A.C.T.’s grandiose housing policy

The other day A.C.T. released its housing policy.

I was initially quite dubious about what the policy would hold in terms of responsible housing for New Zealanders. However I decided to make a stern challenge of this – not to A.C.T., but to myself – to read through the policy and have an honest go at critiquing it.

The major tenets of the policy appear to be:

  1. Removing what A.C.T. considers to be red tape around building houses – it interprets this to be building codes, land use planning and labour laws
  2. It would build 600,000 houses
  3. It would require compulsory insurance for new buildings

The A.C.T. Party has never been a fan of the Resource Management Act 1991, and has variously said it will either repeal or completely rewrite the Act. It blames the land use planning rules provided for in the Act as having a choking effect on housing. The actual purpose of land use planning is because not all land zones will be appropriate for housing, and the local council in identifying and providing these different uses needs to have tools that enable – e.g. an asbestos dump covered over is not appropriate to have housing built on top and the base of it would need to be secure to stop contaminants leaking into the ground water.

A.C.T. proposes a policy that I am not aware of other parties having come up with, and that is the use of G.S.T. as a means of funding infrastructure such as roading, sewerage and electricity connections. All of this is infrastructure that councils are obligated to build when they let new construction go ahead. Although I am not sure how well the G.S.T. will work in this regard, I acknowledge A.C.T. has at least thought about how it is going to fund this.

600,000 houses will be built. That is a huge number of new houses for such a small country – and would far exceed what is probably needed. Even 300,000 would solve housing issues, assuming they were affordably priced. Would there actually even be market demand for such a huge number – which I assume would largely consist of dwellings with 1-4 bedrooms, bathroom and toilet/s, kitchen, laundry and maybe a double garage. We know nothing about the land they would sit on

A.C.T. says it would require compulsory insurance for new buildings. Here is something I agree with, though I thought that this might have been better suited to a wider construction policy than just for houses.

I still have credible concerns about the policy though. I am not sure where they will find enough tradespeople to do the work. New Zealand simply does not have a big enough population to provide these workers. As we have seen with the current construction environment in N.Z. cities, there is a risk of exploitation by industry cowboys who just want a fast dollar.

To process the necessary legalese (what can I call the planning phase when A.C.T. is taking this away from councils?), a substantial – and I find this quite ironic – bureaucratic machine will still be needed. A.C.T. cannot just walk away from the City/District/Regional Plans set down under the Resource Management Act, or Long Term Plans which area Local Government Act 2002 requirement would either have to be allowed to run out or substantially modified.

So, lets see how all of this turns out, but I think A.C.T. will find New Zealanders consider this a rather grandiose policy.

The gross underestimation of conservation

To some people conservation and ensuring the sustainability of species is a way of life. It is a chance to understand how the ecosystem works, enhance their place in it all the while enhancing the place of flora and fauna in it. To others conservation is the domain of supposedly anti-business, anti-employment Green Party tree huggers.

Despite writing this piece as an ode to conservation, it might surprise people to know I am not a tree hugger – or a Green Party member/supporter. I recognize extractive industries such as forestry, mining and oil extraction as necessary evils. Unless there is a revolution both in transport and energy sources, fossil fuel to some extent is here to stay. Likewise timber will continue to be needed for construction, paper, and a multitude of other purposes. Whilst coal may be in decline, as long as there is a demand for electronics, rare earth materials will continue to be mined.

Mining, where done with minimal adverse impact on the environment with a comprehensive rehabilitation programme once mining is finished is okay with me. This assumes under New Zealand law that an application for resource consent to construct a mine was received and processed. It understands that the Assessment of Environmental Effects required was comprehensive and that endangered flora and fauna were accounted and provided for. It understands that the people, companies, organizations and communities affected were notified and given reasonable opportunity to make submissions, and if necessary, extra submissions. Finally it understands that if the consent were approved, that any conditions attached are being abided by the applicant and enforced by the consenting council/s.

Although I have declared I am not a tree hugger, I am not a proponent of reckless economic development where activities on private property are allowed to proceed without regard for the effects and those affected. The Resource Management Act and the Acts of Parliament that it is the umbrella legislation for, pay regard to conservation because the sustainability of the ecosystem is totally integral to the well being of the environment at large, both here and abroad.

New Zealand has a tourism industry worth billions of dollars per annum. And a very large chunk of that tourism is conservation driven. People come from all over the world to see Milford Sound on a clear peaceful day with its mirror image of Mitre Peak. They come to see our unique wildlife of Kea, Kakapo, Kiwi and Tuatara and learn about how Gondwanaland was formed. And when they are gone they go on and perhaps meet other travellers and compare notes about New Zealand as humans do – what did they enjoy; not enjoy and so on. They are critically important, because aside from ensuring the incomes of thousands of New Zealanders, if they do not like what they see, they will tell family and friends not to go to New Zealand – that negative feedback is damaging as it is now, but it will be a hundred times worse if we do not look after our conservation estate.

