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Dr Muriel Newman

Irony in Northland By-election Result

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ToiletsThe Northland by-election is a significant win for Winston Peters. If he can hold the seat at the next election, it could become the foundation of a more secure future for his New Zealand First Party.

In the short-term it takes away from National the luxury of being able to pass legislation without having to kowtow to Peter Dunne and the Maori Party, who will no doubt be considering how to leverage their new-found importance.

Initially, it was unthinkable that National could lose the Northland seat. It was as true-blue as electorates get. But lose it they did and reasons are not hard to find.

Essentially, voters believed they had been taken for granted. While the government’s focus, for reasons that are quite understandable, has been on Christchurch and Auckland, people living in Northland and many other provincial areas have been feeling neglected and ignored. The long term impact of poor roading and limited economic growth opportunities not only generates discontent, but it also creates deep pockets of deprivation and hopelessness.

That’s why there have been calls over the years for the government to consider re-establishing special economic zones in depressed areas like Northland, where inducements, such as export incentives and tax holidays, could be offered to attract business investment, jobs and growth.

Such a scheme was certainly a factor in the success of a northland-based saw-blade company once owned by Richard Izard. Established in 1980 in the township of Wellsford, with the help of the state incentives that were available at the time, the company grew to become the largest producer of tungsten carbide-tipped saw-blades for the home-handyman market in the world. When it was sold to Irwin International in 1991, the company employed 200 locals and had a turnover of $50 million. At its peak over 500 people worked at the factory, and tens of millions of dollars a year were pumped into the local economy.

Last year the chief economist of the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, Shamubeel Eaqub, coined the term “zombie towns” to describe provincial townships with aging infrastructure and aging populations. The by-election result should surely compel National to consider more carefully the plight of such struggling communities in regions like Northland, to determine what more can be done to help revitalise them.

To their credit, National has already identified that one of the key barriers to progress and development in many parts of the country is the Resource Management Act (RMA). This is certainly the case in Northland, which is rich in natural resources but poor in economic activity and jobs. But ironically for the people of Northland, by electing Winston Peters they may well have blocked the RMA reforms that are required to improve access to such resources.

The RMA is one of those Acts of Parliament that most people have little contact with. They are the lucky ones.

It’s the property owners and business people with initiatives that come into contact with the Act. Most come to dislike it intensely because they encounter first hand the extortionate demands of ‘affected parties’, the manipulation by activists, the huge costs extracted by the RMA industry, and the barriers put up by consenting authorities.

As a result, consents will often take years to go through the process – council hearings, the Environment Court, the High Court, the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court, all costing applicants such vast sums of money, that in the end many are forced to abandon their project altogether.

This is what happened to the coal mining company Bathurst Resources, when they applied for resource consents to open up coal fields on the West Coast’s Denniston Plateau – an area that has been mined for over 100 years. The community welcomed their proposal and it was approved by the Buller District Council in 2011. However, within a month environmental groups appealed the decision to the Environment Court claiming the mine would harm biodiversity, damage ecologically sensitive land, and exacerbate climate change. Every finding in favour of Bathurst resulted in further appeals to the High Court, the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court.

It took two years of court battles before the company finally gained their required consents, but by then the price of coal had collapsed to the point where the project was no longer viable. Bathurst had spent more than $15 million dollars obtaining consents for the new mine – not to mention the huge cost of delay. They had planned to invest $250 million into the region, creating 225 jobs, but it was all destroyed by environmentalists using the RMA.

As a result of the Northland by-election, National no longer has the numbers in Parliament to ensure the RMA gives the same weight to economic development as it does to protecting the environment. Neither United Future nor the Maori Party will support this change. Exactly where Mr Peters stands on this matter is yet to be established.

However, New Zealand First’s primary industries spokesman Richard Prosser has indicated that he may support RMA reform. In December, he criticised a $16,875 fine by the Environment Court against farmer Bas Nelis for the unlawful use of land and disturbing a riverbed, after dirt fell into a stream, while he was clearing a gully with a digger ready for replanting with natives.

Mr Prosser called the fine a ‘mad council decision’, and said, “After spending tens of thousands of dollars to improve environmental outcomes by replacing pest plants with natives, Mr Nelis was arbitrarily prosecuted under the Resource Management Act, which common sense suggests, is clearly being misused. To the average person, having to seek permission to clear noxious weeds and pest plants on your own land seems insane, but that’s how pedantic and misguided things have become under this government.”

