Yesterday the government announced a major milestone in the very lengthy process to modernise New Zealand’s resource management system, with both the Spatial Planning Bill and the Natural and Built Environments Bill being introduced to parliament. A lot of Environment Minister David Parker’s press release focused on the cost and time savings that are hoped for as part of the reform, but there were also some interesting parts of what he said around the more fundamental shift in the new legislation – away from an ‘effects based’ system and more to an ‘outcomes based system’.

“Existing national direction, such as policy statements on water and air quality, carries over into a consolidated National Planning Framework, with a new part to aid infrastructure development.

“The most significant change to environment protection will be a shift from an effects-based approach to one that is based on outcomes.

“Put simply, an effects-based approach often saw many small adverse effects accumulate into significant environmental degradation – most notably with water quality and loss of biodiversity and top soil. The NBA will focus on outcomes, setting limits to maintain current environmental levels and targets where degradation needs to be restored,” David Parker said.

The case for reforming the Resource Management Act is strong and generally widely agreed. Not only has it become extremely complex and convoluted, but it has also been completely ineffective at stopping environmental decline. Moreover, the biggest environmental challenge of our time – climate change – has until recently (in fact not until next month) been excluded from full consideration as part of RMA decision-making processes.

We’ve not had much good to say about the planning profession in recent years, as it has been obsessed with reinforcing the status quo – often through dodgy processes – while ignoring the huge potential for planning to make a positive – rather than negative – impact on real issues like housing affordability and climate change. Key recent changes through the National Policy Statement on Urban Development and the Medium Density Residential Standard were a big step forward in this sense, making it much easier to build in the places where we want growth to happen, finally helping to tackle these big issues and to lift planning out of highly localised matters. These will be embedded into the new legislation. So we’re keen to see how this change continues to ‘lift the gaze’ of planning and resource management decision-making away from empowering NIMBYs and towards actually making progress.

I’ve only had a quick look through the two new pieces of legislation, and to be honest a lot of the processes in the Natural and Built Environments Bill look pretty similar to what’s currently in the Resource Management Act, but a few things caught my eye.

Spatial Planning Bill

  • Part 2 of this bill talks about Regional Spatial Strategies – a new mandated document that seems broadly similar in scope to the current Auckland Spatial Plan. Auckland has benefitted significantly from having one overarching plan to guide its future development, even if that plan has lacked teeth and continues to be ignored when it comes to decision-making. Requiring holistic long-term planning, and then giving those plans real grunt in driving decision-making, is a big step forward.
  • Section 17, which sits within Part 2 of the bill, sets out the key matters that will be included in Regional Spatial Strategies. A lot of this is fairly standard stuff, but of particular note is discussion around what future infrastructure should be included, with the bill saying (my emphasis) “major existing, planned, or potential infrastructure or major infrastructure corridors, networks, or sites (including existing designations) that are required to meet current and future needs”. Including potential future infrastructure – like all of Auckland’s future rapid transit network – in a document with legislative weight will hopefully allow much more of a network-level approach to thinking going forward.

Natural and Built Environments Bill

This is by far the larger of the two pieces of legislation and contains most of what’s current in the RMA. A lot of the process-related stuff seems fairly similar to what’s in the RMA, with the most notable changes that caught my eye being:

  • The ‘explanatory note‘ provides a good explanation of what the shift from ‘effects’ to ‘outcomes’ will mean in practice. Of particular note is: “The Bill contains a list of system outcomes that must be provided for. These outcomes will play a different role to the lists of matters in sections 6 and 7 of the RMA. The outcomes are no longer intended to simply serve as matters to be considered in decision-making. Rather, the outcomes will guide national direction, strategies, and plans, which will in turn guide consideration of resource consent applications.” This seems like a much more proactive approach, presumably meaning that plans will need to show how they give effect to these outcomes – rather than just the NIMBYs – and then individual proposals will be assessed against the plans through the consenting process in a narrower and more efficient way.
  • This ‘clearer direction’ is provided through the ‘National Planning Framework‘, which seems like it wraps together a lot of existing national policy statements (like the NPS-UD) in a way that allows this direction to be updated fairly easily by the Government of the day.
  • A set of ‘system outcomes‘ are defined, with significant prominence for tackling climate change and reducing emissions, as well as providing for housing supply and affordability. This seems like a huge step forwards from what’s currently in the RMA.
  • Clearer environmental limits and targets – which seems pretty essential given how poor the RMA was at addressing environmental decline.

