Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Gutting the RMA

The government has released its proposals for "reforming" the Resource Management Act [PDF]. The good news is that its not as bad as it could have been - they have backed away from their original plan to remove the Treaty clause and reduce the definition of "environment" to include only "natural and physical resources", a change which would have removed both amenity values (e.g. peace and quiet, an unimpeded view, clean air) and natural ecosystems (e.g. endangered species) from consideration. The bad news is that their plans to remove community participation and local control over local planning are unchanged.

The key changes are:

  • reducing the requirement for notification, allowing more projects to proceed un-notified. Of course, the public can't object if they never hear about something - but that's the point;
  • increasing filing fees for the Environment Court and allowing the court to demand security for costs. So the law will only protect the rich, not the poor;
  • allowing applicants to claim damages where their consent is delayed by appeals brought or motivated by a trade competitor - which sounds reasonable on the face of it, but it establishes a de facto "right": to a consent, and the process will almost certainly be abused to intimidate and threaten community groups;
  • establishing a priority consenting regime which would see applications heard by boards of inquiry rather than local officials - effectively shutting local communities out of decisions which affect them;
  • allowing applicants to request direct referral to the Environment Court. This violates the separation of powers where discretionary activities are involved. Unelected judges have no business substituting their judgement for that of elected officials directly accountable to the public;
  • allowing applicants to demand that their application be heard by an independent commissioner. The effect of this will be to remove elected officials from decisionmaking, which directly reduces democratic control, oversight and accountability for discretionary decisions;
  • abrogating the Minister of Conservation's guardianship role over the coastal marine area, meaning that the government will not own the coast anymore in any practical sense.
Combined, these changes will mean less democratic control and less accountability. Decisions will be made by faceless bureaucrats in Wellington rather than by people working for local communities according to local concerns. It will mean that you will have less say in what happens in your local community - less say over whether a large developer gets to destroy a local river, pollute the air, erect a building which ruins the landscape, or bury toxic waste in the ground. And when any of those things happen, we will know who to blame for it: the National-led government and Nick Smith.