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.

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