Obviously there remains huge complexity to these pieces of legislation – especially the Natural and Built Environments Bill – and it will clearly take a long time for this new legislation to flow through to ‘on the ground’ planning documents like the Auckland Unitary Plan. But the stronger national direction, the greater role of long-term spatial planning and the shift towards an outcomes focus makes me hopeful that this is an important step in the right direction and part of an ongoing shift towards getting planning to focus on the big picture much more – how our cities should grow and where the streets should go – and to stop sweating the minor details around whether a dairy should be allowed on a street corner or whether a house is 20 centimetres too close to another one.

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  1. There seems to be very little interest by the “general” population at large in anything related to climate change. Protesters are labeled “radicals”,for trying to highlight ,what they feel as inaction on the issue. There is ,of course a monetary and social cost ,to reducing “our carbon footprint” and not many people ,it seems are prepared to pay that cost.
    Any new legislation, that highlights cause and effect, can only do good in my view. Our neighbours (Australia),are even worse at understanding the global warming concept. But here’s the thing,regardless of what you believe, “Mother Nature” will serve up its reaction to our lifestyles. Hard not to notice some Australian towns being flooded for the second time in 4 weeks. Locally the Tairawhiti (Gisborne) area is coping huge amounts of rain, we will end up with uninhabitable and uninsurable areas soon. Ironically l think the latter will end up “driving ” our future planning.

    1. The problem is protesters are mostly idiots that don’t seek solutions and just want their own unpopular agenda forced on the community.
      Blocking motorways causes more CO2 and just annoys everyone.
      You are correct that addressing climate change is going to come at a cost and most people are reluctant to pay, especially in times like we have now, of rising inflation.
      The Governments recent decision to postpone the biofuels mandate is exactly because they don’t want to be attacked by the opposition and accused of creating fuel poverty, even if the mandate would only add a few cents per litre. If it wasn’t an election soon, labour would not have delayed this.

      1. “Blocking motorways causes more CO2 and just annoys everyone.”

        Protests that are “comfortable” – that ruffle no feathers – are easy to ignore.

        Throwing soup at artworks is stupid (albeit I suspect it was in part a response to govts – especially US and UK etc – seeming to protect physical things like statues more than people, look at some of the laws they passed, the punishments were massively increased).

        But trying to block one of the largest generators of emissions of our country like a motorway? That is basic protesting 101, like Greenpeace boarding a whaling ship or whatnot. You don’t have to agree with it for it to make sense.

        1. Yes, we should be outraged that farmers used tractors to impede motorway traffic as a form of climate protest

        2. But trying to block one of the largest generators of emissions of our country like a motorway? That is basic protesting 101, like Greenpeace boarding a whaling ship or whatnot. You don’t have to agree with it for it to make sense.

          You’d be better off blockading the people who actually make those policies and decisions, instead of blowing out the commutes of the people you need buy-in from to effect actual change.

          But I guess it’s honest in a way because the missed daycare runs, start times, working late to catch up or just getting fewer paid hours is something that will become the norm if the ‘use PT everywhere or walk’ crowd get their way. Making life hard for ordinary people to pursue policies that will make life hard for ordinary people has a certain symmetry to it, I’ll admit.

        3. “Making life hard for ordinary people to pursue policies that will make life hard for ordinary people has a certain symmetry to it, I’ll admit.”

          Oh, cry me a river. When was the last time a climate protest made you late for anything? Now think of the amount of times a traffic crash made you late, or simply massively wrong traffic policies made you late (from “just one more lane will fix it” policies for decades to “lets underpay bus drivers and see if the system still works”).

          You are talking as if we had daily general strike / civil unrest conditions in transport because of people blocking motorways. Ive seen and heard of more farmers blocking roads to protest against climate levies (which I support as their right to protest as much or as little, in legal terms, as someone blocking the roads in favour of climate change action).

