​The ‘phase two’ RMA reforms, initially to have been passed in 2014, have now finally been introduced to Parliament as the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill. 

The Bill is a busy piece of legislation running to more than 200 pages, and aims to help streamline planning and consenting processes. 

But National has had to abandon its proposals to remove the “hierarchy” some saw as enshrined in the existing Part 2 of the RMA, promoting environmental values ahead of economic development in sections six and seven. 

After the loss of the Northland seat to Winston Peters in March, it does not have the votes to get the wider and more far-reaching changes through. 

We look at the Bill.

Major changes

  • Requiring councils to follow national planning templates (once such templates are available) with standardised provisions across the country.
  • A range of measures aimed at producing faster, more flexible planning processes.  These include: tighter timelines for plan production and the introduction of two new tracks – a collaborative track and a streamlined track.
  • Reduced requirements for consents – allowing councils discretion not to require a resource consent for minor changes, creating a new 10 day fast-track for simple consents and eliminating the need for an RMA consent when consenting is provided for in other legislation.
  • Stronger national direction – especially in relation to hot-button issues like providing for new housing or addressing dairy stock in rivers.

Sections 6 and 7

Only one change is proposed to the powerhouse Part 2 of the RMA, bringing in the (expected) management of significant risks from natural hazards as a new proposed matter of national importance.  This was a recommendation of the Canterbury Earthquake Royal Commission.   

National planning templates

The National Planning Template, delivered in electronic format, will set out the structure and format of plans and policy statements, including prescribed content on matters requiring national direction or consistency.

Faster planning processes

Initiatives include:

  • amending the standard planning process (Schedule 1) to enable limited notification of plan changes and to require the Minister’s approval to go beyond the two year timeframe to release decisions on plans and plan changes
  • broadening the application of the freshwater collaborative process, and
  • allowing councils to apply to the Minister for an alternative streamlined process for specific issues.

Reduced consent requirements

The Bill:

  • removes the requirement to get resource consents for boundary infringements where the affected neighbours have given approval
  • seeks to limit the opportunity for opportunistic and inappropriate appeals
  • allows councils to treat activities as permitted where the effects are minor or no different than if there wasn’t a rule breach
  • introduces a 10 working day limit for simple applications, and 
  • allows more use of electronic and web-based communication for public notices and serving of documents.

Stronger national direction

The Bill creates a new regulation making power for the Minister for the Environment to make specific activities permitted, and to limit council rules which unreasonably restrict land supply for residential use.

Costs

Councils will be required to set fixed fees for processing certain consent applications and for hearings and fixed remuneration for hearing panels.

The Environment Court

The Court will be able to require parties to participate in alternative dispute resolution mechanisms or judicial conferences rather than go straight to a hearing.  The matters which can be decided by a Judge or an Environment Commissioner sitting alone will be expanded. 

The Court will also be able to allow councils to acquire land that has been rendered incapable of reasonable use by planning provisions without having to amend the district plan, which can be an expensive and time-consuming business.

Alignment with other statutes

The Bill will:

  • remove from the RMA the explicit function of councils to manage hazardous substances as this is covered by the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act
  • align key steps in the notified approval processes under the RMA and the Conservation Act, and
  • remove the ability in the RMA for councils to charge financial and development contributions as this is provided for under the Local Government Act.

It also increases the solatium (the payment for disruption, interference and other inconvenience) in the Public Works Act from $2,000, set in 1975, to a maximum of $50,000.

Chapman Tripp comments

Most of the provisions in the Bill have been telegraphed in advance so there is little to surprise.  If passed as drafted, it has the capacity to reduce costs and speed up planning processes – but probably only at the margins.

For more radical and meaningful change we may have to await the results of the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into urban planning (see Chapman Tripp’s commentary here).

The Bill is available here, and the Q&A released with the Bill, here.