Given that Mr Prosser clearly blames the government for the draconian state of the RMA, New Zealand First may be more willing to support reform than National thinks – but then maybe not … and that’s the problem with dealing with Winston Peters.

However, as the new Member for Northland, Mr Peters will have recognised that the region has been suffering for years from a lack of industry and development – some of which has been caused by the RMA.

Take the case of Kawakawa, a small northland community riddled by unemployment but well known for its Hundertwasser toilets and a train that runs down middle of the main street. The township is located on what used to be some of the world’s finest quality coalfields. Under the poor farmland, huge mineral wealth might still exist, but if anyone was to suggest that it should be extracted to provide wealth, jobs and hope for the region, the environmentalists, armed with their most effective weapon, the RMA, would block development.

And if the Bathurst example wasn’t enough to dissuade anyone from even considering a mining project, remember the fiasco over Powelliphanta Augustus? When Solid Energy wanted to expand their Stockton mining operation near Westport in 2005, environmental groups opposed their plan claiming a population of some 500 rare snails would face extinction if it went ahead. Solid Energy eventually won the right to mine – on the condition that the snails were moved to a new habitat.

It turned out that the snails were not as threatened as the environmentalists had made out, with almost 6,000 collected. While over 4,000 were released into new habitats, the Department of Conservation, which was overseeing the whole operation, managed to freeze to death around 800, which they had kept in semi hibernation in a cool room. Altogether almost two years of delays cost the company $25 million in lost earnings and $10 million in collecting, housing and creating new sanctuaries for the so-called endangered snails – as well as fighting the never-ending stream of legal challenges by environmentalists.

So, as well as balancing economic development with protecting the environment, what else was National proposing to do with the RMA?

In a speech in January, Nick Smith, the responsible Minister, explained that their previous reforms had shortened council processing times, prevented the law from being used for anti-competitive purposes, removed the requirement for property owners to obtain consents to prune backyard trees, and established the Environmental Protection Authority to deal with nationally significant consents. If that agency had been around in the nineties during the construction of the Orewa to Puhoi motorway extension, it would have undoubtedly prevented years of delay due to the concerns raised by environmentalists over mudfish habitats and other such matters. Indeed, the whole northern motorway project would probably have been completed years ago, providing much needed benefits to the Northland region.

Dr Smith quoted Treasury research which not only showed that New Zealand ranked at the bottom of the OECD when it comes to the administrative burden of the RMA, but it blamed the Act for adding around $15,000 to the cost of a section and $30,000 to the cost of an apartment. Over the past decade, the delays, uncertainty and costs associated with the RMA have been estimated to have “reduced housing supply by 40,000 homes and added $30 billion in cost”.

He then outlined a further ten changes that National is proposing to include in the Act: significant natural hazards; urban planning; affordable housing; infrastructure; property rights; national planning templates; faster plan development; encouraging collaboration rather than litigation; national regulations; greater use of the internet.

However, the real question is whether further tinkering will be enough to overcome the massive problems caused by the RMA.

With that in mind, a growing number of people are now thinking that the best way forward could be to replace the Act altogether.

One of those is Dr Phil McDermott, a consultant in development planning for over 30 years and a former Professor of Resource and Environmental Planning at Massey University. Dr McDermott has provided an outline of how he thinks the RMA could be replaced:

“Having worked extensively under both the Town and Country Planning Act and the Resource Management Act, I believe that it is time to start over, to separate environmental guardianship from responsibilities for development”.

He sees the potential for regional councils to be transformed into “a national environmental agency absorbing the Ministry for the Environment and the current Environmental Protection Authority.  It could also absorb the consenting responsibilities of the Department of Conservation.”

Under his plan, district and city councils would “focus on ensuring adequate land and infrastructure for development in an economically viable and fiscally prudent manner, providing public services and amenities, and maintaining the quality of the built environment.”

More details can be found in a summary version of Resource Management for the 21st Century and the full paper on our NZCPR.com website.

While there are no doubt a multitude of ideas about how best to move resource planning forward to benefit the country – including the use of council case managers as advocates to guide applicants through the regulatory process and gain the cooperation of government agencies – at the heart of this matter is a realisation that holding back progress is not in the country’s best interest. Yes, we must be careful to minimise the impact of development on the environment, but we must also recognise that New Zealand families need economic growth and jobs if they are to thrive and prosper.

