A fundamental shake-up of New Zealand’s environmental management law is coming, regardless of who wins this year’s general election.
At least that’s the view of the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), and it aims to help shape the new regime by carrying out its own major review of the current system with Law Foundation help.
The review, New Zealand’s Resource Management Law: the Next Generation, is made possible by $356,000 of Law Foundation funding. The 18-month project will study New Zealand experience and international best practice in environmental management law and make evidence-based recommendations.
EDS Chief Executive Gary Taylor says the Resource Management Act 1991 was world-leading when it took effect 25 years ago, but New Zealand is now a very different place – changing demographics and growth pressures mean that a fundamental rethink is needed.
He predicts that, now that the latest RMA amendments have been enacted, the post-election government will take a back-to-basics look at the current regime. There is likely to be a major reform initiative in 2018, possibly involving a Royal Commission or similar.
“We think the government will review the system, whatever kind of government we have next year. We want to have some properly researched and evidenced ideas to input into that process,” he says.
Among the issues up for debate will be the complexity of current arrangements, the role of local authorities and better collaboration with citizens on environmental decisions.
“One of the outcomes we seek is more simplicity and efficiency in the process. There needs to be less drag, less time consumed. But at the same time, the community has expectations around environmental bottom lines that are easily lost sight of.
“We expect our project will produce a small range of scenarios, different ways of approaching reform. There would then need to be a more detailed working-up of preferred options,” Mr Taylor says.
EDS has a strong track record of research and analysis promoting good environmental governance. The Law Foundation has backed a series of focused EDS think-pieces in recent years, including Vanishing Nature, a 2015 book highlighting the plight of New Zealand’s threatened species.
The well-publicised EDS reports have attracted favourable attention from policy-makers. Mr Taylor says that recommendations for better compliance and enforcement in the latest EDS publication, Last Line of Defence, are being adopted by government agencies.
“Various agencies that were criticised in that report are picking up on the recommendations and starting implementing them. DoC is a case in point – it is picking them all up. Our findings shattered some pre-conceptions, for example, that the regional councils aren’t very good at monitoring compliance and enforcement. We found that they are generally doing well in this area, but that central government is falling short.”
Mr Taylor says the progression of EDS reports have built the foundation for a rethink of the whole system. The RMA review project, launched on 1 July, is by far the largest backed by the Law Foundation.
“It’s great to have the support of an organisation that takes a very progressive view of the world,” Gary Taylor says. “Often, funding will proscribe the kind of outcome that might be sought, but the Law Foundation is completely open-minded: once it has identified a topic of interest and relevance, it’s keen to encourage creative, properly researched and innovative thinking.”