrastructure development through congestion charging and to target rates at areas where land prices were rising especially swiftly.

This “value capture” approach to rating would let local government capture some of the value uplift enjoyed for property owners, often caused by investments in local government infrastructure such as roading and public transport.

However, it says other new forms of local tax, such as a regional fuel tax to fund infrastructure, are unnecessary and that local governments already have a range of tools available to raise more funds. It's just that many are making comparatively little use of them.

It also endorses the approach under the current government of increasing national direction by central government on major issues involving both urban planning and natural environmental standards.

A routine criticism of the RMA’s implementation has been that local councils have too often received inadequate guidance from central government through National Policy Statements, which the RMA has always provided for, but whose use has only recently started to become common.

The report also finds the system has blurred the distinction between urban and natural environments.

“The natural environment needs a clear focus on setting standards that must be met, while the built environment requires assessments that recognise the benefits of urban development and allow change,” it says.

“A future planning system should clearly distinguish between the natural and built environments and clearly outline how to manage the interrelationships between the two.”

The report also goes into some depth on how councils should think about the affordability of their infrastructure plans, revealing in the process that weighing the social, environmental and economic pay-off of infrastructure development against its cost is poorly understood.

While reforming such a complex area of law “might appear daunting”, the commission concludes “the potential gains far outweigh the costs of not confronting the current weaknesses."


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