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RMA reforms timid, ill-considered and a missed opportunity, says BusinessNZ

Thursday 4th April 2013

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Proposed changes to the Resource Management Act are a timid, missed opportunity and are "unlikely to contribute to the Prime Minister's goal of making New Zealand 'a magnet for investment'," says BusinessNZ.

The peak business lobby group says a discussion paper issued on Feb. 28 by Environment Minister Amy Adams fails to consider the erosion of private property rights that the RMA has encouraged and does too little to ensure the benefits of economic development are properly weighed against environmental costs.

As proposed, the reforms "will result in failure to fully unlock the potential of New Zealand's productive capacity in a way that balances the various interests and delivers an overall increase in economic activity, while protecting the environment," says the submission, authored by BusinessNZ's energy, environment and infrastructure manager, John Carnegie.

The RMA would continue to act as a "hand-brake" on economic development "until such time as it is amended to better reflect the ability to achieve both economic growth and environmental protection."

BusinessNZ's views are strongly at odds with environmental lobbyists who fear some of the proposed reforms will turn the RMA into an economic development act rather than law requiring development to occur in an environmentally sustainable way.

Their criticism focuses on proposed changes to Sections 6 and 7, which interpret the untouched Section 5, where the act's focus on "sustainable development" is enshrined. BusinessNZ's objection is that Section 5 should have been opened up but was taken off the agenda by the government, preventing full-scale RMA reform.

"The practical effect of this ... is to entrench the absence of any clear boundary between the public and private interest in the sustainable management of the environment."

With central government consistently failing to give national direction, the status quo of courts and local authorities able "to trammel private property rights in order to achieve often opaque or highly dubious public goals."

However, both sides of the argument are aligned in opposing limited rights of appeal on resource consents, which Adams is championing as creating greater business certainty, and what BusinessNZ says could lead to "the risk of getting bad decisions sooner."

The business lobby says best practice in members of the rich countries club, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, is to ensure "the role of merit appeal rights is firmly understood and is promoted strongly."

Greater use of collaborative decision-making processes heightened the business community's concerns that "inferior decisions generate uncertainty."

BusinessNZ also fears that efforts to streamline resource consent processes will create "yet another new consenting process, or worse still, a new entity." The Environmental Protection Authority should be to fast-track nationally important local resource consent processes, rather than a proposed new body.

It is similarly scathing about the proposed 10 day consent process, which is described as "a somewhat timid attempt", despite being "the closest the package gets to acknowledging that the boundaries or scope of the act have become so stretched."

BusinessNZ is also deeply critical of the 22 day period given for submissions on what it says are the biggest changes to the law since it was introduced in 1991, saying the process showed "an almost complete disregard for the views of submitters."

The criticisms are one of the few areas where the business lobby agrees with environmental groups, who have become increasingly alarmed at the implications of the reforms.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, an independent officer of Parliament, said in her submission the proposed RMA reforms risked turning the law into an economic development act rather than law to ensure sustainable development.

"Balance of the kind where environmental and economic concerns are given equal weight does not belong inside the RMA," the commissioner, Jan Wright, submitted.

Environment Minister Amy Adams launched the discussion document outlining the changes on Feb. 28, and 10 days later also issued a similarly momentous discussion paper on freshwater reforms, also with a short deadline.

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