          Making “oh think of the common people” comments doesn’t impress me. That’s always the argument of the ones at the top. Sure, blocking a billionaire private jet airport might be better optics, but we’d have to build that first.

        4. What relevance is that? That stuff happens daily. But I don’t pick a random passer-by and decide to ruin their day as a result and then expect them to help drive the change at the actual decision-making level that change needs to happen at.

          “You get delayed a lot anyway, so just cop the enormous disruption over and over again while we repeatedly alienate the community we need to get on board with our proposal” isn’t the hearts-and-minds exercise some people seem to think it is. It’s sure as hell not selling the idea of longer commutes tied to PT that these guys are lobbying for.

    2. “There seems to be very little interest by the “general” population at large in anything related to climate change.”

      citation needed

  2. Natural and Built Environments Bill – isn’t that just another way of saying Town and Country Planning Act? Have we, after a thirty year diversion, just gone back to the past?

    1. Yes, and not without good reason. But this is a new and different way of doing that.
      The main thing to note is that Luxon and Seymour don’t like it so it can’t be all bad.

      1. Greens don’t like it either, and for good reason.
        It’s confused legislation, without clear and coherent purpose. A strange mish mash of lots of the RMA and a few new things thrown in. Apparently ‘outcomes focused’ but with still lots of references to effects-based approaches.
        And a purpose that is focused on ‘not compromising’ future generations rather than actively planning to improve the lot for future generations.
        Frankly, it’s very disappointing, but that’s not surprising…

        1. Perhaps difficult for a generation of RMA planners and lawyers to draft something different that will really work. Especially as their expertise will be expiring.

      1. In New Zealand, our politicians struggle to tell the difference between town and city. Every city has about half a Council full of people who think they govern a town.

  3. RMA reform needs cross party support, to make it enduring. It appears the opposition are already raising concerns:
    “The first is around … adding another layer of bureaucracy; the second piece is really around rising levels of uncertainty and complexity that I think will lead to more interpretation from bureaucrats and also courts; the final thing is it’s taking 10 years to get implemented and that’s just way too long,”
    “These committees will spend probably the first three or four years of their existence arguing amongst themselves about who will actually be on the committee so you’re going to have all of these city councils and district councils feeding into the committee that sits above them,”
    “We have regional councils already – there are 16 regional councils in New Zealand – what the government is doing is creating an entire new layer of bureaucracy over and above the existing regional councils.”
    “We are deeply sceptical it will reduce compliance costs, reduce bureaucracy and make it easier to get infrastructure and houses built.”
    “As with polytechs, as with three waters, as with healthcare – Labour thinks that centralisation is reform even though they’re just doing the same thing with a different group of organisations,”
    “All they’ve done is introduced 15 new centralised entities with an even more complex set of rules to apply. There are 16 different goals to be traded off when these new entities decide what you can do on your property – that’s not going to make it easier to build homes or to build infrastructure.”

    1. Achieving cross party support has proven useless on other issues, as that support can be withdrawn.

      What governments should do is get changes through early in their terms, so that on-the-ground changes are bedded in. This way people get to experience what they really mean. Then future governments thinking of making changes would be informed by how things panned out in reality, rather than by theoretical (often ideological) concerns.

      1. “Achieving cross party support has proven useless on other issues, as that support can be withdrawn.”

        Govt had (surprising me!) got support from National on the UPS intensification statement. But generally agree with your gist, Heidi. Issue of course is that govts and bureaucracy rarely move fast enough. Maybe an argument for 4 year terms, albeit of course that isn’t a fix in itself.

      2. Tend to agree, although this government is effectively in its first term as NZ First put some serious brakes on between 2017 and 2020. The problem is it might also be its last term.

        In saying that most oppositions, but National especially often criticise but rarely repeal legislation when they come into government.

      3. The RMA was enacted with cross party support. Simon Upton, National drafted it and Labour enacted. Don’t forget your history.

        It could happen again. No point in having planning legislation changing every three years.

        1. Whoops From wikipedia, Geoffrey Palmer and Guy Salmond et al developed it, Labour’s lost the 1990 Election, but Upton introduced the bill for the Bolger Govt.

