Myths of the R.M.A.

There are no shortage of misconceptions about the Resource Management Act. Some are purely accidental. Some are based on wrong information and some are quite deliberate attempts to mislead people about the complexity of the Acts provisions. One often hears about some alleged council mess up or seemingly absurd rule causing property owners grief, and when it comes down to asking the people complaining where they think the blame lies, it is very often the R.M.A. at large. But is the Act really to blame for all that people claim?

Although the Resource Management Act is the umbrella legislation under which policy tools such as environmental standards, policy statements and plans are implemented, it is not the Act itself unless one can trace their problem back to a clause in a particular Section that is the cause of someones alleged grief. Very often it is the City/District/Regional Plan and the consenting authority itself rather than the R.M.A. which in many ways is a lightning rod for flashes that should be hitting somewhere else.

A relatively simple yet quite confusing misunderstanding with the R.M.A. is the status of an activity. The status can be found in a council plan and the R.M.A. provides for six listed below. Before applying for a consent you need to know what its status is. Is it:

  • A permitted activity in which case no consent is required
  • A controlled activity in which the consenting authority needs to know, but for which resource consent must be granted unless insufficient information to make a decision is available
  • A restricted discretionary activity where the council may apply restrictions but they are limited to what is in the Plan
  • A discretionary activity where the council can impose whatever restrictions it deems necessary in order to control adverse effects
  • A non-complying activity where consent will only be granted if the activity’s effects are considered to minor or less than minor and any matter that may reduce adverse effects can have restrictions imposed on it
  • A prohibited activity where the activity is illegal and there is no point in applying for consent because the council is obliged to decline

Consenting authorities have 20 working days in which to decide how to proceed on a Resource Consent application. That does not necessarily mean it will be granted or declined after 20 working days, but that is the time by which the consenting authority must have notified the applicant of its status. And contrary to the beliefs of some, the vast majority of resource consent applications, ARE granted, and as the case of Environment Canterbury shows, Councils do get pinged if they are too slack processing them.

Perhaps the greatest myth is the most complex one to explain. It involves Section 92, which is the Section under which the consenting authority can request more information. A rule of thumb applies here, which is quite simple and yet quite fundamental. A Resource Consent request to build a house on a block of land is going to be fairly simple in terms of the information gathered so that the consent authority can make a decision – will the neighbours be affected; what council rules exist for the land zone in which this is proposed; is there any environmental issues to take into account when preparing the Assessment of Environmental Effects. On the other hand damming a river the size of the Waitaki is going to be substantially more complex and gathering the necessary information will be considerably more protracted; will require input from multiple consenting authorities, interest groups, land owners and so forth. The application for resource consents will very likely have to be publicly notified so that they can have an opportunity for submissions before the hearings in front of Commissioners are set down. Completing the process may take a year or more and be subject to significant revision from what was first proposed.

There have been several attempts to reform it over the years, which have been largely successful in passing through Parliament. A new Bill of Parliament is coming up shortly. Although the fringe parties in Parliament still advocate for whole sale change or repeal, the fact that it is still here after 24 years suggests the mainstream parties have grudgingly admitted the Act is too solid to budge.

And for good reason. In terms of environmental protection there is still not a piece of environmental legislation like it in the world either in terms of depth, in terms of being so deliberately geared towards sustainability. Its true legacy might well be that it set a benchmark for the rest of the world to match or better.

No gain from unnecessary cuts to Government staff

They are called bureaucrats. To many people they are an unknown army working away in bland Government offices on tasks that might seem dull and mundane to many. However by the laws under which this country functions, those tasks have to be done and without which, many of the services and core functions of Government would simply grind to a halt.

I am talking here about several different categories of people in each company, each organization, each branch of government whose role is necessary to perform the tasks deemed necessary by the  companies, the organizations, the Government agencies/councils/ministry’s in order to comply with the law. I am talking about the accountants who handle the finances, the I.T., the laboratory technicians if one is working for anywhere that requires solid scientifically recorded data such as water quality samples, the Geographic Information System (G.I.S.) analysts who try to interpret data on a temporal and spatial scale, as well as the Human Resources and a host of others. All of these people are needed to ensure that a Government agency works effectively and that without them a significantly larger number of Government bodies will not perform the statutory requirements (i.e. ones required by the law).

Are bureaucrats perfect? Of course not, and some really are quite colourless people just interested in doing their job, collecting their pay and going home.  How many people actually bother to stop and check their facts before loosing off a barrage of verbal and written rockets, that are improperly aimed? My guess is not that many.

