Liam Dann: RMA rewrite looks like a special kind of hell

I recently read an article in The New Yorker about extreme caving.

It described efforts of explorers to plumb subterranean depths in a remote Mexican mountain range.

Cavers wriggled through crushingly tight tunnels. Divers, with limited oxygen supply, swam through murky underwater mazes.

For anyone with the mildest streak of claustrophobia, it was the stuff of nightmares.

It occurred to me there wasn’t anything in the world I’d rather do less.

But then last week the Government outlined plans to rewrite the nation’s resource management legislation.

I think I’d rather take my chances in a Mexican cave.

The Government says it will draft up legislation this year with a view to getting a new regime in place by the end of this parliamentary term.

David Parker – as Environment Minister – has drawn the short straw and will have to oversee what will inevitably be a painful process of public consultation.

No matter how well this process goes, Parker will receive no thanks whatsoever as his carefully worded legislation is ruined over coming years by complainers, whiners and whingers from all points on the political spectrum.

Too harsh? I really hope so.

Almost everyone is happy to see the end of the 30-year-old RMA.

Everyone seems to agree that it was a no-good piece of overly complex legislation.

But that’s likely to be as unanimous as this process gets.

The RMA will be replaced with three new pieces of legislation.

The Natural and Built Environments Act (NBA) is the primary replacement and will cover land use and environmental regulation.

Two other acts will be introduced to cover all the other bases – the Strategic Planning Act (SPA) and Climate Change Adaptation Act (CAA).

Frankly, that’s already sounding pretty complicated.

But we’re assured that making things simpler will be a fundamental pillar of this process.

According to Parker’s press release, the top priorities will be “improving natural environment, while enabling more development” and to”provide an effective role for Māori, and improve housing supply and affordability”.

Meanwhile, the “planning processes will be simplified and costs and times reduced”.

I suppose all these things don’t inherently have to be in conflict but I think the flaw in Parker’s optimistic equation will prove to be “the general public”.

Politicians have to maintain a generous attitude to “the general public” but I am suspicious that they are to blame for most of our resource management problems.

The Government is hopeful that a clearer focus on “outcomes” rather than “individual adverse effects” will make the difference this time.

Hopefully, that means a process that keeps our big strategic goals to the fore.

But we still have to agree on the priority of each of those goals.

This kind of legislation – whether it be encompassed in one act or split across three -is doomed to be a lightning rod for fundamental differences of political outlook.

It requires some level of public consensus with regard to economics, cultural expectations and environmental concerns.

Unlike elections – where we debate things at a grand and often abstract level – things get a lot more emotive when they are about the trees on your street or how many floors are allowed on the apartment block next door.

Compounding the problem, most people don’t engage with these rules until they become directly relevant to their world. So they often have unrealistic expectations.

The problem with any kind of planning rules is they are by their very nature quite complicated and a bit boring – unless you’re being paid to care about them.

Generally, the last thing any sane person wants to do to is deal with the Resource Management Act.

If you are trying to build or develop something then you’ve likely got a lot of money riding on it, so getting approval will keep you awake at night.

If you are trying to stop something happening it’s usually something personally detrimental and in your general vicinity. That will keep you awake at night.

This lack of love for planning issues also applies to journalists writing about them – unless it’s one of those juicy nimby disputes (preferably one involving a rich-lister and their hippie neighbours on Waiheke Island, or something similar).

Nobody likes nimby (not in my backyard) attitudes but then nobody ever thinks they are guilty of them.

They always think their case is special.

Business people – who I deal with on this topic – are fairly pragmatic about the politics.

They do like to build things but they also have a surprisingly representative range of attitudes to environmental concerns.

What they tend to agree about is the need for clarity, certainty and speed of decision-making.

I think the Government would be wise to temper hopes for political consensus and stay focused on one immovable goal.

That is to make the legislation better than it was – not worse.

Despite all the talk of cross-party support and widespread consultation, improving things may ultimately require some degree of friendly fascism.

If the most important thing is getting more houses built then that needs to be clearly laid out.

If climate change is the overriding issue then so be it. But let’s be clear about it.

Attempts to please everyone will end up pleasing nobody.

Perhaps that lesson will be the legacy of the much-derided RMA.

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