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More with less: 7 councils warn against changes to Resource Management Act

by A. Omundsen
Submissions made by seven councils within the Wellington Region have all raised serious concerns about changes to the Resource Management Act 1991 proposed in the February discussion document titled “Improving Our Resource Management System.”

The intention to proceed with these changes was confirmed in August, despite over 13,000 submissions which raised serious concerns or objections, including submissions from at least 50 councils, all major environmental groups, historical organisations and a range of legal and professional associations identified here.

In addition to strong concerns raised by the majority of submitters that the proposed changes will harm the environment, councils throughout the country, including the Wellington region, have warned that:

the proposed changes will have high financial costs and could lead to increased charges to applicants and higher rates for ratepayers.
the changes will result in a loss of community involvement in decision making.
the changes could undermine the ability to protect the amenity/pleasantness of urban areas through District Plans.
there is a lack of evidence to justify both the need for changes and their cost.
a large number of implementation problems and issues need to be sorted upfront.

Here are extracts from the seven Wellington submissions.

WELLINGTON CITY COUNCIL[1]

“The Council is concerned that a number of the assumptions contained in the discussion paper are based on incorrect information about current RMA practice… The proposed changes…will not effectively address housing affordability issues.”

“…a number of proposed changes need to be given careful consideration as they appear to reduce local government autonomy through the provision of increasingly powerful tools for Central Government, constrain local community involvement and have significant resource implications (time and money) for Council… “

“…this change of wording significantly weakens the legislative mandate provided for safeguarding of New Zealand’s historic heritage…”

“…national plan template proposal would require all Councils in New Zealand to re-write existing plans over a 5 year period to achieve a standard plan structure including nationally consistent provisions…Significant plan development costs would be imposed on the local government sector (and the community)…”

“While the 10 working-day timeframe may appear to be a solution to reducing processing times and costs to applicants, it is unlikely to make a meaningful difference, relative to the costs/difficulties of establishing new processing systems…The proposal as described has the effect of shifting Council input to before lodgement, ie the pre-application stage…The increased staff resource necessary to manage the 10 day timeframes would lead to increased costs for the applicant…”

UPPER HUTT CITY COUNCIL[2]

“Council is concerned at a number of unsubstantiated statements made throughout the decision document that posit an identified problem to be addressed. UHCC considers that such changes as are proposed need to be evidence based. UHCC does not, in many instances, see such evidence presented…”

“UHCC suggests these costs will be significant, the suggested timeframe for change is in UHCC’s view unattainable…”

“UHCC is therefore opposed to a situation that will simply add further complexity and additional administration function, taking away from its core function of exercising its RMA responsibilities. It may also require a boost in consenting staff to achieve such targets, increasing consenting costs, running counter to the Governments intent on fees…”

KAPITI COAST DISTRICT COUNCIL[3]

“The Council is concerned that the justification provided for the recommended proposals is based on anecdotal evidence, satisfaction surveys or worst case scenarios, and that the proposals lack robust assessment…the proposed changes appear to be undermining the protection of the environment for the sake of economic efficiency.”

“…methods to enable sufficient growth of the district should be determined with community consultation not by central government.”

“Some of the proposed amendments are likely to result in a greater cost to the ratepayer, for example, plan consolidation, and a reduction in the communities’ ability to appeal planning decisions made by the Council and/or the Environment Court.”

“…the Council finds it difficult for the purpose of the RMA to be fulfilled under the amended principles…It is also not in the spirit of the RMA to have one land use automatically trump the RMA”.

“Council has reservations about a single resource management plan using a national template, due to the potential under a generic template for the loss of ability to plan for local issues…This would be an expensive process for councils…It seems that the joint plan proposal would be extremely costly relative to the benefits, and unless rolled out to coincide with required full plan review timeframes, the proposal would be uneconomic.”

“Any fixed or capped charges that do not provide for cost recovery will require a subsidy from the ratepayer, and fixed fees would inevitably result in cross-subsidisation between cheaper (‘straight forward’) and more expensive (‘more complex’) resource consents in return for providing greater certainty.”

GREATER WELLINGTON REGIONAL COUNCIL [4]

“We are concerned that…there are instances of amendments with the potential to create more complexity, uncertainty and additional cost for both the council and other parties involved in resource management processes…”

“We have concerns over decision making being taken away from a local level and rules be added to plans with insufficient consultation with local councils…This represents a shift away from local decision-making towards a more centralised directive decision-making resource management regime.”

