Oram: A naked power grab

Business commentator Rod Oram: Kiwi depositors are being hung out to dry by the Reserve Bank.
Business commentator Rod Oram: Kiwi depositors are being hung out to dry by the Reserve Bank.

Environment Minister Amy Adams was scathing about the Resource Management Act last week when she launched a discussion paper on the Government's plans to reform it.

"Around New Zealand, frustration with the Resource Management Act is rife. The way RMA processes are operating is costing us all in time, money and lost opportunities. The systems have become cumbersome, uncertain and highly litigious," Adams says.

"The money spent on having to fight to get ahead or to defend your position is money that our households and businesses are missing out on.

"The impacts of this are real - delays and uncertainties mean potential new jobs are not being created, houses are more expensive and communities have no idea what to expect in their neighbourhoods."

The paper, though, is very long on public opinions gathered through surveys; and it is irresponsibly short on facts captured by analysis. It is available at bit.ly/XRS7w7.

Here are some telling facts from Adams' own ministry that are not in the report. They measure the RMA's performance in 2010/11.

36,154 resource consent applications were processed through to a decision.

0.56 per cent (203) of resource consent applications were declined.

4 per cent (1414) of resource consent applications were publicly notified, allowing third parties to comment on them.

2 per cent (849) of resource consent applications were notified to affected parties only for their comments.

1 per cent (357) of resource consent decisions were appealed.

Local authority officers acting under delegated authority made 91 per cent of decisions on resource consent applications.

95 per cent of resource consent applications were processed on time.

Likewise, the Government and paper strongly assert that the RMA is denying the country some of its economic opportunities. But they offer only anecdotal evidence and no analysis.

Companies and industries are quick to jump on this bandwagon. For example, Horticulture New Zealand congratulated the minister for her bold statements.

"If even half of what the minister is aiming to do actually happens, New Zealand's horticulture industry will be extremely heartened, and seriously relieved," HortNZ president Andrew Fenton said.

"HortNZ estimates the RMA has cost the industry over $30 million in compliance costs over the past 12 months.

"Most of that cost has very little to do with protecting the environment. It is mostly about administration and legal processing. That money would be much better spent developing new products, finding new markets and creating more jobs."

Queried by this columnist on the compliance cost, HortNZ said it was an estimate of $5000 a year for each of its 6000 members.

It's 6000 members, however, have collective revenues of $4 billion a year. So the compliance cost is 0.75 per cent of their revenues.

"We need some streamlining of the RMA but we probably wouldn't save very much," said Leigh Catley, HortNZ's communications manager.

Well, let's say growers had zero RMA compliance costs, even though those measures are part of maintaining consumer confidence in their products at home and abroad. Would the growers really be able to turn an extra $5000 a year into new products, markets and jobs?

Likewise, the Government and paper assert that the environmental values of Kiwis have changed since the RMA became law 22 years ago. They make no attempt to explain what they mean by that, or offer any evidence of the shift. But they imply that Kiwis these days care more about the economy and less about the environment.

This view was challenged by the Environmental Defence Society, which has a long track record of supporting improvements to the RMA, including many of the proposals in the Government's latest discussion paper.

It is also a strong supporter of economic development that is in tune with the environment.

Adams replied that such comments were "scaremongering" and "out of touch with New Zealanders".

This will be put to the test over the coming months as the public learns what reforms the Government is pushing. The three biggest are:

Changing the purpose of the act to give greater weight to economic development over environmental considerations.

Granting considerable new powers to central Government such as the ability to take individual consent decisions out of local councils and place them in a new national body; and inserting provisions in local council plans without any consultation.

Reducing the Environment Court to hearing cases only on points of law rather than additional evidence.

If that last happened, we would largely lose the court's deep legal and environmental knowledge, its common sense and ability to arbitrate outcomes satisfactory to all parties.

The discussion paper also includes some very helpful proposals: a reduction from 20 working days to 10 for "straightforward" consents; working with councils to improve their practices; combining a council's multiple plans into a unitary plan; giving more national guidance through policy statements; and developing national templates and definitions to improve consistency of plans.

But the Government has significantly reduced its chances of introducing such worthwhile improvements by making a grab for central government power at the expense of local decision-making.

This drastic power shift has many negative consequences. The two biggest are:

It would hugely politicise decisions.

It massively discourages communities from taking charge of their future.

The Key Government is already running roughshod over sound economic analysis to deliver its pet projects. For example, some of its Roads of National Significance comprehensively fail cost-benefit analysis. Nevertheless, it is pressing ahead by funding them with an increase in fuel excise duty and increased debt.

Conversely, it rejects local plans it doesn't like, such as the CBD rail loop in Auckland, even though they demonstrate far better cost-benefits.

The Government has already proven very willing to overturn local goals by, for example, approving salmon farms in the Marlborough Sounds in places off limits in the district plan.

Housing Minister Nick Smith sharply upped the ante last week. He said the Government would use the reformed RMA to intervene in Auckland to open up land beyond the urban boundary for subdivisions.

Astonishingly, it would do this before Auckland Council had the chance to implement its carefully crafted unitary plan. At stake is the very nature of the city.

The Government is picking a fight with New Zealanders it can't win. The losers will be it and sensible RMA improvements.

Sunday Star Times