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Resource Management Law Reform 1987 - 1991

By the end of the 1980s, New Zealand had a vast and cumbersome array of laws dealing with natural resources. Legislation had, until then, been designed in response to discrete environmental problems, but the responses were disconnected and inconsistent. No single principle or system for managing natural resources existed.

In December 1987, the Government announced a comprehensive reform of New Zealand's resource management law in conjunction with the local government reforms (Memon, 1993). As the first step in the reform, the existing legislation was reviewed and the following nine major problems identified (Palmer, 1991):

  • there was no consistent set of resource management objectives;
  • there were arbitrary differences in the management of land, air and water;
  • there were too many agencies involved in resource management with overlapping responsibilities and insufficient accountability;
  • consent procedures were unnecessarily complicated and costly, and there were undue delays;
  • pollution laws were ad hoc and did not recognise the physical connections between land, air and water;
  • in some aspects of resource management there was insufficient flexibility and too much prescription, with a focus on activities rather than end results;
  • Māori interests and the Treaty of Waitangi were frequently overlooked;
  • monitoring of the law was uneven; and
  • enforcement was difficult.

The Resource Management Act and the Crown Minerals Act were passed in 1991. Together, these Acts form the basis for New Zealand's unique and pioneering resource management legislation. (See Milne, 1992 for a more detailed discussion of New Zealand's environmental legislation.)

A principled approach to legislation

Since the reform process leading to the introduction of the Resource Management Act 1991, New Zealand's environmental legislation has contained a number of common themes. Chief among these is the principle of sustainability, which is now the umbrella principle for management of natural and physical resources, indigenous forests, and fisheries. This principle was endorsed internationally at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) (see Box 4.4).

Other principles from this conference are evident in our national environmental laws. These include the precautionary principle, which was defined at UNCED to mean that: "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation". The corollary of this principle is that people proposing to undertake activities with potential effects on the environment should carry out environmental impact assessments. In this way, the nature and extent of any environmental risk is identified before action is taken. This approach is evident in laws governing the management of hazardous substances and new organisms, is inherent in the effects-based focus of the Resource Management Act (see below) and is contained in some form in most of our other environmental laws.

National environmental laws also endorse the principle of 'user pays'. People using resources that are managed at public costs are required to help pay for a share of the costs of that management. The Fisheries Act 1996, which uses an economic instrument in the form of a quota to manage fisheries resources, requires a substantial proportion of the costs of managing the fisheries resources to be met by the quota holders. The Resource Management Act also includes provisions for user charges.

Our laws also endorse the principle of 'polluter pays', requiring people conducting activities that damage the environment to account for the environmental costs of their activities, and to pay for measures to mitigate, remedy or avoid those effects. |The whole resource consent process under the Resource Management Act is an example of the practical application of this principle. This application of the principle may be used in future for resources causing climate change, perhaps in the form of a carbon tax or a tradeable permit.

As well as providing for sound environmental management on a national level, the incorporation of these principles into our national environmental laws helps give credence to New Zealand's 'green' reputation, and allows New Zealand to play a significant role in developing agreements to further environmental goals internationally.