The irony is that as a result of the Northland by-election, the fate of the RMA is now in the hands of Mr Peters. Does he truly care about the long-term well-being of Northlanders, or is he too going to deliver more show than substance for his constituents – some new bridges and a bit of tar seal, when what they really need are jobs.


Do you agree with National that economic development and protecting the environment should be given equal weight in the RMA?

*Poll comments are posted below.


*All NZCPR poll results can be seen in the Archive.


Click to view x 120


Environment protection is not a cost. Forests, wetlands, biodiversity, CO2 absorption/sequestration, tourism potential. The critique of the Bathurst Denniston Plateau mine was so partial as to be meaningless. And if Bathusrt had gone ahead as iniitally proposed there would have been local devastation, and the Company would still have gone into liquidation as the price of coal has fallen so low. No remedial action from them either. Rochelle
Environmental issues should definitely be a factor in any development projects but not given such priority as to destroy entrepreneurs’ initiative. Mitch
Scrap the R M A and apply some logic and judge each case on its benefits and environmental impact. Ken
Scrap the RMA and replace it with something that works and agreeable to all. Clark
There should be a balance. David
New Zealand needs to go FORWARD, not backward! Elsie
Simple. The two are unrelated. Denis
A stake should be driven through the heart of the RMA. New Zealand was built without it. I’ve often wondered if the idea of the RMA was conceived out of the U.N. – driven AGENDA 21 and its “sustainable development” programmes. AGENDA 21 is forty chapters of how to enslave what’s left of the Western world with fascistic regulations and controls through local councils or soviets as they were known in yesterday’s Russia. We are headed that way so I would strongly advise doing some research on the subject. Don
Yes balance. John
Yes for sure. James
** I would argue that economic development deserves to be given greater weight than the environment, which with assured poignant controls, tends to look after itself!! Bruce
Yes. Pragmatically, you need to encourage economic growth or be prepared to become a second or third world country. We are (currently) a wealthy nation and everyone enjoys this. Our wealth arises, in the main, from our ability to grow grass and to successfully convert this into dairy, wool, beef and lamb. So, to all you greenies who want us walking everywhere, eating raw food and living in grass huts, pull your heads out of your ars*s! If you like your electric light, your internet, your cellular ‘phone and your hot meals, then be pragmatic: we might need to dam a river or harness tidal energy to let you keep those frivolous extras. Yes, the RMA needs balance. The needs of our environment and the needs of our people must both be part of the RMA. Otherwise it’s into the dark-green age we go. And, while they are at it, get rid of all the racist moari pandering so everyone benefits, not just a few bludging racist moaris. Mark
Yes, because a balance is imperative. Barry
Were the RMA in place in the 100 years after 1840, consider for a moment how few railways, ports, roads, houses, factories, farms, schools, hospitals etc would be built. Bruce
Lets watch Winston Turn the North around with full employment, & see if he will get his Mates to pay tax & Rates that some do not now pay, RMA should be a Balance between the enviroment & Business growth, & that is not happening at present. Geoff
Most certainly. Jim
Isn’t it a disaster that blind bureaucracy can enact such money and time wasting hurdles to progress and achievement, which prevent the development of new homes, industries, roads and employment? When will common sense prevail? Chris
Trying to make the RMA into something it wasn’t designed to be is futile.it should be removed and replaced with something which corrects the anomalies which have become apparent through the frivolous use of RMA . Tinkering with it will only lead to further attempts to make it what it really isn’t, a tool to help us balance the need for progress with a responsible attitude. Mike
Get rid of the whole thing. Richard
Absolutely! Ken
Provided we protect any long term prospects! Theodorus
Way to go! Jim
National had better smarten up their act. John
Reduce the power of the luddite environmentalists Coalis good! John
The dickying that has been going on has gone on for far too long. The need to make changes is getting more urgent by the hour. Wally
Naturally. David
At this point in time, equal weight is probably the best we can hope for. The sad reality is, environmental issues have been hijacked by poorly educated extremists, who believe man is to blame when the wind blows at an above average speed. Our economy must return to a productive base. Currently beurocrats have created employment that produces nothing, and styfuls real productive industries. Compliance seems to be the only growth industry in this country, & this is starting to prove to be totally unsustainable. We should be the wealthiest country in the world, with the bountiful food, mineral deposits & scenic wonders that we are blessed with. Instead, we have idiot do-gooders, who usualy live in an environment totaly unrelated to the real world, insisting that no modern technollogy should be used to overcome problems that may arise if employment is being created. eg. scrubbers for chimney emmissions etc. We can only hope that NZ First has the sense to vote for reality, before the greedy seperatist Maori Party insist on even more handouts in exchange for support for the current government.. Allan