I suppose you could have called me a bureaucrat in 2008-2011, when I was working at Environment Canterbury. Unless you were one of my colleagues, a friend or a relative you would not have known about the reports I helped to write, the maps I helped to make, the time I spent in the field collecting data. You could not have known about the reasoning behind the tasks that I did. But they all had a purpose. Some were things like making sure Environment Canterbury had a register of all of it groundwater monitoring devices in the field. Others were mundane filing jobs.

If a Ministry comes up with report on a subject and it looks like it was written by a university student, have a look beyond the fact that the Ministry needs to have staff who can write properly. Have a look at how and why the Ministry in question managed to put out such a report. Is it properly staffed? Do the staff know what they are supposed to be doing and why? Are they being given adequate training and support? If the answer to any of those questions is no, perhaps those mass lay offs of planners and analysts was not such a smart idea after all.

Understanding the Resource Management Act

Recently another Resource Management Bill was introduced to Parliament. As we start the debating process for it, it is important to note just why this Act was written in the first place and begin to understand – even if one does not agree, which many will not – its form and function.

In 1983 with concern over the exploitation of natural resources around the world, and fears of a Malthusian outcome for an accelerating human population, the Brundtland Commission was formed. It had the task of examining the problem on a global scale and how the world might address an increasingly intricate mish mash of environmental issues, economics, societal pressures and politics. It struck a chord with the then Labour opposition in the New Zealand House of Representatives, angered as it was by the antipathy of the National Government to environmental issues here.

In 1989, the then Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer announced a plan to massively overhaul the state of local government in New Zealand. The numerous Catchment Boards all over the country would disappear into larger entities called Regional Councils in the Local Government Act 1989. The Regional Councils would have the job of overseeing the long term sustainable management of natural resources, whilst City and District Councils would undertake to manage physical resources. The Resource Management Act 1991 was the blue print for a sustainable future in which economic growth would be balanced against the needs of the environment.

Peoples understanding of Act varies substantially. This is a factual explanation of the primary Parts of the Act intended to show the basic structure of the Act.

  • Part 3 (Sections 9-23) deals with the duties and restrictions of the Act. These include but are not limited to activities in various environments, discharge requirements and noise.
  • Part 4 (Sections 24-42)deals with the functions, powers and duties of local and central government. These include but are not limited to the powers, duties and functions of the Minister for Environment and the Minister for Conservation. Part 4A deals with the Environmental Protection Agency and its functions.
  • Part 5 (Sections 43AA-86G) deals with the development and implementation of plans, standards and policy statements by which councils, and central Government will implement their statutory requirements
  • Part 6 (Sections 87-139A)deals with Resource Consents – what they are, who should apply, how, when, the processing phase, notification and granting, among other matters. Part 6A (Sections 140-150AA)deals with decisions of national importance
  • Part 7 (Sections 151AA-164)deals with coastal tendering. Part 7A (Sections 165-156ZZA) deals with occupation of common marine and coastal areas.
  • Part 8 (Sections 166-198M)deals with designation orders and heritage
  • Part 9 (Sections 199-217)deals with Water Conservation Orders
  • Part 10 (Sections 218-246)deals with Subdivision and land reclamation
  • Part 11 (Sections 247-308)deals with the Environment Court, its functions and powers

This is not an exhaustive list of the parts of the Resource Management Act. It is just intended to briefly lay out the ones that most people will encounter.

Is the Resource Management Act perfect? It is as good as the people who implement it. A common challenge facing territorial authorities is striking an appropriate balance between having sufficient planning staff to fulfill statutory requirements, and keeping council rates at a level that is tolerable. One way of looking at the constant criticism is to remember that the Act is neither designed to prohibit economic development, nor is it intended to encourage uncontrolled development – the vast majority of resource consent applications are actually granted and most of the time this successfully happens within statutory time frames that resource consent investigators have to meet.

It is beyond the scope of this post – and far too much to write for a blog item – to make mention of the key sections in the Act. In saying that, addressing those will explain many of the misconceptions surrounding how the Act is implemented.

Flag issue could bring down Government

Over the last two years you will have heard Prime Minister John Key trumpeting the need for a new New Zealand flag. You will have seen photos, messages and other media on Facebook regarding it. You will have seen it in newspapers, on television and heard about it on the radio and through various media on the internet. You might have seen examples of the proposed flag designs flying whilst going about your daily business.

