Regional spatial plans need to work in tandem with environmental caveats that protect rivers, wetlands and the coastline, said Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton.
Speaking at the Resource Management Law Association conference in Rotorua during September, Upton outlined proposed reforms to the Resource Management Act (RMA) 1991. The government plans to repeal the RMA and replace it with Regional Spatial Strategies and Natural and Built Environments.
He said a single regulatory plan is proposed for each region under the NBEA. However, this plan needs to be developed in two parts. In the first place, the grain of the landscape – its topographical, biophysical, ecological and cultural particularities – need to be mapped and any national or regional environmental limits applied, he said.
“Only then can you lay out the broad lines of future development: the infrastructure that will need to be built, the sorts of activities that you want to group together – residential here, commercial there . . .”
“Once you’ve done that, you can return to the detail of the many regulatory settings that are needed to implement the spatial plan and the regional NBEA plan.”
However, simply stating that regional spatial plans and regional NBEA plans should be ‘consistent’ isn’t enough, he said. For example, regional spatial plans should be elaborated subject to the environmental limitations and protections that have been identified nationally and regionally.
“Spatial plans need to map environmental no-go areas: environmentally and culturally sensitive areas where, if development proceeds, extra care must be taken; and areas where, provided environmental limits are not threatened, a much more permissive approach is acceptable. Detailed regulation should then be tuned to what has been spatially mapped,” Upton said.
Take environment seriously
According to Upton, the government could draw inspiration from the hierarchy of obligations set out for Te Mana o te Wai in the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020. This includes:
- The health and well-being of water bodies and freshwater ecosystems
- The health needs of people (such as drinking water)
- And the ability of people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being, now and in the future.
“Surely these priorities apply to all the claims we make on the environment, not just water? It is high time we took the primacy of the environment seriously. People say they do – but then a lot of time and money is spent lobbying for ‘pathways’ or arrangements that continue to imply on-going tradeoffs,” he said.
“The climatic disruption we are starting to see is a grim reminder that we are running out of pathways that keep on trying to make the environment a subset of the economy, not the other way round.”
This logic suggests that the smorgasbord of outcomes we glimpsed in the exposure draft of the NBEA needs to be triaged between the rather different goals of environmental protection and spatial planning.
“Rather than pretending that the provision of housing and infrastructure are ‘environmental’ outcomes, I would suggest they should be associated with spatial planning and be pursued subject to real bio-physical environmental outcomes such as the ecological integrity of our rivers and wetlands or the natural and eroding character of the coastline,” said Upton.
National direction, regional decisions
Upton warned that the new code will bring together all existing national direction and empower the Minister for the Environment, David Parker, to try and resolve conflicts that rise between them.
“Only some things can be resolved by or benefit from national direction – things like consistent methodologies for environmental monitoring and reporting; some minimum environmental limits; definitions and rules for things that will have little local variation,” he said.
“From what we have seen so far, the Minister for the Environment will have pretty much carte-blanche to decide what requires national direction and what that direction should be. These new powers – and the process governing how they can be exercised – will need to be carefully considered.”
Turning to the regional level, Upton said regional planning committees will take over setting all the regulations currently in the hands of Territorial Local Authorities (TLAs) as well as developing spatial plans
“From an environmental point of view, I have no problems with this. As a unit of environmental management, the catchment has long been the logical jurisdictional boundary. It is the obvious basis for managing soil and water. Much of our conservation and reserve land is of regional significance,” he said.
Regional ratepayers are currently reluctant to shoulder significant, centrally-imposed environmental monitoring costs. As the focus swings towards the regionalisation of management under national direction, that reluctance will grow. While the knowledge and expertise that has been built up in some regional councils must be retained, who funds it and guides it has to be the subject of some serious and urgent consideration.
Upton conceded that many of the pressures that have been hardest to accommodate under the RMA are growth pressures around our largest cities.
“The pressure for change in many peri-urban environments has been made much more difficult by TLA boundaries which reflect another era. Fast growing urban centres like Hamilton and Tauranga have multiple TLAs,” he said.
“District councils that were once squarely rural and provincial in flavour find themselves pulled in two directions: a peri-urban fringe integrating rapidly with the metropolitan centre and a rural periphery concerned with the maintenance of traditional and in some cases increasingly fragile services and infrastructure.”