The Report of the Minister for the Environment's Resource Management Act 1991 Principles Technical Advisory Group (the TAG) was released yesterday. We welcome the fresh thinking.
The TAG accurately identifies that the focus of decision makers under the RMA has been to make an overall broad judgement as to whether a proposal achieves sustainable management. The environmental bottom line approach has not eventuated in judicial interpretation and application of the Act. The proposed restructuring of Part 2 better reflects what happens in practice. The TAG recommends that the significant benefits to be derived from the use and development of natural and physical resources must be more explicitly and better recognised and provided for. The TAG also proposes express recognition of the built environment and significant infrastructure.
These proposed additions and the restructure of Part 2 should reduce what we perceive as an over-emphasis on the current list of matters of national importance when making an overall broad judgment. However, the at times uncertain, convoluted and lengthy process for making decisions on planning instruments and resource consents will remain the same.
The TAG recommends that regional councils be required to identify areas of significant indigenous biodiversity, areas of significant indigenous terrestrial habitats, areas of significant aquatic habitats, outstanding natural features, outstanding natural landscapes, and land required for reasonably foreseeable urban use and development in regional policy statements. We consider this is useful for all parties, as it establishes certainty as to where these areas are and limits debate and uncertainty on resource consent applications.
In respect of landscapes we support the sentiment that the current approach to 'outstanding natural landscapes and features' has generated uncertainty and cost, particularly where decision makers have been content to re-classify a landscape as outstanding even when the plan process determined that the area did not qualify for outstanding status. In order to address this concern the TAG recommends that to qualify for recognition such areas will need to be identified in an operative regional policy statement within a transitional period of 5 years.
There has also been ever-evolving judicial interpretation of landscape concepts. The Court has been placing greater emphasis on "relationships and values" and the "perceptual aspects" when considering the classification of a landscape. We consider this approach serves to undermine the literal interpretation of the terms 'outstanding' and 'natural' and means a greater number of landscapes are afforded this status. A continuation of this approach may also lead to weakened management which is contrary to the current statutory intent. The TAG's recommendation is to recognise and provide for the physical and visual qualities of outstanding natural features and landscapes. This focuses on the actual landscape's attributes as opposed to people's perception of them.
We support the proposition that 'landscapes' should be limited to those which are 'outstanding'. It is unlikely that Parliament envisaged that the inclusion of reference to 'amenity values' in section 7 would lead to the prolific classification of landscapes as "amenity landscapes" and the creation of a second tier of landscapes for protection. This increases the cost to local authorities and often leads to landscape assessments being contentious and controversial for landowners. Most plans already provide for controls over activities that could affect amenity values and have amenity values as a matter requiring explicit consideration. The additional layers of landscape assessment and control are therefore generally superfluous. Yet it appears to be a bold move of the TAG to remove explicit recognition of amenity values altogether.
It will be interesting to see the officials and Government reaction in response to both the Report and the inevitable knee-jerk opposition to changing the status quo. Even if the recommendations are not adopted in their entirety there are a number of valid points that should be implemented.
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