RMA overhaul won't help the environment

Contrary to the Government's spin, our beautiful natural landscapes and waterways will be put in danger by proposed changes to the Resource Management Act.

Environment Minister Amy Adams has promised "strong environmental outcomes" from the new legislation. But as far as I can see, the environment will not be better off.

The changes centre on two sections of the act. Section 6, which covers the environment, was always intended to outweigh Section 7, which governs economic matters.

But the Government now wants to merge these two sections and change the weighting. This has long been the desire of the dairy industry and Federated Farmers.

To be fair, the Government has campaigned for several elections on its desire to reform the act so it is easier and quicker for building projects to be approved.

The Government may feel it has a mandate for its current proposals. But not for going this far.

A close look shows it intends to swing well away from the act's central duty to protect the environment. That can't be good for the country's image.

It comes as a series of minor changes to wording that amount to what environmentalists are calling a sneak attack on our natural resources.

These are the changes:

Consideration of the "benefits" of a project or scheme using our natural resources would remain in the new act. Removed would be references to the "costs", meaning possible harm to the environment.

A clause refers to the "importance and value of historic heritage". Fine sentiments, but removed is "and its protection from inappropriate subdivision and development". In other words, big business, it's your lucky day.

In another change, the word "significant" is added so only "significant aquatic habitats" have to be considered, when before it was not mentioned.

There's no definition of what "significant" means. It could mean that only these "significant" waterways have to be considered if a factory or local body wastewater discharge is planned, not all waterways, as is the case now.

Removed from the new act would be "the maintenance and enhancement of amenity values" as something to be considered. I take this to mean that recreational use will no longer matter. That's swimming, canoeing, a quiet walk with the dog - not important.

Also going are "maintenance and enhancement of the quality of the environment". If ever a phrase summed up the meaning of the act, this does.

And so it goes on. The act is being emasculated.

But the biggest and most profound change is the addition of one word - "specified". It comes in Section 6, where it talks about protecting only "specified outstanding natural features and landscapes". It's not in the current act. All outstanding natural features and landscapes are protected there.

So what does specified mean? There's some debate about this. There's no definition in the proposals, or a method for arriving at a definition, or allowance for a schedule of these specified features.

At the moment, the only natural features that have "specified" protection under the law are those parts of rivers that are subject to Water Conservation Orders.

Does this mean that the revised RMA will protect only these 16 stretches of water? That it's open slather on the rest of the country's waterways? I can't believe it. But that's the way it looks, and it's the way environmental groups are reading it.

The Government is promoting these changes to the act in concert with proposals for freshwater reform, which encompass many of the recommendations of the Land and Water Forum. But they will still be subject to the RMA.

And there's another fishhook - the proposals include a clause that allows the government to intervene in the planning process if it doesn't like what's happening.

The forum's success lay in the willingness of its participants from all points of the spectrum to sit and talk until they found mutual ground. There's no incentive to do that if ministers are going to step in and impose a decision if they don't like the way things are heading.

These reforms are being pushed through with unseemly haste. Consultation began just two days after they were announced, and will close next Wednesday (March 27) after only 16 days.

If you want to have your say, get along to a meeting in Palmerston North, Whanganui or Hamilton today, Christchurch tomorrow, Auckland or New Plymouth on Monday, Nelson on Tuesday or Wellington on Wednesday. Details are on the Ministry for the Environment's website.

What I see in these proposals is further evidence of the Government's blinkered approach to building the economy at the expense of all else.

Yes, we must have progress. But think carefully about the sacrifices being made. The damage of a hasty decision to allow a destructive development will be felt for generations to come.

Fairfax Media