If I wanted to return in the Stone Age, I would vote for the Greens, support Maori separatism, continue with the restricting RMA. I was Project Manager on the establishment of a new Polyurethane reclamation bonding plant. The RMA added some $60,000 to a $1.5m project. The additional cost did nothing to provide for the maintenance or improvement of the environment, but the expenditure occurred because an Environmental Officer thought there might be a problem. Whilst I do not believe that development should be permitted to proceed without careful examination, protection of the environment to a degree that affords zero risk irrespective of delays and add-on costs incurred is neither sensible or efficient. Common-sense and reason must be the guiding principle within the act that gives equal standing to economic advancement as well as maintenance of the environment. Michael
I have yet to see an application to a Resource Consent where the opposition on environmental grounds is not motivated by financial or commercial interests. The success of which is dependent on those interests getting environmental groups harnessed to their cause.. The most notorious recent example was a small group of commercial interest in Te Anau harnessing environmental oppostion to the monorail proposal that would have run through less than 20 km conservation land under strict conditions to be overseen by the Dept, defeated. The same commercial interests support the Haast Hollyford road through 100km of National Park. The RMA at present is based on the lie that the elephant is not in the room. The sooner that is changed the sooner we can have an honest debate. Mervyn
Cannot happen soon enough. Terry
We need economic development and protection of the environment but the pros and cons of each case needs to be considered individually. Peter
In fact I would give property holders almost total freedom to do what they will with their properties within a framework of basic common sense and with regard to their neighbours and the general character of the area they live in. Building styles and ages should not be of concern to anyone but the owners. People sort themselves out when left to their own devices. For example: if a commercial building is rented out to tenants, then between the building owner and the tenants their will be agreement and if agreement cannot be reached satisfactorily, then the tenant can go find somewhere else to rent and owner can find another tenant. Likewise with residential. Prior to renting, both tenant and owner need to do their own due diligence before committing to any contractual arrangement. Dianna
We have a duty to protect endangered species and our natural environment and there are no commercial or economic benefits immediately apparent – however, our tourism industry makes billions of dollars every year with none of that income being invested in conservation. Carole
Politicians are identified as Mavis `s from “Open All Hours” fiddle while NZ goes backwards while racism flourishes. Robert
But not necessarily under the Resource Management Act. Barry
Better still (oh, if only it were possible) dump this miss-designed Act for a replacement one that does what is really needed. Rob
The challenge is less the RMA than the way it is (mis) used by Councils – largely I suspect to preserve jobs, feed ideologies and placate activists. Read the RMA and say where it blocks anything! John
Absolutely. This Act at present gives unlimited power to all Councils to delay any projects for years and it is a Godsend to any Environmentalist to slow done or stop any business or project that may provide employment any where in the country. Colin
In Urban and Transport corridors and business zones, then Devopement should be more highly rated. In Areas and /or Zones of environmental significance the opposite should apply. in Farming and rural areas, an equal weighting can apply, but in general terms, common sense should prevail, perhaps litigants should be posting a bond before they can challenge a ruling in Court, to cover the costs of the development defence. Terry
Coal is still the back up power generator. Watch out when electric cars come on stream and need charging at nighttime. Leigh
At present we are running this country with one hand behind our backs. Willy
Balance in all matters social and economic is essential. It is not the law so much as the interpretation and arbitration processes that we fall down compared to others. Sometimes on mining projects some reasonable delay and rethink may actually help the developers and the country. History shows that is the case. Graham
A balance must be struck that gives an agreed measure of protection to the environment whilst allowing for economic growth. Peter
The common good should be the oweriding decider in any negotiations in regard to the RMA. Dennis
The present RMA laws are strangling this country! Fraser
RMA is another gravy train for councils and legals . economic development creates employment to those seeking work. Bruce
But always with the knowledge that it is not for selfish or racial reasons. Bill
It is very obvious that the current RMA is bureaucracy gone mad with the cost as the sky as the limit. This legislation and its interpretation must have a complete overhaul. Brian
The RMA as it is at present is stifling development of this country. Brian
I think its is a no brainer! Common sense. The enviromentalists do not seem to understand economics. Sandra
Making those who use the rma pay their own way. Objecting and than use my money is flying a false flag. It should be classed as fraud. Johan
Economic development should within reason, be the priority, as without economic stability, no environmental situation will ever be remedied. Graeme
