Proposed resource management changes headed in right direction

Better Futures Forum – Media Release

The Better Futures Forum welcomes the report of the Resource Management Review Panel, New Directions for Resource Management. The report offers the opportunity to address some of the key environmental issues facing Aotearoa New Zealand, which threaten the quality of life of both current and future generations. In particular, Better Futures supports a more future-focussed approach that would be aided by a Strategic Planning Act.

Photo courtesy Bob Zuur

But this opportunity must not be squandered. The Resource Management Act was expected to protect our environment for future generations, but 30 years on, the system has failed to preserve the quality of our freshwater, arrest biodiversity decline and reduce our contribution to climate change. While the initiatives proposed by the panel seem headed in the right direction, it is our actions that must change if we are to address the complex issues that face our society today.

The inclusion of the concept of Te Mana o te Taiao (which recognises the importance of maintaining the health or air, water, soil and ecosystems and their capacity to sustain life) is important, but a similar concept already exists in the RMA which has not been successful in protecting the life-supporting capacity of the earth’s ecosystems. A new approach is needed which cannot live only in legislation – but will live in the culture of our people and institutions.

Crucially, for any environmental legislation to be effective it must be applied and enforced rigorously. This is the key failure under the RMA. For example, central government took 25 years to bring in national policy guidance on freshwater and regional councils failed to promulgate effective plans and do not sufficiently monitor or enforce freshwater protections. Their track record suggests that while Regional Councils have discretion, they will be influenced by polluters and the environment will suffer as a result. Thus, any new resource management system must be designed to overcome these issues.

Photo courtesy Bob Zuur

We therefore welcome the proposal to audit plans before notification, measures to improve enforcement and the raising of penalties, along with an extension of the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to include auditing and oversight of the performance of the resource management system. In particular, we support the proposal that compliance and enforcement be undertaken by well-resourced regional hubs which are independent and structurally separate from local authorities, and which have national oversight. Under the new system, decision-makers should also be required to take into account an applicant’s track record when determining whether or not to grant consent.

We also support in principle the inclusion of environmental bottom lines or limits for biophysical aspects of the environment. But, as we have seen from the debate over nitrogen bottom lines in freshwater, the real issue is going to be in determining what those bottom lines are. The report seems to suggest that they may represent biophysical “tipping points”. Better Future’s position is that bottom lines need to be scientifically-defined, hard numerical limits which protect ecosystem and human health, and which are monitored by an independent authority. While, the legislation itself can only go so far, the new system should be designed to ensure that we have a thriving, healthy planet. The proposal to legislate for aspirational outcomes is a positive step in that direction.

The Better Futures Forum unequivocally supports direct involvement of Maori in decision-making and in the design of measures and processes to give effect to Te Tiriti, as well as the creation of a National Maori Advisory Board to provide advice to government and oversight of the resource management system from the perspective of mana whenua. However, the use of te reo, Maori concepts, advisory boards and reference to Te Tiriti cannot replace true partnership and are, as the report recognises, only symbolic steps.

Proposed provisions designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote activities that mitigate emissions or sequestrate carbon and to increase the use of renewable energy are absolutely necessary in any new legislation. But in the meantime, similar provisions need to be included in the existing legislation. Developing new legislation is a lengthy process and we must act now to make climate change a matter of national importance in the RMA.

The Better Futures Forum hopes that the next government will make bold policy decisions to protect the earth’s living systems and ensure we are living within planetary boundaries as a matter of urgency. If not, new legislation may well be too little, too late.

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