For those that follow the debate, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of love for the RMA - “The RMA is NZ biggest barrier to future development”, “Overly restrictive planning rules are one of the causes of high house prices”, “It has become a major barrier to progress by adding costs and delays to the local authority consenting process”. However, while the RMA has been blamed for a lot of things, is it really the source of all our current problems?
Many of the issues that arise are due to the way the RMA has been implemented, a history of delay and lack of integration in national direction. RMA processes have struggled to be flexible enough to adapt to complex issues such as housing affordability, climate change and resource allocation.
While change is required, RMA reform is only part of the picture, and unless the other issues are also dealt with, there won’t be the type of transformational change we need to tackle the big issues Aotearoa faces.
For example, some of the problems caused by poor investment in infrastructure are the result of long-term decisions made outside of the RMA process. Questions like who ‘who should pay and when”, are complex – should it be this generation or future generations? The crux is that we desperately need quality long-term vision. Local government is hamstrung by the caps on borrowing limits and infrastructure investment decisions that are at the mercy of political cycles. If a council isn’t well-funded there is little incentive to invest in unseen infrastructure – such as water pipes – or transport networks. Throw in ratepayer objections and you have even less political incentive.
We’re seeing change though – particularly in the move to 30-year infrastructure plans. That said, we still face the issues caused by decades of underinvestment in essential infrastructure. An example of this is wastewater overflows to our beaches, which render them unsafe for swimming after rainfall. RMA reform will introduce environmental bottom lines, which will help facilitate the decisions needed to eliminate these types of event.
Regardless, we can’t sit back and wait for RMA reform to solve our problems. In fact, reform requires us to solve them. Nor should we sit back and wait for the RMA transition process to be complete. We need to act now, and this means not taking the foot off the pedal. This means continuing with plan development and implementation, investing in and building infrastructure. We can’t afford to wait for the development of the proposed spatial plans and environmental outcomes that have been signaled as part of RMA reform.
RMA reform will not solve all issues we face. We need to maintain a wider perspective and continue to plan for, upgrade and provide for our critical infrastructure.