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.