The Resource Management Act Is No Good, but Beware its Replacement

If you were to only listen to the media pundits, the National and Act party spokespeople, and the various heads in the property development sector, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Resource Management Act 1991, or RMA for short, was drafted by Satan himself. At the very least it seems to be universally agreed that the RMA has exceeded its use by date. 

Legislation is designed to achieve objectives, which are generally in accordance with the values and interests of the ruling class. While the stated purposes of the RMA are given as to “promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources” and “enabling people and communities to provide for their social, economic and cultural wellbeing”, the actual values behind its design are less well understood and appreciated. The government at the time believed market forces, rather than public planning processes, should deliver economic and social outcomes. The RMA was designed in accordance with market values, hence its lack of social goals and focus on the effects on the environment. As such, it was designed to enable private sector development, subject to planning processes that were intended to restrict and control the worst effects on the environment.

So what has been the result? A housing crisis, continued urban sprawl, overburdened infrastructure and limited growth in public services to keep pace with a growing population. Why?

The developers and others amongst the ruling class tell us that it is the RMA, all that insidious red tape that is to blame. But is it? In a sense yes, the RMA is a Frankenstein of a document, many parts added and removed and changed by successive governments in an attempt to “fix it”. However, all this fixing has done is increase the complexity of the document and make it less coherent. Even if the RMA was perfectly coherent the complaints of the development industry would not go away.

The truth is that the red tape is just an easy target. Even if the consent process was looser it would not allow houses to appear out of thin air. There are other bottlenecks. Builders are booked out well into next year, unable to keep pace with the demand resulting from the current rate of resource consent approvals. It would not matter if a million houses were approved if there is no one available to build them. 

So how were working-class people housed in the past? How was rapid urbanisation and the need for housing addressed?

Before the turn of the 20th century the main form of working-class housing came in two forms: company accommodation and slums. In the latter, conditions were appalling, breeding grounds for disease and discontent. Even the ruling classes were concerned, if only because of the potential spillover effects on their own health, well-being and profits.

Living conditions for workers in a company town or neighbourhood were largely dependent upon the nature of their employer. For those fortunate enough to have a boss who had some interest in the well-being of their workers, conditions might be quite good. For those less fortunate, it could be an experience akin to feudal serfdom.

It should be noted that private developers existed at this time, but they catered to the wealthier upper and middle classes for whom they could provide more pleasant, more expensive dwellings, and turn a profit, the goal of developers. Developers did not cater to workers, as cheap housing was not profitable.

In the 20th century a solution to the problems of working-class housing was needed. Slums were no longer acceptable; company accommodation was not a reliable solution; and private developers were not suited to the task. The answer was state intervention. In Aotearoa state housing was introduced from the 1930s onwards. State housing varied in quality; some was excellent. The Three Kings state housing neighbourhood, one of the first, was designed by planners influenced by the garden city movement. They looked to preserve the many mature trees in the area and provide suitable public outdoor space to service residents. A variety of dwellings was provided from the detached home designs, to semi-detached dwellings, to terrace housing. This was a range of typologies that is unlikely to be found today, even though such diversity in housing is championed by urbanists. Over time state housing declined in quality and blocks of state houses became uniform.

In the 1980’s came Rogernomics and the turn to neoliberalism. Out was the old, and admittedly outdated, Town and Country Planning Act, replaced by the RMA. Gone was the state’s lead in providing housing to workers, now the market would provide. Neoliberalism in housing has proven to have been a disaster, hence the present crisis and the scapegoating of the planning system by those who believe in market forces.

There is cross-party agreement on the direction to be taken in replacing the RMA. Labour has adopted the undemocratic, neoliberal demands of the development industry and has accepted the criticisms long-trumpeted by the National Party of planning “red tape”, the residual elements of democratic control of development by the public in their local government districts.

Labour has accepted the proposals of the commission it appointed chaired by retired judge Tony Randerson QC. The Randerson report recommends that the RMA be replaced by a Natural and Built Environment Act and a Strategic Planning Act. The proposals have the overriding aim of giving in to the development industry’s two key demands: freedom from local democratic controls and the ability to make easy profits out of urban sprawl. It is proposed to abolish independent local district plans and replace them with just 14 regional plans to which district and city councils would contribute. Incidentally, there are currently 16 regions. In other words there is an element of supercity-ation as local district and city councils are robbed of their plan-making powers.

The proposals continue the trends already established. Several interventions have already occurred to deliver the government’s Urban Growth Agenda on the ground, the most recent being the National Policy Statement for Urban Development. As urban planner and New Zealand Planning Institute Policy Analyst Joel Cayford notes: “While the NPS-UD includes an objective to require coordinated delivery of infrastructure, it is silent on many outcomes expected in good urban planning. However this rather blunt National Direction tool is already being used by developers to promote large-scale urban developments in places as diverse as Levin, Mangawhai and Auckland, despite locally developed community and ecological provisions in district plans which are casually dismissed as NIMBYISM. Planning uncertainty is associated with times of change and our country’s planning system is in transition, but it risks the production of poorly performing and incomplete urban environments.”

Another trend in the current government’s reforms is towards increased centralisation. This is in line with the neoliberal dogma at the core of the RMA. While this may seem contradictory, even Friedrich Hayek, a grand priest in the cult of the market, was not against planning.

While the libertarian may bemoan any restrictions on their supposed immutable property rights, the average capitalist understands and appreciates their necessity. No capitalist wants to invest in horticulture, for instance, if a polluting factory could be built nearby, killing their crops and ruining the soil. A system of zoning and rules, establishing what can and cannot be done and where is desirable. It provides the certainty the capitalists desire when it comes to investing their capital. For the ruling class a single, unambiguous and universal set of rules and standards would be ideal so that wherever they chose to invest they could have the same certainty. Centralisation and consistency are goals of the current reform. In the summary of the Randerson report the two top bullet points for addressing the alleged deficiencies of the current system are:

  • greater use of mandatory national direction by the Minister for the Environment to guide planning at local government level
  • the use of combined plans which would bring together the plans prepared by regional councils and territorial authorities in each region

To put it simply, workers should not get their hopes up over the proposed new planning system to replace the RMA. For while the aim of increased housing capacity is desirable, the quality of the housing, and the wider urban fabric it is part of matter just as much as quantity. The sagas of Wellington Water’s pipe bursts, Auckland Transport’s ongoing delays and cancellations on the rail network, amongst others, point to the need to have adequate infrastructure in place, we need a stronger vision on how to carry out urban development than by merely increasing the number of housing units. Housing should be coordinated with social infrastructure: schools, hospitals, public parks, libraries, etc. Also, consideration of climate change and natural hazards, moving away from car-dependent urban forms and towards low-energy buildings and local power generation. 

For 30 years the market has had the opportunity to solve these issues, but it has been a resounding failure. Rather than the rehashing of the same failed neoliberal programme offered by the current government, we need a radical programme for the radical transformation of our urban form to meet human need, cut carbon emissions and conserve the environment. These issues touch all aspects of our lives and will of those of generations to come. We can no longer accept failure. It is time for change, for real democratic planning.