Without an environment which sustains us, economics is irrelevant. Piet
I don’t know enough about the RMA to have an informed opinion. Isabel
All the ‘mineral’ resources you talk about Muriel are Coal, coal, coal. Global warming is with us and we do not need to add new sources of CO2 pollution. We have the worst plan in the world for preventing this. Huria
We are all environmentalists now. The work of eco-lobbists is, by and large, finished. It is time to look to a future where less red tape strangles the economy and harms the environment in the process. Jo
Time to get real. The protection of the environment is LESS important than homes that are affordable so we can better raise our families and find good employment opportunities. Ron
It just depends how that economic development is undertaken, as the population will continue to grow in numbers whether we like it or not. E.g. rather than destroy native land as cities grow out why not intensify existing built up areas?? David
Of course, common sense. Eric
Absolutely. We need to balance now with the future. Both are important. But, even for pure economic reasons, it would be crazy to destroy what makes NZ special for a quick buck. Jay
I actually believe that economic development should be given more weight than the protection of the environment as in open cast mining which is safer and with a responsible approach more economically efficient and with appropriate documentation to ensure repair of the damage after the operation is complete it’s environmentally sound as well. Sharon
The basic problem is that the RMA has been hijacked. Sounds a bit like the Treaty, eh. Alan
The RMA is the only protection against local or central govt giving away public sea space, i.e. bays and anchorages, to their mates for marine farms, all done behind closed doors. Giving away treasured public space to private interests is a great way to curry favour with the Friends of the Party. Crony capitalism. Brian
The RMA has been high jacked by the lunatic lunatic fringe of environmentalism. David
Better still get rid of the entire act. Allan
The RMA is a farce and must be changed immediately so that progress can be made on Regional Development rather than be held up by mischievous litigation by various groups who really are hypocrites. No person or group should be allowed to make submissions about any project unless they are DIRECTLY involved. i.e. You should NOT be allowed to protest a project in Northland if you live in Southland. Andrew
Currently economic benefit has little weight at all. David
This country can’t live on its beautiful environment alone; we must sensibly exploit our natural resources to foster economic development. Graham
Yes – as a minimum. I favour urgent replacement of the RMA with legislation that does not allow for the stifling of growth and development by various rag-tag interest groups. The real cost to NZ of this absurd Act is scandalous. John
You fail to mention the retention and actual strengthening of Iwi rights to veto any developments in the proposed changes put forward by National. http://www.mfe.govt.nz/sites/default/files/improving-our-resource-management-system-discussion-document.pdf Bill
Protecting the environment should always rank higher than development as the environment is not replaceable. Dave
Self evident. Lance
And there should be penalty for environmentalists who falsify or make up, or present poor evidence, or information for their case, such as the snails. I know of another one where they tried to get a huge hunk of a high country farm on the basis that is had a raer plant growing there. turned out that MoW nurseries all over the country had the plant, and it was planting alongside the motorways! How much other false pseudo scince has been presented over the years in RMA hearings? Applicants just don’t have the time or resources to present counter science, so the environmentalists win, Council staff are not competent to challenge them. Hone
The negative impact of the environmental lobby is something of a diversion. Real concerns are too often exploited by the professionals who predate on the process. The legions of lawyers and ‘engineers’ who feed at this trough will be at least as hard to budge as the greenies. Geoffrey
The primary focus from a national point of view needs to economic development. We must accept that we are a poor little country and we need to create wealth and jobs for all. The environmental activists are often paid by tax payer funded NGO’s. Peter
Economic development comes fist with appropriate consideration given to environmental protection. Judith
At the very least. I am inclined to the belief that economic considerations are frequently of greater importance than environmental considerations. Kerry
The RMA should have been scrapped years ago when it was first understood that the law gives excessive power to planners, bureaucrats, and environmentalists. Peter
Reforming the Act will never work. It’s like trying to patch up a leaky boat. Joe
We need assurances that there will be a balance between environmental protection and development, that one does not kill off the other. Fran
Environmentalists have captured the RMA. It is time there was some balance – but most council staff will need to be replaced before that can be achieved. Tim
The RMA was meant to facilitate progress, not hold the country back. The balance is all wrong. Christopher
The RMA should have been replaced years ago but no government has had the courage to stand up to the environmentalists. If National has any spine they will replace it. Dr McDermott seems to have some good ideas – they should put together a group of such people and task them with coming up with a better alternative. John