Why Hipkins should call time on RMA reforms

Roger Partridge
Insights Newsletter
3 February, 2023

At 11:59pm on Sunday, submissions close on Environment Minister David Parker’s Natural and Built Environment Bill.

One minute to midnight on the Sunday of Waitangi weekend is a strange deadline for submissions on a once-in-a-generation proposal to reform the Resource Management Act.

Yet Sunday is the extended deadline for submissions on the Bill. The extension followed howls of protest as submitters scrambled to respond to an 810-page Bill introduced into Parliament only shortly before the summer holiday recess.

But undue haste is not the main problem with Parker’s Bill. The more fundamental issue is incoherence.

The Bill is the first of a trio of statutes intended to replace the deservedly discredited RMA. Yet there are many reasons to believe the reforms will make those processes worse rather than better.

At their heart, planning laws should help discover the best use of scarce resources. They do this by helping with two problems markets can struggle with: the provision of public goods (like parks and transport infrastructure) and controlling externalities (like pollution).

However, like the RMA, Parker’s new statues have far grander goals. Unfortunately, they also have greater flaws.

In place of the RMA’s ill-defined objective of “sustainable development”, the new regime proposes strict environmental “bottom lines.” But hard-and-fast bottom lines are a fantasy. All resource use decisions involve trade-offs. And whereas the RMA permitted assessments of costs and benefits of these trade-offs, Parker’s reforms offer no such safety-net. Instead, Parliament and central planners will cast decisions in stone.

There are also problems with the new Bill’s two other resource allocation principles. “Efficiency” and “equity” sound like reasonable ideas.

But the Bill omits any reference to property rights and price mechanisms necessary for economically efficient outcomes. And it leaves equity to the whims of planners. Minister Parker may have confidence in planners, but does anyone else?

Overlaying these principles is a Te Ao Māori concept incorporating the relationship between iwi and individual hapū and the natural environment. Called Te Oranga o te Taiao, this principle will place undefined race-based considerations at the heart of the planning framework.

In combination, these principles promise a worse quagmire than the RMA they are intended to replace. 

Chris Hipkins has committed to cutting back the Government’s reform agenda to focus on bread-and-butter issues.

He should start by axing Parker’s misguided RMA reforms.

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