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A key choice in regulation is whether to centralise or delegate decisions

New Zealand’s Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) integrates environmental management issues and local planning. The regime has moved away from a prescriptive approach to one based on balancing multiple outcomes, and delegates that balancing process to local government. Central government sets the legislative framework and can provide guidance, such as policies, standards and information. However, there has been only one national policy statement (NPS), legislatively prescribed on coastal policy. Until 2004 there were no national environmental standards (NESs).

New Zealand has delegated many environmental decisions to councils but given them limited help.

This leaves open why guidance has not been provided, and whether this can change without fundamental alterations to the regime. These questions are particularly topical given that a recent review of the RMA has proposed increased guidance and an effort to improve local government capability, but does not consider fundamental alterations necessary. Implementation issues aside, the Act’s design, by making national policy statements (NPSs) primarily another policy input rather than a binding rule, inherently limits their impact and therefore the willingness of central government to commit resources to them. Therefore public expectations of large volumes of guidance may have been unrealistic.

The best way to move forward is to accept the design constraints embedded in the RMA and work within them.  The current proposed legislative changes will help.

Given central government cannot currently require specific outcomes other than standards on quite narrow issues, its options are firstly to accept the status quo, and secondly to change to a new regime that allows for central direction. This second option is risky, expensive and contrary to commitments to local decisions. There is a third option to provide guidance with acknowledged limits, backed up with capacity building. This is effectively the approach of the Government’s current proposals. The third option is the most attractive, and key to its success is a realistic appreciation by public and private stakeholders of both the extent and limits of central government’s scope to act.

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