RMA reform first look: Housing supply must be considered in planning, climate change 'managed retreat' takes shape

Housing supply must be considered in national planning and climate change "managed retreat" is taking shape, in the first look at reform of the Resource Management Act (RMA).

Environment Minister David Parker on Tuesday unveiled a draft of the Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA), the primary replacement for the RMA which the Government has promised to repeal and replace.

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.

The Government plans to replace it with three new laws this parliamentary term but the overall process will take years. Below the NBA will sit the Strategic Planning Act (SPA) and the Climate Adaptation Act (CAA), to address complex issues associated with managed retreat.

The draft legislation still needs to go before a parliamentary select committee process, where the public will be able to make submissions. A second select committee process will be held when the full draft law is introduced to Parliament early in 2022.

A major criticism of the RMA is that, despite being convoluted with overlapping regulations, it hasn't adequately protected the environment. One of the reasons for this is that it lacks environmental bottom lines.

That would change under the draft NBA unveiled by Parker. As Environment Minister, he would be required to set environmental limits for the environment, framed as a "minimal acceptable" cap on the amount of damage that can be done.

The bottom line environmental limits are expected to help make it easier to manage and resolve conflicts related to resource management.

Under the NBA, the new National Planning Framework (NPF) will provide strategic and regulatory direction from the Government. One NBA plan will be developed per region, which will set limits and expectations on natural and built environments.

It will be prepared by a 'plan committee' comprising representatives from local government, the Environment Minister and mana whenua. The Government is still considering the best approach to the NBA process.

The intention is to consolidate more than 100 RMA policy statements and regional district plans into about 14, simplifying national planning.

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

An important aspect of the NPF is that housing supply must be included in national planning - a timely consideration given New Zealand's lagging housing stock, which is widely accepted as one of the reasons why houses are so expensive.

The quality of water and air must also be considered, alongside greenhouse gas emissions, infrastructure, natural features and landscape, areas significant to Māori, and the general appeal of urban areas.

The RMA's replacement will also set the stage for cushioning the blow from the consequences of neglecting the environment over many years. Plans are being worked on for "managed retreat" from areas where climate change is expected to pose the most risk, such as coastal land where rising sea levels could be treacherous.

"Pressure is growing for new development in at-risk areas. If nothing is done, the number and likelihood of these risks and the costs to address them will continue to increase," a paper accompanying the draft law says.

The CAA legislation will "address the complex legal and technical issues associated with managed retreat and funding and financing of adaption" - but it doesn't say how much money is being considered.

As the NBA, SPA and CAA are further developed, the Government plans to make clearer the roles and responsibilities across the three pieces of legislation.

"The RMA takes too long, costs too much and hasn't protected the environment," said Parker. "This is a once in a generation opportunity to get this right, so we want to make sure we do get it right."