Local Government Magazine

Environment | Think again

Why the Resource Management Act is neither business nor environmentally friendly.


Established in 1991, the Resource Management Act (RMA) has been hailed as ‘world-leading’ and ‘at the leading edge’. But is it serving the right purpose? The term sustainable development rose to significance after it was used in a United Nations Commission in 1987 on environment and development entitled “Our Common Future” which is referred to as the Brundtland report after the chairperson.
In the report, the commission coined what has become the most often-quoted definition of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
In the late 1980s those looking to architect a new focus to our planning and environmental laws took up the sustainable development theory and drafted a new law with little practical understanding of how it would be implemented.
A new approach was adopted that would see us embark on an experiment guided by the legal fraternity and welcomed with open arms by the planners who would more than double in number in the following two decades.
New Zealand was hailed by this group as world-leading for implementing a law that used the term “sustainable development” (modified to “sustainable management” so as not to appear too development friendly) as the central philosophy, but with little consideration to how the planning and environmental laws of the day operated.
Its instigators portrayed New Zealand as being at the leading edge of environmental law reform, yet interestingly not a single other jurisdiction adopted the concept.
As a result of implementing the RMA, the collaborative, catchment-based water resources management and associated pollution control approach was relegated because this group decided it was the effects of individual activities that mattered.
The new approach was to “avoid”, “remedy”, and “mitigate” any adverse effects with phrases such as “beyond the zone of reasonable mixing” providing the precision we needed for pollution control.
A new club was created with new jargon. Anyone trying to question the new system as overly complex or inconsistent is typically met

with the passion you would expect from a religious zeolite preaching from some new gospel. Yet if the Act is such a success why have our waterways continued to deteriorate?
This constant drive for theoretical interpretations and ever-expanding consultation has led to the current situation where is possible to spend over $2 million on a resource consent for a small town’s wastewater discharge. Yet when the consented discharge consistently breaches conditions, hardly an eyebrow is raised.
This indicates it is more important to plan and litigate than provide a solution for the community.
Local politics and multiple interpretations of the legislation provide a range of approaches to compliance, inconsistent conditions, monitoring regimes and enforcement regulations across individual catchments and across the country.
Couple this with a lack of central guidance and you have a great playing ground for an army of advisors to sell their services to both sides all the while ensuring we keep the status quo.
In short, the RMA is neither business nor environmentally friendly, but has created a gravy train of advisors and support services to assist business and service providers navigate their way. There is the potential for political interference at all levels and when the Act reached 20 years of age in 2011 only one national standard had been implemented.
There has recently been some new national standards and improved central guidance, but perhaps what we actually require is a rethink of the fundamentals to our environmental and planning legislation. LG

This article has been submitted by Steve Couper in a personal capacity as a water and wastewater practitioner and is not the opinion of any of the organisations with which he is associated.

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