The RMA attracts a lot of criticism. Some of that criticism is often more appropriately directed to the way the Act is perceived, administered and interpreted. While we have identified changes to the law to reduce complexity and improve processes, there is also much to be gained through non-legislative initiatives and improvements.
Costs arise in a number of ways. In the period since 1991 when the RMA was introduced, local authorities have generally reported a significant increase in complaints about breaches and environmental nuisances. Consultation processes have become more extensive. Many feel that small groups have been able to use RMA processes unreasonably to delay or even stop proposals advancing. Where substantiated, law reform can assist in addressing these matters but more is needed.
In recent years the Ministry for the Environment, local government, and professional bodies such as the New Zealand Planning Institute and Resource Management Law Association have done much to promote best practice. We are sure that each though, could do even more. The Quality Planning website is a fine resource, well worthy of the awards it has received. It receives an average 23,000 hits a month, and provides an opportunity for the Ministry to further advance the cause of best practice. More best-practice research (including comparisons with processes operating in other countries), more education and more sharing of ideas between authorities would pay in improved outcomes. Further publicity for successful applications of the Act would enable others to benefit from the positive experiences of others. Any such effort requires resources.
Issues with regard to the resourcing of RMA processes are not new – one school of thought argues that the implementation of the RMA would have proceeded much more smoothly had more effort of this type been applied right at the start in 1991. To properly improve the processes, the Ministry for the Environment in particular needs to apply the appropriate level of resources required to successfully implement these reforms (especially improved national instruments). In times of very tight government finances, the TAG is reluctant to suggest further appropriations – there is however a strong case for reprioritisation of resources within votes to make certain that this legislation works for New Zealand.
The expenditure of additional dollars at a central level can often result in multiples of that expenditure in savings at the level of local government. Too frequently in the past our 73 district and 12 regional councils have felt themselves to be reinventing the wheel. Inherently too, the individual councils will lack the research capability of central government, and such research as they may numerously and variously undertake will not produce optimal returns. If central government is unable or unwilling to devote the necessary level of resources, it should not be surprised if the present problems with the Act continue to prevail, and the impediments to economic growth and development remain unresolved.
It is not just a matter of resources. Realising the full benefits of any law change will also require changes in behaviour and culture throughout the system. City, district and regional councils need to be sure that they have systems and procedures in place to deliver smart, efficient, and effective services. As a matter of course councils should monitor the outcomes generated by their plans, and ensure that they are meeting their communities’ needs. While this has been an obligation since 1991, little progress has been made in this area, and if the effectiveness of plans is not being monitored, how councils can know whether they are achieving a relevant and contemporary purpose?
Applicants need to be further encouraged to put in good applications. Clear and concise advice on requirements and expectations from councils will assist. The gains from some of the changes we have suggested such as the adoption of assessments of environmental assessments, and other practice improvements, such as pre-lodgement meetings, will be enhanced if the Ministry, local government, and RMA professional bodies actively promote continuous improvement and best practice. While it is important to maintain targets when processing applications, we think it is also important to focus on the overall quality of the service provided by councils in handling applications. The TAG recommendation to remit a portion of the fees they would otherwise charge when councils fail to meet the statutory deadlines provides an incentive to meet processing times. There is always a balance to be struck in these matters, but clearly there is a need for councils to be encouraged to be less risk averse while at the same time fulfilling their statutory obligations. Councils should consider what further incentives could be put in place to enhance their delivery of their responsibilities.
We are mindful that the lack of consistently good performance across the sector reflects in part the different capabilities of those involved. This can be addressed in part through structural reforms which go beyond our current brief, but there are also smarter ways for local authorities to collaborate, to share resources and to learn from each other’s experiences.
The training of accredited decision makers is one way that has led to improvements in practice, and the Ministry, Local Government New Zealand and the New Zealand Planning Institure are to be congratulated for their efforts in this regard. We consider that there is much that could be done to recognise and foster good performance and outcomes through similar programmes developed for other practitioners.
A more conscious and concerted effort to effectively communicate RMA performance might also help to better understand RMA processes and the effects that poor performance has on people, the economy, and environment. The Ministry reports biennially in a quantitative way on local government performance, and we have benefited from some of this information in our investigation. The Government has also foreshadowed expected improvements in reporting on environmental outcomes. The TAG agrees that more effort in these areas will ensure that RMA practice and processes are proportionate, responsive, and effective.
One of the issues that did emerge in our work was that people, either applicants or submitters, were often frustrated in not knowing to whom to complain about poor performance, or what was considered to be unfair treatment. The idea of an RMA Ombudsman was suggested. We are aware that the Minister, Members of Parliament, the local Mayor, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, and also the Ombudsman all receive from time to time complaints about performance and behaviour. Without wanting to set up yet another bureaucracy, the TAG is of the view that improvements can and should be made in this area. Our proposals to deal with untimely performance will only go so far. Councils could also adopt ‘Customer Service Charters’ which clearly establish how people can address behaviour or performance issues.
The process of writing plans ought, as far as practicable, to be a consensus-building process. Collaborative governance processes are beginning to be used to develop council policies, with the Canterbury Strategic Water Study being a high-profile current example. There is promising evidence of the effectiveness of these processes in several overseas countries. However, we are aware that in New Zealand, the institutional structures and adversarial traditions surrounding resource management create disincentives for groups to participate seriously in collaborative governance efforts. Phase 2 of the current reform provides an important opportunity to consider how current structures and processes could be reformed to create a more positive environment for collaborative governance.