RMA reform: what does it mean?

We link here to press statements released yesterday containing details on the Resource Management (Simplify and Streamline) Amendment Bill.

RMA amendments summary

RMA questions and answers

Fixing the RMA crucial for future growth

PR Nick Smith - reform tackles costs, uncertainties and delays

Businesses looking for faster processes and more certain outcomes will find a number of the proposed changes helpful. Potentially, too, the changes should make councils more accountable to their communities for their planning processes – a welcome development. Streamlined national infrastructure consenting under a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also a very constructive response to New Zealand's infrastructure issues.

However, some aspects of the Bill will require significant refinement as it goes through select committee and will possibly require a supplementary order paper. For instance, the Bill proposes to remove any right to appeal plan decisions other than on questions of law. Without much greater quality assurance in the way Council plan hearings are conducted, that could pose a significant risk of increased recourse to the High Court against council planning decisions. Likewise, the proposals to penalise trade competitors in damages need very careful scrutiny so this does not just open up further opportunities for RMA enquiry and delay.

Overall, however, the Bill is a very welcome start to much needed reform, with the potential to benefit business and the wider community. But, a generous select committee enquiry timetable is very important to ensure good intentions are delivered in the outcome.

Proposed changes to the RMA of particular interest or significance are listed as follows:

Strengthening environmental protection 

  • The definition of "environment" will no longer be amended, instead other changes will be made to prevent competitors misusing the RMA;
  • Maximum fines are being increased significantly from $200,000 to $600,000 for corporate offenders and from $200,000 to $300,000 for individuals;
  • Courts will have specific power to review a consent if an offender breaches consent conditions;
  • Enforcement action will be able to be pursued against the Crown;
  • Section 8 of the RMA regarding the Treaty of Waitangi will no longer be amended.

 Speed up of the decision-making process

  • Requiring authorities will no longer make the final decision on notices of requirement for a designation;
  • No stopping of the clock when asking for further information;
  • Changes to the public notification procedure for consents to allow consents to be processed on the faster "non-notified" track;
  • Distribution of consent information by email and via websites to affected parties;
  • Removing the Minister of Conservation's powers in respect to decision making on restricted coastal activities;
  • Limiting appeals on proposed policy statements and plans to answer questions of law, except in cases where the appellant has sought leave of the Environment Court;
  • Removing the ability to make further submissions in relation to proposed policy statements and plans.

Setting up of an EPA

  • Sets up a transition to an EPA to administer proposals of national significance and decisions will be made within nine months;
  • The structure and functions of the EPA will be developed as part of phase 2 of the RMA amendments.

Frivolous, vexatious and anti-competitive objections

  • Reinstate the powers of the Environment Court to award security of costs;
  • Increase filing fee for the lodgement of appeals to the Environment Court from $55 to $500;
  • Incorporate a punitive regime for proceedings brought by a person against a trade competitor.

Plan development and change processes

  • Removing the non-complying activity category of activities;
  • Proposed plans will have no legal effect until decisions on submissions are notified.

Improving national instruments

  • Enabling national policy statements to direct that a local authority must change the objectives and policies of policy statements and plans without the need for further local planning processes;
  • Clarifying that consent authorities can issue certificates of compliance where activities comply with a national environmental standard;
  • Appeals on changes to plans and regional policy statements that are implementing objectives and policies of national policy statements shall be limited to points of law.

Next steps

The Bill will be introduced later this month and then referred to the Environment and Local Government Select Committee for public submission and hearings.

The Bill is the first of two phases for reforming the RMA.  Phase 2 of the reforms will set up the EPA and deal with reforms relating to aquaculture, fresh water, urban design and infrastructure/Public Works Act.

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Related topics: Environment, planning & resource management; Resource management law reform

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