And yet this is turning out to be an issue that could backfire disastrously  for National and in particular Mr Key. It is an issue that seems to be dividing New Zealanders. Many think a flag change is a great idea and point to the similarities between ours and that of Australia. Others are dead set against it, in particular those from the older generation who fought under the current flag and know people who died for it. In that category you can put the Returned Services Association, royalists and also those who think it would be best to wait until Queen Elizabeth II passes on.  And then there are some, like myself who think it is a smoke screen for something bad that National is trying to get us to accept – possibly the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.

The Government have put forward five options for the flag to become.

But in failing to provide a status quo option, they have assumed that New Zealanders WANT a new flag in the near future. They have made a flying leap over the cliff without seeing what their proposals will land on, which based on the disgruntlement that I am hearing from both National and non-National supporters on this, I am guessing is going to be a particular hard landing. Given that this is one of the most distinctive New Zealand symbols and the one nations overseas that are not familiar with the All Blacks or the Silver Fern will identify us by, the potential for anger and upset if the Government does not respect the wishes of the masses, is immense.

Another problem National face is the exquisitely shocking timing of the whole flag issue as it tries to gather support for the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. Why now? Why after 20 years of sitting on their hands doing nothing, like Labour on the other side of the House, has this suddenly become such a huge priority that before the end of 2015  there will have been a referendum asking us which of the flag options we prefer. It is just interesting to note that in early 2016 Governments involved in the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement will try to get their respective countries to agree to it.

What I find particularly interesting here is that I have friends who are generally quite strong National supporters, but who are admitting to me that this whole flag thing could end up being a colossal mistake that this Government will regret. They do not see why it should suddenly be a massive issue. They do not think that the public actually want it at the moment and some have admitted that the way National have gone about it was wrong. National is treading on very unstable ground here. It does not want give Labour anything that might rejuvenate their long time foe in Parliament. It does not want to move so brazenly that the voting public hand it a stinging rebuke that ensures this is the last term of this National-led Government.

And yet, it looks like that is precisely what they are doing.

The voting papers for the first of two referendums regarding the New Zealand flag have been sent out. Mine arrived today. Everyone on the electoral roll should receive theirs by Friday 27 November.

New Zealand’s social compost bomb

Imagine a pile of compost in the open, with slightly moist conditions appropriate for bacteria to get to work fermenting. It slowly warms up from the interior as the fermentation process generates heat. The heating might cause bits of compost to fall off the pile as the heat causes it to expand. Eventually if the right conditions exist long enough, suddenly you have combustion.

Now imagine a society with large numbers of unemployed, a combination of both locals and foreigners who do not necessarily get on, living together. Mistrust is high with petty crime, drugs and alcohol fuelling fights and occasionally brawls. Decades of no social planning has led to low quality sprawling estates full of agitated people. With all of these elements present and the passage of time, a situation where this society is ready to ignite is more real than not. And the trigger might be something as simple as a criminal act, or the authorities, frustrated with the situation decide to arrest someone to make a point.

It happened in Paris in 2005 in their housing estates, where large numbers of youths, many of north African origin began rioting over the lack of jobs and welfare assistance. The French Government response was glacial in nature, and the unrest was able to spread. It also happened in London in 2011, where for no apparent reason large scale rioting broke out in August of that year, caused in large part again by a lack of social planning, but which interestingly enough – with worrying portents for the future – seemed to draw in some middle class and surprisingly well educated young people who should have known better. Hundreds of millions of Pounds worth of damage was done to businesses across London, though to their credit when it came the British response seemed to be firmer than the French.

Could it happen here in New Zealand?

Sadly the answer is yes. Like France and Britain, communities here with large numbers of unemployed youth, with gang populations and a ready supply of narcotics and alcohol are social composts just waiting to ignite. We don’t know what the temperature at which self combustion is. Nor do we know how close that pile is to igniting.

New Zealand needs to understand that these tinderboxes exist for reasons often debated in public, in Parliament and in the media, but ultimately unanswered. A combination of abysmal social planning by central Government combined with ideological agendas based on a perceived need for an economic theory that is ultimately starting to come unhinged. Unfortunately local councils by allowing alcohol stores and gambling locations to set up in their vicinity, often only exacerbate the problem.

It starts off as a social problem, but then it becomes a law and order problem, and ultimately it becomes an economic problem. New Zealand is in the social problem stage, where it has not ignited into a law and problem, as it seems to do in France where the failure to plan for the economic and social well being of its large immigrant population is perhaps the greatest single failure of the French Government. But ultimately it becomes an economic problem as the sheer weight of unplanned for pressures starts to build up. Will it go full circle and lead to a social collapse? In France, which may soon reach the economic stage, time will tell. In New Zealand, if we are wise, we will act to address our social compost bomb now.

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