RMA reform and housing crisis: How the Government plans to fix a law that 'is not working'

The complex Resource Management Act (RMA) is "not working as it was intended" and the Government plans to replace it with three new laws this parliamentary term but the overall process will take years. 

The RMA has been blamed for holding back development of new housing due to its complexity, and in July last year an independent review panel recommended repealing it and starting again.

Environment Minister David Parker confirmed on Wednesday that, as per the review's recommendations, three new laws will be introduced to replace the RMA, which will give Māori more say and outline clearer regional planning. 

  • The Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA) will provide for land use and environmental regulation. This would be the primary replacement for the RMA. 
  • The Strategic Planning Act (SPA) will integrate with other legislation relevant to development, and require long-term regional planning strategies. 
  • The Climate Change Adaptation Act (CAA) will address complex issues associated with managed retreat - the movement of people and buildings away from climate risks - and funding and financing adaptation. This will be progressed by Climate Change Minister James Shaw. 

"Urban areas are struggling to keep pace with population growth and the need for affordable housing. Water quality is deteriorating, biodiversity is diminishing and there is an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change," said Parker. 

"The new laws will improve the natural environment, enable more development within environmental limits, provide an effective role for Māori, and improve housing supply and affordability."

What's wrong with the RMA?

The Government is acting on "broad consensus that the RMA is not working as it was intended", and "continual attempts to try to improve it over the last 30 years is an indication of this".

Due to a perception that RMA processes are overly cumbersome, take too long and do not give sufficient certainty for the development of major infrastructure, the law has "not achieved good outcomes" for urban areas. 

Nor has it delivered for the environment, according to the Government, because it is "not clear enough about how to apply the purpose of sustainable management of natural and physical resources". 

Forward planning is described as "difficult" because the RMA "favours the status quo" - making it difficult to respond to environmental challenges or provide for new infrastructure developments.

The RMA is interpreted as having a "first-in-first-served" approach to resource allocation, which the Government says has led to "inefficient and inequitable outcomes where resources are scarce, as it does not provide a way to compare competing resource uses and allocate resources where they are most valued". 

Then there is the lack of national direction, which the Government has identified as a "problem that has only recently begun" to be addressed. It is hard to realise goals for the environment when there is no national direction about what needs to be achieved. 

What's the solution?

The review of the RMA in 2020 made more than 140 recommendations, the main one being the replacement of the existing RMA by two separate pieces of legislation, along with a separate law to address issues related to climate change adaptation.  

The review also recommended greater use of national direction by the Environment Minister and a more streamlined process for council plan-making and a more efficient resource consent process.

This is being addressed by introducing mandatory strategic long-term planning about land use, infrastructure and environmental protection by central Government and local councils, as well as mana whenua. 

Parker says planning processes will be simplified and costs and times reduced. He said better urban design will be pursued. 

Councils will be required to work together with iwi to provide a single 'combined plan', provisionally being called Natural and Built Environments Plans. The existing 100-plus RMA council planning documents will be reduced to about 14.

Environment Minister David Parker.
Environment Minister David Parker. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

"Urban areas hold 86 percent of our population and experience 99 percent of our population growth. Instead of allowing cities to respond to population growth sustainably, poor quality and restrictive planning has contributed to a lack of certainty and unaffordable housing," Parker said. 

"Housing problems are a complex mix of demand, costs, financing, capacity and supply and there is no silver bullet. This reform will help by improving how central and local government plan for housing and urban development. This includes better coordination of future infrastructure with land use, development and urban growth."

It comes as house prices continue to soar across the country. The average house value in the Auckland region now sits at $1.2 million.

As well as RMA reform, the Government will soon announce "demand-side" measures to try and cool the housing market, ignited by record-low interest rates and lack of supply. 

The RMA changes will ensure a long-term pipeline of supply by identifying areas for development, no-go areas, and future infrastructure areas to provide for growth.

The RMA changes will build on the National Policy Statement for Urban Development released last year that directs councils to make room for growth both 'up' and 'out'.

When will the changes happen?

Parker says given its significance and complexity, a special parliamentary select committee inquiry will consider an exposure draft of the main NBA Bill, or RMA replacement law, from mid-year.

"I expect that the complete NBA and the SPA will be formally introduced into Parliament by the end of 2021, with the NBA passed by the end of 2022," he said.

That means we'll still have to wait almost two years for the changes to come to fruition. The Government says that's because the RMA is over 800 pages - "one of the most complex pieces of law in New Zealand". 

"We expect the process for system reform is expected to take a number of years."