Local Government Magazine

Reform of the resource management system

Greg Severinsen and Raewyn Peart have just published a report on our country’s resource management system. Here they outline their message to local government.

As we begin 2019, there is a palpable sense of change in the air. However, it’s not just in the air – it’s also in the water, in our cities, on our farms, in our homes. Perhaps most significantly, it has reached the corridors of the Beehive.

We have been saying it for a while now, and so have others: the way we manage our environment and resources needs a shakeup. And it’s about to get one, as the government is set to embark on a rethink of the wider resource management system.

This will complement a number of other relevant reforms being progressed, including short-term Resource Management Act (RMA) changes, the three waters review, and the roll-out of the Housing and Urban Development Authority.

Local government, as one of the most important natural and physical resource stewards in the country, is at the heart of all of this.

The Environmental Defence Society (EDS) anticipated this rethink and has been conducting its own first principles review of the resource management system. This has culminated in the recent release of a 340-page report, which provides a wide-ranging analysis and offers three potential models for change.

The impetus for this work is the challenges we are facing: environmental degradation, urban and infrastructure pressures, climate change, the coherence and complexity of our laws, and a future with rapid and disruptive change.

The accumulation of issues indicates deep systemic problems, and merits sitting back and considering how the system works as a whole, not just the RMA. Others have also highlighted the need for the whole system change, including the Productivity Commission, Local Government New Zealand and Infrastructure New Zealand.

The EDS report traverses many different areas, from ethics and principles, the proper roles of the system, legislative and institutional design, public participation, and the kinds of tools we use to effect change – regulations, plans, taxes, funding mechanisms and behavioural incentives. Crucial is how all this works together, and while the report offers several tangible models, it stops short of recommending a single solution.


The key purpose of the report is to provide a common analytical foundation for debate that sees the system as a single, interconnected whole – not just a collection of parts to which we apply band-aids as the need arises.

Councils are vitally important parts of the resource management system. So, key questions to consider are what responsibilities should be central, regional and local; how councils should be funded; and under what legislative framework local government should discharge its functions.

It should not be assumed that meaningful and transformational reform must involve the fundamental overhaul of local government units. Cost saving and economies of scale are not everything, and institutions are not just automatons doing a job – they are the face and voice of communities.

Subsidiarity – decisions being taken at levels where people are most affected and can engage best – will need to remain an important component of a future system.

Although a necessary first step is to facilitate a robust conversation about reform, that must lead to tangible action to be worthwhile.

So, the next phase of the EDS project, occurring over the course of 2019, is to identify a preferred model for the future. This work will involve three steps: engaging with stakeholders to develop a set of criteria for selecting a model; developing that model; and charting a realistic pathway to get there over time. Council perspectives and institutional knowledge will be crucial to this debate.  

• Greg Severinsen is senior policy advisor at the Environmental Defence Society (EDS). greg@eds.org.nz.

Raewyn Peart is EDS policy director. raewyn@eds.org.nz

For more information on the project and how to get involved, and to download the report see


Feedback can be sent to RMProject@eds.org.nz

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