Government to transform Resource Management Act to increase affordable housing

The Government is moving to transform the nebulous Resource Management Act (RMA), the main law that constrains development in New Zealand.

The reform will look to increase affordable housing development and radically reduce complexity, while also increasing freshwater quality and fighting climate change.

It could go as far as breaking up the law into several parts, and could even take away some of the power the current law vests in local governments.

The Government will soon pass an immediate bill fixing several issues in the Act, while also undertaking a wide-ranging review of the entire law, due to deliver by June 2020.

Environment Minister David Parker said the law was 30 years old and in desperate need of change, with subsequent reforms only adding complexity - doubling the length of the original law.

"It is unacceptable for this cornerstone law to be underperforming in a country that values protection of the environment while properly housing its people," Parker said.

"Our aim is to produce a revamped law, fit for purpose in the 21st century that will cut complexity and cost while better protecting our environment.

"While not the sole cause of the housing crisis, planning rules are partly to blame. Environmental outcomes have been disappointing. Freshwater quality has been going backwards.

"Currently planning processes take too long - often longer than the three year terms of the democratically elected councils looking at them."

The more immediate changes to the law look to address urban development and improve freshwater quality, but not change the core of the law.

That will be the job of the wider review - which will also look at whether a crucial section of the law which sets out what "sustainable development" is that has been the subject of several legal decisions should be split off into its own law.

"We will consider whether we need a new urban development law separate from the law protecting [the environment]," Parker said.

The terms of reference for the review allow it to look not just at the RMA but also how it mingles with transport and local government laws.

The expert advisory group undertaking the review will be led by retired Appeal Court Judge Tony Randerson.

It is tasked with reducing complexity from the law, strengthening environmental "bottom lines," recognising that there is an objective of developing housing and infrastructure, ensuring that the system has resilience built in for climate change, and and ensuring Maori have sufficient input.

The review will also be tasked with allocating roles for various institutions within the law. Currently many believe local government is given too much power by the law.

Parker has asked that the review deliver not just a report but also draft legislative changes, but there would not be time to pass these changes prior to the 2020 election.

"I'd love to be able to fix this on the back of an envelope, but I can't," Parker said.

National's RMA reform spokeswoman Judith Collins said the Government was leaving the reform so late in the electoral cycle because it wouldn't be able to get the Greens and NZ First on board with serious reform.

"The last thing New Zealanders want or need is yet another working group that kicks an important issue to touch until after the next election," Collins said.

"The RMA is no longer fit for purpose and is too easily gamed. One problem is businesses being able to stymie nearby business developments because they are anti-competitive.

"Another is developers trying to stop someone else's housing development from going ahead because they want to get their houses sold first, to get maximum value.

"The RMA stops things from being done quickly. People can fulfil every requirement put to them by councils and still go through a long-winded and expensive process.

"The law has become extremely tied up in red tape. It's an incredibly complex area that needs to return to what it was to begin with: enabling legislation."

National failed to seriously reform the RMA over nine years in Government despite a stated desire to do so. The minor parties which supported the Government were wary of any changes, although ACT have consistently pushed for reform.

ACT leader David Seymour welcomed the news and said National had made the RMA worse.

"We welcome a Government that is prepared to reform the RMA. Even when ACT and National together had a majority in Parliament, National refused to make significant changes. When National, ACT, and United Future had a majority, National instead chose to make the RMA worse by jumping into bed with the Māori Party," Seymour said.

"ACT is prepared to work with the Government in order to reform the law. This is important work the National Government refused to do.

Parker said that National's small changes to the RMA had in fact made things worse. He was confident Labour would win the next election - but would work with any party who came forward.

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