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Frank Newman

Dump the RMA

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If the government wants to get New Zealand working it should get rid of the Resource Management Act (RMA). Even one of its architects, Geoffrey Palmer, has said it’s broken. It is and has been for quite some time, which is why it’s so frustrating that the problem has been allowed to persist for so long, more so because National’s tinkering during its last term made it worse, not better.

The RMA started out with great intentions. It was sold to the public on the basis that it was “enabling”. Any scheme imaginable could be proposed and proceed providing its effects were no more than minor or could be managed in such a way to be no more than minor. That was seen as a breath of fresh air in juxtaposition to the prescriptive Town and Country planning rules that preceded it.

What was promised some 20+ years ago by Geoffrey Palmer (Labour) prior to the 1990 election and then by Simon Upton following National’s victory and what has eventuated is at opposite poles.

The implementation of the RMA falls upon local authorities and requires a high degree of discretion. In hindsight giving the power of discretion to local bodies was never going to work out well for those who rely on the marketplace to earn a living, property developers for example. Planning staff and developers are chalk and cheese, and I suggest that most planners view developers through the same tainted lens that our current government views landlords. I gained that perception while working closely with planners during my time as a councillor and member of the planning committee, which included reviewing staff reports for non-notified consents.

One would have to be visually impaired not to notice that staff were imposing conditions advocated by environmental groups. This manifested itself with staff requiring layers upon layers of reports and expert opinions and seeking further expert opinions until they found one favourable to their own views.

Some if not most of these experts engaged by council staff were similarly inclined in their bias. I recall a case where council staff endorsed the view of a tree expert who opposed the removal of four problem trees from the council’s notable tree register. Only when questioned was it revealed his opposition was because “the Amazon is burning and without trees, the world will die”. It did not seem to matter that the four trees were a common species that were endangering residents and creating a host of other nuisance issues.  His view was that there was a greater good – survival of the planet no less. This kind of “expert” extremism is rife throughout the RMA industry. Rarely does it reveal itself in the text of their reports, but it is embedded in their recommendations.

The problem, of course, is politicians are in charge and they will act according to their own self-interest. The Greens agree the RMA is inadequate, but because it does not go far enough to protect the environment against people! Quite frankly, they are as mad as the Council’s tree expert and believe the destroying the economy to save the planet is a fair exchange.

Although liberating businesses from the RMA is the obvious answer, political self-interest is likely to head the government down a different path. Rather than reform the RMA in a way that benefits business, they are more likely to exempt themselves from its restrictions. This is totally consistent with their view that what they do is for the public benefit and what the private sector does is for personal gain.

That exemption will be the precursor to a number of renewal policy initiatives to be implemented.

The infrastructure strategy has already been announced. It will pick and essentially rebrand the roading projects that National proposed prior to the last election, and add some other projects of dubious merit to appease their coalition partners.

For example, the Greens want to spend $9 billion on a “high-spec” intercity commuter rail network between Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Green Party co-leader James Shaw says the package would “provide meaningful work whilst driving us towards a sustainable, green, zero-carbon future”, and he described it as “transformational infrastructure stimulus package fit for the 21st century that has economic recovery and climate change front and centre”.

What it will provide is a gaping black hole into which taxpayers will pour hundreds of millions of dollars annually to keep afloat. I won’t go into cost specifics, it’s so blatantly obvious. One does not need to look any further than the tortured financial history of KiwiRail to see that. According to the Taxpayers’ Union, KiwiRail has received more than $4 billion in handouts in the last decade or so, and goodness knows what the potential liability will be in the future.

Is there any rail network in a sparsely populated narrow and skinny country like ours that has ever paid its way? Perhaps the Greens can enlighten us if there is. The Greens will probably say that there is a financial cost to an economy where climate change is front and centre, but we already know what a carbon-free economy in the year 2020 is like – we just have to reflect on the economic destruction that has taken place during the Covid-19 lockdown.  

Rail is not an asset – it’s a liability. And it’s not a stimulus package, any more than paying a pick-and-shovel gang to dig holes is. Stimulus money should be spent on work that will facilitate commerce and enhance the economy in the long-term, not destroy it, which is what the Greens are proposing.

A second area will be housing. Don’t be surprised if we see a state house building scheme reminiscent of Michael Savage’s scheme in the 1930s. New Zealand History (Nga korero a ipurangi o Aotearoa) makes this comment. The day was 18 September 1937.

Most of the Labour Cabinet helped the first tenants move into 12 Fife Lane in the Wellington suburb of Miramar. Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage carried a cumbersome dining table through a cheering throng.

David and Mary McGregor had such distinguished movers because their new home was the first to be completed in a new subdivision of state houses. After the opening ceremony, 300 people traipsed through the McGregors’ open home, muddying floors and leaving fingerprints on freshly painted fixtures. They eventually persuaded their guests to leave, but for days afterwards, sightseers peered through the windows.

The first Labour government, elected in 1935, argued that only the state was able to fix the housing shortage. In 1936 it drew up plans to use private enterprise to build 5000 state rental houses across New Zealand. A new Department of Housing Construction oversaw building and the State Advances Department managed the houses. The initiative formed part of a wider plan to reduce unemployment and stimulate the economy.

No doubt the post-COVID-19 version will have Jacinda Ardern and baby Neve handing over the keys to the lucky and smiling recipients of the first Ardern House, complete with a low-interest Kāinga Ora loan. Most of the Labour cabinet will be close at hand and jostling to be in camera shot with the PM. The optics would be beautiful and it would finally bury the KiwiBuild ghost. The likes of Fletchers or a consortium of group housing companies will build warm, well-insulated homes from materials primarily sourced from overseas.

It won’t matter that nothing will be done to address the real problem with housing – the fact that land is twice the price it should be because of RMA red tape and building costs are horrendous because of price gouging by suppliers and tradespeople. The media will not look past the prepared press releases and photo opportunities to question whether this could have been done by the free market without taxpayer money had the problems of the RMA been fixed.

The irony will be that the bold government housing initiative will be fixing a problem that will not exist by the time the first recipient of an Ardern House gets the keys. By then our economy will be such that the immigration inflow will be an outflow to Australia and house prices will be 10-15% lower than they are now, which is predicted by the ANZ Bank. That won’t matter to our politicians, who live in a world where optics are everything. 

Frank Newman served two terms on the Whangarei District Council.