In July 2019, the Government announced a comprehensive reform of the RMA. The reform is motivated by an aim to cut both complexity and costs and to better facilitate urban development, while also increasing environmental protection. The RMA reform process is divided into two stages. The first stage involves specific changes to the RMA being proposed through the Resource Management Bill. These changes include a new planning process for freshwater which will support the implementation of the upcoming National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management 2020, discussed below. The bill was introduced to the House on 23 September 2019. A summary of the bill can be found here.

The second stage will be a comprehensive review of the RMA considering the broader changes needed to move to a more sustainable economy. This comprehensive review will focus both on the RMA and the way in which it interacts with the Local Government Act 2002, the Land Transport Management Act 2003 and the Climate Change Response Act 2002, which is to be amended by the Zero Carbon Amendment Bill.

National direction for essential freshwater

The discussion document on national direction for essential freshwater: ‘Action for healthy waterways’ closed for submissions on 31 October. There are links to the draft NPS-FM, proposed Freshwater NES and Draft Stock Exclusion Regulations in the discussion document. A summary of the proposals can be found here.

The Waitangi Tribunal has also recently released a report on National Freshwater and Geothermal Resources claims. The Tribunal considered claims that the present law in respect of freshwater is not consistent with the principles of the Treaty and has made a number of recommendations to the government. A copy of the 588 page report can be found here.

Proposed national policy statement for highly productive land

The government is proposing a National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land (NPS-HPL) to improve the management of highly productive land under the RMA. It has identified that the expansion of urban areas, accompanied by the loss of productive and, as well as land use changes on the fringes of urban areas, particularly the increase of lifestyle blocks, were the two key pressures on highly productive land on the outer fringes of cities and towns.

The proposed NPS-HPL recognises that land is ‘a precious taonga – an irreplaceable treasure and a source of life and wellness for our country’ and that productive land is under threat and being lost. The purpose of the proposed NPS-HPL is to prevent the further loss of productive land and to promote the sustainable management of this land. It intends to signal to councils that highly productive land should be a matter of national significance in consenting decisions as well as RMA planning.

Currently around 14% of land in New Zealand is categorised as highly productive, using the Land-Use Capability (LUC) System which categories land into eight classes based on its long-term capability to sustain one or more productive uses. The proposed NPS-HPL categorises highly productive land as land that has been designated Class 1, 2 or 3 by default. The proposed NPS-HPL will allow Councils to consider other factors to both identify other highly productive land and to exclude some of the land already designated as highly productive. These factors include water availability and the suitability of the climate of the land for primary production.

The focus of the proposed NPS-HPL is on maintaining highly productive land for ‘primary production’, protecting such land from development and uses that are considered ‘inappropriate’. Whether the proposed land use or development is appropriate will depend on the local context, considering the actual impact of the proposal on highly productive land. Based on existing practice, the proposed NPS-HPL includes a definition for ‘sensitive activities’ and the expectation is that the district plans implemented by councils will include the definition as a part of a rule framework to manage certain activities that are sensitive or incompatible on or adjacent to highly productive land used for primary production.

The proposed NPS-HPL outlines objectives to achieve its overall purpose and its expectations on local authorities in relation to each of the objectives. Objective 1 is to recognise the full range of values and benefits associated with its use for primary production. This would require councils to articulate the key benefits associated with highly productive land within the context of their own region/district to both give effect to Objective 1 and to ensure that these benefits are better considered in consenting decisions and land use planning.

Objective 2 is to maintain its availability for primary production for future generations. This would require local authorities to ensure that development that leads to the irreversible loss of highly productive land is avoided where other feasible options exist. It does not impose a ‘no net loss’ requirement on councils as it is recognised that absolute protection of such land is not always appropriate.

Objective 3 is to protect it from inappropriate subdivision, use and development. This requires councils to both define what is appropriate and inappropriate through regional policy statements and district plans, in addition to the guidance provided in the proposed NPS-HPL, and implement methods to protect highly productive land from inappropriate development.

Consultation on the proposed NPS-HPL has been undertaken. It is anticipated that the proposed NPS-HPL will come into effect in early 2020. A second phase of work with a focus on soil health is anticipated to begin in 2020.

Proposed national policy statement for urban development

The government is proposing a National Policy Statement for Urban Development (NPS-UD). It would replace the Urban Development Capacity 2016 (NPS-UDC). It seeks to provide clear direction to local authorities about how to plan for development and make decisions under the RMA. The NPS-UD is intended to support local government to apply more responsive, effective planning and consenting; and to clarify for others (including developers and community members) the intended outcomes for urban development across New Zealand and within communities and neighbourhoods.

The NPS-UD contains objectives and policies in four main areas:

Future Development Strategy: Requires Councils to carry out long-term planning to both ensure the quality of urban environments and to accommodate growth.

Making Room for Growth: Requires plans of Council to provide for Growth both ‘up’ and ‘out’ in a manner that satisfies the needs of people, whānau, communities and future generations.

Evidence of good decision-making: Requires planning decisions to be informed by evidence about housing and development markets.

Engagement in planning: Requires planning to align and coordinate across urban areas and that the iwi and hapū concerns are taken into account in urban planning.

Certain policies in the proposed NPS-UD would apply to local authorities in all urban environments. Policies that are particularly onerous would only be applicable to larger, growing urban centres and areas where the pressure on housing is generating national impacts. This approach continues the approach of the NPS-UDC.

The major urban centres include Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown. The categorisation of these centres as such is because these urban environments would benefit most from meeting the more stringent requirements as the housing pressures and challenges on these centres is greatest. An example of a more stringent requirement includes the requirement, limited to major urban centres only, to produce a ‘Future Development Strategy’. The strategy will need to explain how and where future development will be provided for including specifying locations for intensification based on various factors including housing demand, services and infrastructure, and providing an implementation plan in support.

The proposed NPS-UD will require local authorities to amend their regional and district plans and regional policy statements to give effect to the NPS-UD and will mandate that decision-makers on resource consents, plans and policy statements consider the NPS in their decision-making process.

The proposed NPS-UD will be reviewed by an independent technical advisory panel based on the public submissions and the panel will provide feedback to the Ministers. It is intended that the NPS-UD will come into force in the first half of 2020.