RMA reforms – tinker, tailor, soldier on…

The Resource Legislation Amendment Bill has passed its third reading, marking the most significant change to the RMA since 2009. 

Most changes will come into effect immediately.  

Central government's powers expanded

The new Act adds the following tools to central government's inventory:

  • “National Planning Standards", which may contain compulsory and/or optional directions on structure, formatting and content of regional policy statements and regional/district plans, and 
  • new regulation making powers, which allow the Minister to override local planning provisions that duplicate or overlap with other legislation (excluding provisions dealing with genetically modified organisms). Examples could include provisions dealing with hazardous substances, or matters covered in the Building Code.   

The Act also creates a single process for developing National Policy Statements and National Environmental Standards (now collectively known as “National Directions").  

Increased scope for iwi involvement

The Māori Party has negotiated provisions for “Mana Whakahono a Rohe", which will enable iwi and local authorities to formally agree on and record ways for tangata whenua to participate in resource management and decision-making processes. 

New plan making processes

Two new plan making procedures are now available to local authorities:

  • the collaborative process, which seeks to achieve consensus recommendations from a “collaborative group" that represents a range of community interests, and
  • the streamlined process, which is fast-tracked and subject to ministerial approval, with limited scope for appeals (a local authority may request this process in relation to private plan changes, with the applicant's consent). 

Limited notification of plan changes and variations is also now possible.

Resource consents streamlined

Relevant changes include:

  • precluding public notification for most subdivisions, residential activities and “boundary activities" (ie applications that breach controls such as yard standards and height in relation to boundary limits)
  • preventing limited notification of controlled activities (other than subdivisions), and  
  • removing Environment Court appeal rights in relation to most subdivisions, residential activities and boundary activities. 

Financial contribution provisions in district plans must also be phased out within five years.

Chapman Tripp comment

The new Act enables greater national direction, reflecting central government's increasing willingness to direct local planning rules and processes.

The legislation reduces public participation in plan change and resource consent processes, a concept that has underwritten the RMA to varying degrees throughout its history. We note that the new restrictions on Environment Court appeals may cut both ways, in that unsuccessful applicants and submitters will have limited recourse against an adverse local authority decision. 

This restriction may lead to an upswing in judicial review proceedings as a method to challenge council decisions.      

Iwi involvement in resource management processes has been bolstered through the new, more formal, participation arrangements. These arrangements are likely to bring more clarity to the scope of iwi involvement in planning and decision making, and potentially increase the level of iwi influence in these processes.    

Further changes on the horizon?

Beyond these reforms, the government is coming under increasing pressure to investigate more fundamental changes to New Zealand's planning system. Of particular interest is the Productivity Commission's blueprint for a complete re-design of planning laws.

Our thanks to Brendan Abley for writing this Brief Counsel.

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Related topics: Resource management law reform; Resource Management Act; Resource Management law; Resource consent

Environment, planning & resource management

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