Our conservation estate is as magnificent as it is expansive. It has two world heritage areas in Fiordland National Park and Tongariro National Park, one encompassing a glaciated landscape of fiords, native forest clad mountains with superb walking tracks and unparalleled vistas; the other a volcanic landscape showing New Zealands oldest national park that has been used in award winning films. National Parks in Westland alone creates $250 million per annum in revenue. Entire West Coast communities owe their existence to Fox and Franz Josef ¬†Glaciers, just as others such as Granity and Okarito had their hey day in the gold rush of the 1860’s.

Unless one wants to upend thousands of jobs, cost us potentially billions of dollars in lost revenue and cripple numerous communities all over New Zealand, then we need to look after our conservation estate. We need to invest more in pest control, and perhaps introduce a fee paid by tourists to fund the infrastructure necessary in our parks. We cannot afford to let water quality deteriorate any further in rivers where recreational fishing, and other such pursuits happen.

Because our conservation estate makes a contribution to the economy that justifies the expenditure.

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.

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.

Dairying reaching its limits in New Zealand

It is an industry that exported $15 billion worth of product in 2014 to overseas markets. It is an industry that supports tens of thousands of jobs all over New Zealand, not just on farms, but in the manufacture of irrigation systems and their monitoring software, the processing of product into cheese, milk, milk powder and so forth. No one doubts that dairy makes a huge contribution to the New Zealand economy, and that we have a significant voice on the global stage in terms of dairy farming. But how sustainable is dairying in the long term in New Zealand?

The explosion in dairying in the last 15 years has been exponential. But so have the challenges for planners trying to fairly allocate the use of surface and ground water resources without compromising one or the other. In many river and stream catchments, the known limits of water allocation have now been reached, much to the chagrin of dairy farmers. That is to say, without affecting the allocation of water in other catchments, there is no more that can be taken. In provinces such as Canterbury and Manawatu this is a particularly contentious issue.

Regional Councils such as Environment Canterbury and Horizons have expended substantial time and resources trying to ascertain the hydrogeology of their regions to determine the location and extent of ground water systems, modelling them and monitoring the use of ground water through well gaugings. This data is the basis of plans whose statutory requirements are defined in the Resource Management Act. It helps to determine the setting of tools such as minimum flow regimes for rivers, whether to grant an application for a surface dam and/or diversion and/or take and/or ground water take.

Not surprisingly with their financial well being on the line in some cases, dairy farmers have looked at other ways to obtain more water. Some have collaborated to enable huge storage projects, such as the ponds on the south bank of the Rangitata River near Geraldine. Literally kilometres in length, the pond project envisages floods or freshes filling up the ponds when heavy northwest rain falls in the Southern Alps or southerly rain on the plains. Their size never ceases to amaze me, though I do often wonder how much they will ever be able to fill. The Rangitata River, whilst impressive in flood, will not be much use if it spends prolonged periods at or close to minimum flow because so much ground water has been sucked out that when rain falls it the recharge is swallowed up by a deficit in water.

In an assignment for a postgraduate paper last year I identified seven indicators of potential use for determining the impact of dairying on fresh water systems;

  1. Ecological health – measured by the Quantitative Macroinverterbrate Community Index, which uses the inverterbrate life that fish rely on for food as a pollution sensitivity indicator. The better the inverterbrate population the better the ecological health.
  2. Nutrient indicators – Macrophytes and Periphyton are biological organisms that can create mats of weed which can impede the flow of a river, smother spawning beds and reduce the aesthetic quality of the river. Can be aggravated further by high nutrient levels from fertilizer application or livestock defecating/urinating.
  3. Siltation – an issue for river systems with stony beds because the resident aquatic life needs a clear bed in which to lay eggs.
  4. Toxic algal growth – can be lethal to dogs and cause serious illness in humans. Caused by low flow periods in summer allowing water to be warmer and exacerbated by nitrogen and phosphate inputs from fertilizer and/or livestock urinating/defecating.
  5. Microbiological organisms – the acceptable count for such organisms in drinking water is 0 (zero), and puts the safety of drinking water in question if it is above that. Come from live stock faeces/urine.
  6. Fisheries – a popular recreational and tourist venture in many provinces. Degradation of such a feature of our waterways would cause negative publicity overseas, reduce the potential value in the local fisheries in terms of tourist activity.

Dairying has been at times the deserving holder of the dirty industry award in New Zealand. With the intensification of land use, and herds of cows that might discharge as much urine and poo as a town of several thousand people onto the soil, fresh water quality has been as much of a raging issue as fresh water allocation. Since fresh water of good quality is essential for everything from drinking water to food preparation, to sanitation and industrial uses, no one should be surprised that this is a prolonged sore point in an industry that sometimes over values its worth. Whilst many farmers have taken significant steps to reduce the impacts of dairying on local waterways and who should be commended for doing so, there are a few farmers who believe they have absolutely no obligations to abide by their take limitations; that the fresh water quality and quantity issues are environmental beat ups to cripple private property rights.

How much further can N.Z. go before the environmental cost of dairying starts to erode the economic gains of the industry? My guess is we are at or very close to that threshhold now.

*Am happy to e-mail copy of postgraduate assignment mentioned if interested