Government scrapping Resource Management Act to tackle the housing crisis

New Zealand’s tired and failing master act for the environment will be scrapped and replaced with new laws, helping tackle a spiralling housing crisis and climate-change threats.

In one of the largest regulatory shake-ups in New Zealand’s history, the Government has confirmed it will repeal the 30-year-old Resource Management Act (RMA), and bring in three acts each targeting the environment, development, and climate mitigation.

The reforms – set to be passed this term – will also squash the more than 100 RMA planning documents used by councils down to just 14.

“Let’s see the detail” was the response from Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, who supports the proposed repeal of the RMA.

Through a spokesman, Goff said it is too soon to speculate on what the Government’s shake-up of planning laws will mean for Auckland’s Unitary Plan – the Super City’s own plan to build 423,000 new homes over 30 years.

Without knowing the details, Goff did not want to say if the reforms will lead to more affordable housing in Auckland, or provide extra funding for infrastructure to support growth.

The RMA’s chief replacement – Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA) – is expected to come into law later next year, carrying a set of national standards to support environmental limits and targets.

These standards, still being developed, would be incorporated into the new regional plans.

The Spatial Planning Act (SPA) would meanwhile meld various laws around development, ensuring development and infrastructure was built “in the right places at the right times”, Environment Minister David Parker said.

The Climate Change Adaptation Act (CAA) would focus on managed retreat – and its funding – in the face of storms and rising seas threatening hundreds of thousands of homes.

All three acts were last year recommended by a panel chaired by retired Court of Appeal Judge Tony Randerson QC, after finding the RMA was failing to protect the environment and lacked national direction.

Some councils – particularly in high-growth areas – were now struggling to provide enough development capacity for housing in regulatory plans, along with enough infrastructure to support urban 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.”

At the same time, water quality was deteriorating, biodiversity was diminishing and there was an “urgent need” to address climate change.

Parker said the planned reforms would see the Government and councils working more closely on land use, development and urban growth – building on new bottom lines directing councils to make room for growth both “up” and “out”.

The end of the RMA has been welcomed by the Real Estate Institute which says the RMA had contributed to slowing down the speed and scale at which houses can be built.

“While there were some important elements as to why these protections were put in place, the unintended consequences have meant that house prices have risen significantly across the country,” said Chief Executive Bindi Norwell.

“Hopefully the new legislation will ensure that by the end of 2022 that there is a more co-ordinated approach across local authorities and means that we can build the infrastructure and houses that the country so desperately needs to fill the supply shortage and enable the future-proofing of New Zealand’s building requirements.

“Additionally, if planning processes are simplified and costs and times reduced as the Minister has outlined in his announcement today, this should significantly help increase the pace at which we can build houses.”

The change has also been applauded by business groups and environmentalists alike – but they said the next steps needed to be handled carefully.

The Government was already working with a collective of several Māori entities – the RMA met with 60 different pieces of Treaty of Waitangi settlement legislation – along with several council chief executives.

“Resource management really is a complex problem, with so many inputs and factors to consider, so it’s vital that the Government works with those on the ground administering it – local government – to get the best possible outcomes,” Local Government New Zealand vice-president Hamish McDouall said.

BusinessNZ economist John Pask agreed that the process could not be rushed, with difficult decisions to be made around balancing certainty at a national level, and local flexibility.

Environmental Defence Society president Gary Taylor went as far as calling the Government’s set two-year timeline “heroic” – but also doable.

“We will be watching carefully to ensure that environmental bottom lines are effectively expressed in the new law and that clear national direction on key issues like freshwater quality is properly enabled.”

National’s spokesperson for Housing and RMA reform, Nicola Willis, was however concerned those new limits could only make it harder to build houses.

She also argued the Government should be moving faster, adding National had offered to work with Labour on emergency legislation, much like the special powers used in the Christchurch rebuild.

Given the time it could take councils to amend their plans, Willis said “it could easily be the late 2020s before any of these changes take effect”.


What’s proposed?

The repeal of the out-dated Resource Management Act, and the introduction of new laws to replace it. These are the Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA), the Strategic Planning Act (SPA) and the Climate Change Adaptation Act (CAA).

What will these do?

The NBA – the main replacement – will be focused on land use and environmental regulation, while the SPA will pull together laws around development, making planning a less cumbersome process, and the CAA will give councils urgently-needed direction and funding around managed retreat from places threatened with climate impacts.

When will they be introduced?

An exposure draft of the NBA Bill – including the most important part of the reforms and the replacement of the RMA’s Part 2 – will go before a special select committee inquiry later this year. The complete NBA and the SPA is then expected to be formally introduced into Parliament by the end of this year, with the NBA passed by the end of 2022.

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