“We have concerns that any national template that requires a number of plans to be incorporated into one standardised template will be overly complex and costly, with little value.

“The expected outcomes of the joint plan as described in the discussion document, lack substance and it is unclear what, if any benefits would be gained from this approach….”

HUTT CITY COUNCIL [5]

“The Council is concerned about the level of analysis that has been undertaken to support the proposed changes to the RMA…we feel that further changes and considerations are required to ensure that a balance is reached between achieving future economic development and the maintenance of environmental values…”

“…This approach has the potential to further shift the planning approach from local communities to a more centralised government process. This could result in an ad hoc approach to planning, based on politics as opposed to significant resource management issues…This in turn could lead to poor urban design outcomes and poorer quality urban centres. “

“The conversion of the current District Plan into a format that is consistent with the national template will impose significant costs on the Council and (by default) the local community.”

PORIRUA CITY COUNCIL [6]

“PCC has concerns about the accuracy and appropriateness of some of the evidence used…”

“…effective and efficient resource management practices…should not be at the expense of quality decision making or unnecessary costs passed on to ratepayers…the proposed changes will have a bearing on rates and will likely result in rate rises…”

“Rather than reinforcing the importance of protecting environmental values, the proposed rewording of Section 6 [of the Resource Management Act 1991] appears to make it easier to develop increasingly at the expense of scarce environmental resources…it is concerned that important environmental management safeguards may be dismantled or de-emphasized for the sake of supporting development…”

“Requiring a single resource management plan is likely to be complicated…A move to a ‘simplified’ hearing and appeal environment structure could have the impact of formalising local hearings and preventing, dissuading even undermining participation of local community members in their local process of plan development…”

“There will also be significant upfront cost on councils to implement this proposal including substantial rebuilds of existing council resource consent IT systems…”

MASTERTON DISTRICT COUNCIL [7]

“A ‘one size fits all solution’ does not meet all circumstances and may create unnecessary costs for councils and developers in that area. Local diversity is important and should reflect differing local needs and priorities.”

Additional comments from these and a further 51 local government representatives can be found here.

Much more attention needs to be given to the findings of the NZ Productivity Commission on Local Regulation that:

“There is insufficient analysis of local government’s capacity or capacity to implement regulation prior to devolving or delegating additional regulatory functions, or making changes to existing functions…Engagement with the local government sector in the design of new regulations is generally poor, and as such, is undermining the quality of local regulation…Too often, the RIS [Regulatory Impact Statement] are seen as an ‘administrative hurdle’ rather than an integral part of the policy design process.”

As well as the report on “The Impact of Government Policy and Regulations on the Cost of Local Government’ published by Local Government New Zealand (2012) that:

“While central government has excellent processes for reviewing the fiscal impacts of policy proposals on its own budget we find the same discipline to be lacking when it comes to fiscal impacts on proposals on local government…The 2011 Cost Shifting survey has reinforced the findings of the two previous surveys, undertaken in 2000 and 2007, which government legislation and regulation have created what can only be called a tsunami of costs that councils have no other option than to meet.”

It appears that no section of government is looking at the cumulative cost on councils from a multiplicity of intended changes to the Resource Management Act 1991 and the Local Government Act 2002. It is clear that the Government expects Local Government to do more for less.

But when it comes to cost cutting, we are in danger of mistaking “bone/muscle/vital organs” for “excess fat”, with the result that the animal is crippled or killed – or in the case of our local councils, forced into amalgamation with larger councils for financial survival.

Read also:
http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL1309/S00073/2013-rma-reform-act-endangers-democracy-and-environment.htm


[1] Wellington City Council Agenda Report for Strategy and Policy Committee 21 March 2013

[2] Upper Hutt Council Agenda Report for Policy Committee 15 May 2013

[3] Kapiti Coast District Council Agenda Report for Council meeting 18 April 2013

[4] Greater Wellington Regional Council submission on RMA Discussion Document

[5] Hutt City Council Submission on the RMA Discussion Document

[6] Porirua City Council Submission on RMA Discussion Document

[7] Masterton District Council Agenda for Council Meeting of 10 April 2013

A. Omundsen is a policy analyst working in the local government sector, with over 12 years experience as a town planner in Australia, England, Wales and New Zealand.