Forest & Bird identifies cause for concern in RMA reforms

The long-awaited RMA reforms were introduced to Parliament today, after a long period of negotiations  by the National-led government was required to secure sufficient support for the changes.
While it is pleasing to see that no changes are proposed to the “purpose and principles” section of the Act, which contains its core environmental protections, Forest & Bird sees a number of the changes as very concerning.

“The Bill proposes some significant changes to the ability of people and communities to advocate for environmental protection, by reducing the ability for people to have their say on resource consents, and curtailing appeal rights” says Forest & Bird solicitor, Sally Gepp. 
The changes would also enable the Environment Court to direct councils to buy land in some circumstances where landowners consider that their reasonable use of the land is affected by plan provisions.  This change would reverse the principle that compensation is not payable under the RMA where controls are placed on land use. 

“Some of New Zealand’s most important remaining native habitat is found on private land, and is at risk of destruction if not protected by RMA plan rules.  Protection of New Zealand’s iconic landscapes also requires controls on the use of private land, and controls in plans are often the last line of defence against conversion of large scale landscapes like the Mackenzie Basin. 

It is hard enough already to protect the values of these areas from destruction.  This change is likely to further reduce cash-strapped Councils’ incentive to protect these vulnerable areas.  ” Ms Gepp said. 
The Bill would introduce two new processes for creating and changing local plans, with one of the processes using collaboration.  This may or may not be a good thing, depending on how the collaborative process is designed and implemented. 

“Getting everyone with an interest around the table is a good thing in principle” Ms Gepp said, “but the Bill currently provides for that group to be made up of people appointed by the Council.  The experience of our staff and many of our members who have been involved in collaborative processes is that councils often appoint only people they are comfortable with, rather than those that genuinely represent the stakeholders' interests.

The collaborative processes can also be heavily stacked towards development interests, so the process is neither fair nor capable of delivering good environmental outcomes.” 

“In addition, rights of appeal from collaborative process decisions are very limited, so it will be more difficult to ensure that local plans give effect to national direction, such as the requirements of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management” said Ms Gepp.
Other changes, such as a move towards electronic service, are likely to be beneficial. The ability to make regulations to exclude stock from waterways is also welcomed, although it is also to be hoped that regulations will be used to keep all stock out of waterways, not just dairy cattle as signaled by the Government.  

Forest & Bird will be studying the Bill in detail and canvassing its members before making a submission on the Bill to select committee.