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Dr Muriel Newman

Councils threaten the Good Life

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For generations of Kiwi families, once the children arrived, so too did the dreams of a house and a bit of land in the country. Five or ten acre lots were ideal – they provided tons of space for the kids, room for a pony, a few steers, some sheep, chooks and a pig, as well as a big veggie garden and an orchard. In addition, of course, the house would have a garage, maybe even a sleep-out, and with luck, one or more sheds for dad.

Sadly, in many parts of the country, this freedom to buy the dream lifestyle has been destroyed by planners who see the countryside not as a locale for Kiwi families, but as a landscape that needs protection from human habitation.

That charge is being driven largely by environmental organisations like the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), which states as its aims, “Our research and policy work focuses on improving the legal and policy framework so that New Zealand can become an exemplar of international environmental best practice.” These worrying words echo the same sort of extremism that has driven Nick Smith to impose onto New Zealand consumers the world’s “most comprehensive” Emissions Trading Scheme.

The EDS then goes on to explain that they work by becoming “directly involved in issues of national importance in order to influence policies and laws at a strategic level.” That’s why most people haven’t heard about this radical activist group. Their modus operandi is to target key policy makers in central and local government, (Environment Minister Nick Smith is said to be significantly under their influence, as are many of the staff and politicians in local government).

Furthermore according to the EDS website, the advice that the EDS gives to community groups and individuals on environmental issues is funded by you, the taxpayer, via the Ministry for the Environment. The EDS accounts don’t reveal how much that is, but one assumes it is part of the $268,000 total referred to as “grants”. One wonders what arrangements there are between EDS and the Ministry for the Environment? How rigorous is the auditing? How appropriate is this spending at a time when all government spending is under review?

This generous funding enables the EDS to have a strong influence on policy development by engaging in “last man standing” litigation. This involves them making submissions to council plans and pursuing their submission through to the appeal process, knowing full well that virtually all of the other submitters will drop by the way-side due to the rapidly rising costs. As a result, the end policy in the planning process is largely shaped by those able to go the full distance: very often only the EDS, the Department of Conservation, and the local council itself. That is a very benign forum for the EDS to negotiate its protectionist policies, such as the replacement of reasonable subdivision rules with the extremely large (20 hectare or 50 acres) minimum lot sizes that are increasingly being imposed by councils in rural and coastal areas.

According to the Taranaki Daily News, the New Plymouth District Council is in the process of increasing their minimum rural allotment size from four hectares to 20, as well as changing the minimum setback from a road from 10 to 30 metres. All of this is being done in order to “protect rural character” by reducing the number of lifestyle blocks in the countryside, even though anecdotal evidence shows that owners of smaller lots are more likely to increase plantings and improve biodiversity to a far greater degree than those on the larger and more expensive blocks.

Empirical realities are, however, of little interest to ideologically driven council employees and lobbyists like the EDS, who believe that people should be forced to live in clustered high density urban environments, rather than being allowed to own a home and a piece of land in country areas within commuting distance of work. They call it “Smart Growth” but in reality it’s just dumb economics. The end result, of course, is a shortage of urban land (economics 101 tells you that once you restrict anything it becomes scare and the value rises), which pushes up the cost of sections in particular and housing in general. This is one of the reasons that house prices have become unaffordable in so many parts of the country.

Given that Council plans are governed by the Resource Management Act (RMA), I asked this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator Owen McShane, the Director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies, for an assessment of whether National’s recent changes to the RMA will address some of these issues.

In his article The Impact of Simplifying and Streamlining Amendments to the RMA, Owen explained that the reforms, which came into force on October 1st last year, were designed to improve the Act and speed up the process, but he warned that sometimes speeding up the process means that bad decisions are simply reached more quickly:

“Over the last couple of months a steady stream of applications for a new town or comprehensive residential developments have been rejected by the Courts. They usually fail because they are not where some ‘Smart Growth strategy’ says they should be, or because the local community does not want any more houses like their own ‘intruding’ into the landscape. These failed applications are always written up as a ‘triumph for the community’. Presumably building trades-people, young families, and the unemployed are not a part of any community. Every thousand houses represents about 5,000 direct jobs and say 35,000 downstream jobs. So that’s 25,000 direct jobs and about 250,000 indirect jobs lost – and the recovery continues to falter. And think of the 15% GST!”

Owen explains that “There is another ‘downstream’ impact on employment. As investors and developers suffer this stream of failures, and have to write off millions of dollars in land and compliance costs and legal fees, they simply give up and withdraw from the market. They know they will lose such Appeals because the Resource Management Act says Landscape is a matter of national importance, while employment and affordable housing do not rate a mention in the hierarchy. And the Environment Minister Nick Smith has promised the Environmental Defence Society this will not be changed in the second round of reforms because there will be no changes to Part 2 of the Act.” To read Owen’s full analysis, please click here

Part of the difficulties with the RMA relate to section 6, which defines matters of “national importance”. These include:

  • (a) the preservation of the natural character of the coastal environment (including the coastal marine area), wetlands, and lakes and rivers and their margins, and the protection of them from inappropriate subdivision, use, and development:
  • (b) the protection of outstanding natural features and landscapes from inappropriate subdivision, use, and development:
  • (c) the protection of areas of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna:
  • (d) the maintenance and enhancement of public access to and along the coastal marine area, lakes, and rivers:
  • (e) the relationship of Maori and their culture and traditions with their ancestral lands, water, sites, waahi tapu, and other taonga:
  • (f) the protection of historic heritage from inappropriate subdivision, use, and development:
  • (g) the protection of recognised customary activities.

In addition to the specific clauses that elevate the requirements of Maori above those of other citizens, the RMA is another Act of Parliament that contains one of those undefined Treaty of Waitangi clauses: “In achieving the purpose of this Act, all persons exercising functions and powers under it, in relation to managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources, shall take into account the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi).”

This focus on Maori in the RMA process is now, however, leading to claims of extortion whereby in many parts of the country applicants applying for resource consents have to get “permission” from local Maori. Many dollars later, a standard “cultural analysis” is submitted along with the application, while local Maori smile as they pocket the money and give thanks to those gullible politicians who enabled them to get onto this particular gravy train.

The way the RMA works at present means that Maori also have extraordinary powers when it comes to claims regarding sites that are of special significance to them in a cultural or historic sense. The problem is that in most local authority districts, these sites are not required to be identified on district plans, so the public are often unaware that there is an issue with a site until they try to do something – or until Maori decide that they want to exercise some authority.

There are numerous cases of local Maori deciding that they want to take back the private land that was sold by their ancestors (without paying for it!). To achieve this they claim that the land contains waahi tapu and archaeological sites, but they do not necessarily have to prove the existence of such sites of significance; it is up to the landowner to prove that the waahi tapu or archaeologically significant sites do not exist! This is, of course, virtually impossible, since there is rarely any evidence to back up such claims, which can often date back 500 or 600 years! The end result is a dramatic drop in the value of the property, which enables those making the claim to pick it up for little more than a waiata.

The RMA was born with good intentions, but has been nurtured by activists. Huge problems remain in its implementation and the public need to be forever vigilant in how it is being manipulated by idealists and vested interest groups who are determined to erode public freedoms and private property rights. In fact, with the law as it stands, the only way to really protect your rights is to take an active interest in the policy making process of your council and have your democratic say on issues as they arise.