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The RMA requires the balancing of a number of factors and a range of impacts.

The current legislative framework for defining and achieving environmental outcomes in New Zealand is an integrated one that forces the balancing of multiple outcomes. That requirement means that decisions must be based on greater information and incorporate more explicit trade-offs than might otherwise occur.

The recent changes to the RMA recognise some of these issues. Changes have included emphasis on increasing the capability of local government, providing more options for central government involvement, and committing to giving more guidance on policies. However, the changes do not directly address questions such as how conflicts between national and local interests should be resolved, or whether changes are required in when and how central government becomes involved. This may reflect a deliberate decision not to question the underlying manner in which the design of the RMA constrains what central government can do.

Delegated principle-based decisions limit central control.

The RMA is designed on the presumption that decisions should balance multiple outcomes, be as integrated as possible, be made at the local level wherever possible and not be ad-hoc. It inherently and deliberately limits the nature of national guidance or control. This approach may not be practical for resource issues with non-local impacts, for example aspects of climate change policy or oceans policy. The limit on guidance reduces the incentive for its preparation. However, the existence of that limit and the rationale for it are not widely understood. This can result in frustration locally when guidance does not materialise and centrally when it cannot achieve what is desired.

Moving forward, the current reforms should reduce some of the problems that have limited central guidance, for example cumbersome procedures or the inability to require joint council processes. The reforms will not change the fundamental constraints on central government’s role. They will give central government some additional options, and provide for increased capacity building in central and local government as well as wider education on the RMA, but not alter the limits on what guidance can achieve.

This leaves three paths open. One is to maintain the status quo legislatively and on central government involvement. This risks undermining the credibility of the current regime through increased frustration at the lack of guidance and foregoing any opportunities that may well exist for better guidance within the existing limits.

A second path is to replace the Act with a regime that provides for more direct intervention. This would be contrary to Government commitments to local decision-making and it would be a radical change of approach. It could have been put in place in 1991 if desired. Doing so now would require another decade of expensive adjustment and change without any guarantees of improved outcomes overall. Replacing the Act should be deferred until clearly necessary as it is an option that can be taken up in future.

The third path is to move ahead, identify what guidance can usefully be provided and actually do so. Such an approach requires undertaking the basic debates necessary to define strictly what the guidance is seeking to achieve, and then rigorously testing whether those outcomes can and should be addressed at a national level. This may limit guidance primarily to broad policy statements of the national interest and technical standards (backed up by information provision), since central government would probably be reluctant to express firm preferences on specific outcomes that could be set aside by councils, but that is presumably better than no guidance at all.

Once its limits are recognised, central guidance in conjunction with capacity-building remains a key component in the overall concept of the RMA.

This third path recognises that the RMA restricts the nature of central government guidance for valid reasons, such as the difficulty of prescribing in advance how multiple outcomes should be balanced in particular cases. If central government wishes to prescribe specific outcomes in specific circumstances, the current RMA is probably not the Act it wants.

However, the RMA represents a major investment by the Government, business and the community. The conflicts that are now highlighted after more than a decade of its application are fundamental issues for society rather than by-products of the Act itself. Getting the right solutions to make the RMA work effectively will be far more important than doing so quickly. Making another effort to make this system work effectively, as signalled by the recent review, appears preferable to the cost of what may be unnecessary, and would certainly be major, changes to a system now so embedded in economic and social frameworks.

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