    2. All the Nats do is whinge and moan and bark at the govt without any proposals themselves.

      They argued for RMA reform for over ten years, yet as soon as Labour introduces their legislative proposal, the opposition immediately opposes it. Hypocrites.

  4. What ever the Government does you can pretty much be certain that Auckland Council will try and make a dog’s dinner out it. Just like they did with special housing areas, NPS-UD and MDRS. Don’t expect anything to get easier for anyone.

  5. The RMA’s purpose was “to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources.” Either the RMA, or its interpretation by the Environment Court, has failed to do this.

    My suspicion is that the court’s use of the term “not more than minor” has been a big factor in this. It has underestimated, in a systematic way, the incremental effect of each effect that they’ve considered.

    So in addition to new legislation, do we need some changes to the legal profession above the usual incremental improvements? Something more wholescale…

    On example, is that the government could pass legislation requiring all lawyers and judges to undertake ongoing professional development, with a requirement to demonstrate full understanding of how the IPCC reports impact on their decision-making and of how to deliver climate justice and intergenerational equity through the legal system.

    1. There was the classic use of “not more than minor” with the Basin Bridge debacle a decade ago – NZTA’s expensive paid expert witnesses all trying to say that a 250m long, 20m high, concrete bridge carving around the side of the Basin Reserve Cricket Ground, carrying 50,000 cars a day, audible for over a kilometre in every direction, and only throwing shadows during winter, spring and autumn, would have an effect that was “no more than minor” – it is amazing how lawyers and planners can lie with a straight face.

      1. To be fair most R/C’s are glorified social studies essays, “why does X comply blahblah….”. Personally I think the RMA is an easy target to blame, not to say that it shouldn’t be updated etc, but I don’t really see it changing with the new acts but I guess we’ll see. In regards to planning I think there’s a weird that this site thinks that more open market planning is going to deliver better urban outcomes (I’m sure most will disagree that’s cool). Coming from a construction background, I just don’t see it happening. I feel that actual urban design needs to made forefront in urban planning, not simply creating liquidity in the market (but I get the frustration of people being locked out of affordable housing etc). Also can people drop the term nimby, its pretty relativistic if not sophomoric, ie older home-owner with a villa in grey-lynn does want in-fill track housing…nimby; green-voting environmentalist doesn’t want development in ecologically sensitive area near their house…nimby. From my point of view (not to say I’m correct) I just see it as a largely a point of view thing and basically it’s just lazy thinking and argumentation.

        1. If you get the frustration of being locked out of affordable housing then you’ll understand how hardened some of the language has become against those who don’t want to see development.

          I like to take a look at the level of services some of these people have – Link Buses, train stations, being on a proposed Light Rail route), local parks, sportsfields, etc. And then I like to look at my area which is actually shouldering a massive portion of the development in the city despite being some 20km away from the CBD and think “How different would life be for the people here if they had access to those levels of services?”.

          At that point I usually find that NIMBY is not a strong enough word for people who oppose development in central areas. I have plenty of other suggestions, but it would lower the tone of the blog immensely.

    2. Part II was a crock from the very start. They thought it would be cool to take an ecological approach. But that works for managing shellfish beds or selective logging but nobody has ever really figured out what that means for housing. How does a shopping centre, a subdivision or knocking over a five storey concrete building to build a 20 storey building got to do with sustainable management? So they promised developers they could do anything at all so long as they mitigated effects while promising environmentalists the sustainable management thing (which implies no mining at all). Both groups were disappointed.

  6. The “cities” of Aotearoa are decades behind the real cities of this planet. It gives us an inherent advantage but making it easier for well designed apartment blocks and accelerating public transport investment in the electric and hydrogen fields are a fantastic opportunity for business too, as an Oxford Business School study apparently found. Why the “right” is so against saving the planet urgently is purely based on a very blind ideological foundation. Bikes and trains and concentrated living is how cities developed, Auckland’s geographic obesity is absurd, but I suppose Rodney never tried to Hide his stomach either.

  7. I find it extremely grim that there’s nothing in the draft legislation about urban tree protection, or any real attempts to address the ongoing loss of our mature canopy and urban ngahere (please do not @ me about intensification – it’s a zero-sun game. We can – and we must – do both!)

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