Three Ways the RMA Fails to Protect the Environment

Geoff SimmonsEnvironment5 Comments

We often hear about the impact of the Resource Management Act (RMA) on the economy, but what about its impact on the environment? A new report from the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) answers this question, and the results aren’t pretty.

The short answer is that RMA is only partly successfully at achieving its environmental goals, and as a result the environment has declined since the Act was implemented 1991. In theory it should do a reasonable job, but currently it is being poorly implemented. Future RMA reform needs go beyond fiddling with the Act and engage with the systemic issues raised in this report.

What the RMA does well

The RMA was passed in 1991, and was groundbreaking in its time. For the first time (almost anywhere in the world) it brought together all legislation and regulation governing development into one place. It has been effective at managing ‘point’ sources of pollution, (where one polluter has a big impact on air or water quality), such as sewage plants and factories. And it has provided developers with the ability to offset unavoidable damage by promising to improve the environment elsewhere.

While the RMA has made some improvements in the way we manage our environment, this report shows up several shortcomings, particularly in the way it is implemented. The report found 10 issues, but we’ve grouped together the findings of the EDS report into three basic failings, which apply across both national and local government.

1. Lack of Oversight, Strategy and National Direction

As mentioned, the RMA generally does a good job of dealing with ‘point’ sources of pollution, but it falls down with cumulative impacts. This is where lots of small actions can add up to having a massive negative impact on the environment. Each of these small actions may seen as individually sensible or having a minor impact, but in total they can add up to something serious. There are many examples of this that we can see in our environment today including:

  • the increase in intensive farming (such as dairy farming) leading to the build up of nitrogen in our fresh water, contributing to algal blooms;
  • deforestation and intensive land use (including building housing) leading to the build up of sediment our waterways and oceans;
  • the progressive loss of crucial habitat like wetlands, dunes or lowland forests;
  • environments like the ocean where many different human activities are taking place (fishing, acidification, climate change, sedimentation, drilling, shipping) that when put together can have a large impact on the environment.

This is where more strategy and oversight is needed, such as through National Policy Statements. There could also be greater centralized thought put into developing the systems and tools required to manage issues such as water quality, rather than letting each council reinvent the wheel.

2. Local Capture and Capacity to Implement

There are also big failures in implementing the RMA at a local level. In some cases democracy appears to be under threat at a local level, with Councils being captured by vested interests. We have seen this most clearly with the issue of declining water quality, particularly in the case of Horizons Council.

EDS also points out that many smaller Councils don’t have the capacity to manage the complex issues thrown up by the RMA. Part of the answer is resourcing Councils properly so that they have the skills and information to take care of these issues. This is one use that resource rentals for example on fresh water or the use of ocean space could be put to.

3. Lack of Monitoring, Evidence and Evaluation

Like many areas of New Zealand policy, the RMA is a major experiment that has not been evaluated, and we don’t gather evidence about its effectiveness. In fact we don’t even check if the agreements made through the consent process are implemented. More often than not, they aren’t. We need to up our investment in monitoring environmental impacts, and tie that to the performance of both the legislation and those agents that implement it.

Ultimately this sort of information is what should be informing any reform of the RMA. What the information in this report tells us is that the problem isn’t simply the law, the way the law is implemented is at least as important. Instead the Government is fixated on tinkering with the legislation, particularly to fix the problem of NIMBYs preventing development. We seem to have lost sight of what the RMA was initially created to do; the idea that we want development to offer all of us true progress, that it is possible to manage resources in a way that would provide a win/win for the environment and our economy.

Three Ways the RMA Fails to Protect the Environment was last modified: September 30th, 2016 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.

5 Comments on “Three Ways the RMA Fails to Protect the Environment”

  1. The research, conducted by EDS Senior Policy Analyst Dr Marie Brown must be considered by our Government. Our Northland Regional Council has released proposed policy that allows dairy cattle to pollute un-fenced on waterways out to 2025 and beef cattle essentially has no date at all to be fenced. We have current RMA but it is not applied – This report to NRC that follows is a “permitted activity” as far as they are concerned – ERP Report #366 – 29.09.2016


    Further to my Hotline Call to NRC yesterday 29th September at 12.29 am – I confirm the following.

    Cattle were sighted yesterday grazing the Wairua Power Station canal banks and fouling the banks and waterway to the extreme. The smell was very offensive and urine and excrement was sliding into the canal waters. Some 12 head of mature beef cattle were on the canal banks – There was no hot wire in place ie “no stock exclusion fencing”.
    Locals say that they have been in here for the past 3 weeks.
    The owner arrived as I was speaking to NRC. He owns a house and farm on the other side of Tokiri Road some 150 metres away from the canal entrance gate.
    I later spoke with the owner when he engaged with me – I told him this was unacceptable and two prior reports have been sent to NRC in this regard. He attitude was that he was doing everyone a favor and had little concern for his actions. He moved the cattle out to the greater recreation area to further foul that.
    The owner is ??? – He owns the farm on the other side of the road – locals have complained to him prior but to no avail.
    Previous reports have been sent to NRC – Report #006 – 18.09.2011 and Report #041 – 14.01.2014 – on the same location and same farmer concerned I believe.
    All of this foul water and sediment flows on down to smother the Kaipara Harbour that is deemed to be in “crisis” as per NRC Councillor statement 2012
    What is disturbing is that NRC now proposes that this scene in the photo provided – to be a “permitted activity” within the new policy.

    This is an offence to the RMA and ERP-A request to NRC that an abatement be served to the the farmer ???? Tokiri Road, Titoki, Whangarei.
    North Power should be notified that this is a recreation area that has been used for 100 years and they need to take responsibility for such environmental events also.
    This is a place of gathering mahinga kai – water cress and tuna. it is also the water supply direct to the Titoki village. This is a health hazard to the extreme.

    * Please can I have prompt advice from NRC as to the action taken – a more comprehensive report will follow.

    naku noa

    Millan Ruka

    Environment River Patrol – Aotearoa

    1. And all this in clean, green N Z. What a farce. This farmer should have the cattle confiscated.

  2. I entirely agree, the cumulative effect is never considered and and if your neighbour is f…king the environment, you can too, based on simple precedent. Councils either don’t ahve the will, stomach or financial wherewithall to effectively challenge unsustainable development. Sustainable development has to have rules that can be led nationally.

  3. The woeful performance of the Ministry for the Environment needs more scrutiny. This is one area of poor implementation and monitoring that has shown up shortcomings in the RMA. In the year 2001, there was a Forest and Bird Regional (Council) meeting held at Flock House near Bulls. One of the topics was the RMA and how it performed ten years on. A guest speaker was Lyndsay Gow from the Ministry for the Environment. He was then a senior policy manager. I raised what I felt to be an entirely valid question, having spent quite some time analysing the bill as it then was when I worked for the Department of Conservation. One of the sections enacted was that National Policy Statements were to be prepared within ten years of the bill’s enactment (a quite reasonable timeframe I would have thought). As at 2001, only DoC’s coastal policy statement had been implemented. When I raised these concerns and put Gow on the spot, his answer was to agree that no other national policy statements had been implemented and that there was no need for them because they could be developed at a regional level. There was general dismay at this answer because they were meant to be NATIONAL policy statements and were intended to guide regional councils in implementing their environmental policies. The agency required to undertake the development of national policy statements (other then for the coastal environment) was MfE. Their poor performance has been par for the course for them and they choose to pass the buck rather than getting on with the job the legislation compels them to do. Here in 2016, we still have only DoC’s national coastal policy, although the national fresh water policy is finally being developed. Regional councils have long lamented their inability to achieve consistent policy on environmental matters because of MfE’s poor performance and inability to prepare national policy statements. Why MfE pushed against preparing these legislatively mandated policies is inexplicable, as has the fact they MfE senior staff and the Secretary for the Environment have never been held to account.

  4. Will the Govt seriously study the shortfalls in the RMA. and make informed and positive changes that benefit native habitats and species

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