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The RMA is the legislation that largely governs what we do in terms of urban growth and development – perhaps it’s time to accept the legislation and focus on how we implement it to achieve the ambitious plans needed to provide for the social, economic and cultural wellbeing of all New Zealanders

Is the RMA really to blame for housing shortages? – By Hayley Ellison

We need to look at the Resource Management Act (RMA) with fresh eyes. I’m not convinced it’s the culprit holding back development and causing housing shortages in New Zealand’s major cities. It’s the way the RMA is being implemented that has created uncertainty, and it’s time to rethink the way we respond to our urban development issues.

I was studying at Auckland University when the RMA was enacted 25 years ago. In fact, much of the focus of my geography degrees (coastal geomorphology and resource management) was around the RMA, its meaning and content.

Perhaps my 25-year-old memory is rose-tinted, but my recollection of those early days of the RMA was one of a positive legislative response to a widespread desire to promote sustainable management of our natural and physical resources.

We believed it was an inspired piece of legislation because it focused on outcomes. It was effects-based legislation, meaning that both the positive and negative effects would be considered. This meant that if adverse environmental effects were no more than minor or could be remedied or mitigated, the activity was acceptable, taking into account matters of national importance, other matters, and the Treaty of Waitangi.

Bringing skills back home

Returning to New Zealand earlier this year after 20 years’ working in the UK, I was filled with optimism about making a positive contribution to the future growth of our country’s urban environment.

In London, I’d managed a planning and urban design practice, and my project work had largely related to urban development from a planning and project management perspective. I knew urban development was high on the agenda for the NZ government and practitioners, so I was excited about bringing my skills back to my home country.

Planning legislation in the UK is very different from here. Many UK practitioners would say it’s broken. However, growth is strategically planned for positively, and seeks to provide the development industry with confidence around what they can achieve.

For example, the Mayor of London has established supplementary planning guidance for areas designated as ‘opportunity areas’ where it is anticipated that significant numbers of new homes and jobs will be delivered. Specific, but not prescriptive, guidance is set out so that all stakeholders are clear about future planned growth. This is done within the context of a system which many say hinders delivery of development.

So it’s been interesting to hear people say repeatedly that the RMA is ‘holding us back’. I’m not convinced it is. Looking at it with fresh eyes and the distance of time and experience, it appears to be the implementation of the RMA that’s the problem, at least from a planning and systems/processes perspective.

District plans and rules

The district plan process is long and expensive, and doesn’t deliver desirable outcomes. The district plan rules aren’t effects-based as envisaged by the RMA, but are prescriptive and arbitrary statements that discourage good-quality design and site-specific responses.

It seems that if the scheme ticks the boxes, it’s approved (or permitted) despite the quality and potential under-utilisation of the site.

Whilst the RMA does impact the processes we work with, the act (s75) sets out that a district plan must state the objectives for the district and policies to implement the objectives, and the rules, if any, to implement the policies. There’s no reference in the RMA to the arbitrary side and front-yard rules, for example, that have made their way into many district plans.

From my understanding of district plans around New Zealand, the extensive and complex sets of rules introduce obstacles that would make nearly all higher-density urban development projects at least discretionary activities. The proximity and height of development yielding higher density would almost inevitably be contrary to the ‘rules’. This is despite what appears to be general consensus on the need to deliver much-needed new homes in more sustainable locations and in a form that increases density in our cities.

My developer clients in London were resilient. However, they would say the biggest threat to their business is uncertainty. Contravention of district plan rules creates uncertainty about notification and the ultimate decisions. This adds a level of risk which is unpalatable to developers, who are already struggling to deliver viable development beyond single or two-storey detached houses due to high build costs and the limited supply chain.

Back to the future

The RMA is the legislation that largely governs what we do in terms of urban growth and development. Perhaps it’s time to accept the legislation and focus on how we implement it to achieve the ambitious plans needed to provide for the social, economic and cultural wellbeing of all New Zealanders.

Let’s implement the RMA the way it was intended. Let’s get back to assessing environmental effects, giving us the opportunity to encourage higher-density development in sustainable locations; develop mixed-use schemes offering the opportunity to live, work and shop without the need to rely on private vehicles; enabling good-quality design and opportunities for new and improved public realm through higher-density development while protecting the environment from adverse effects that cannot be remedied or mitigated.

An expert in urban regeneration, Hayley Ellison is technical leader for urban development at the professional engineering and design consultancy Harrison Grierson; she worked on high-profile major redevelopment projects in London for 20 years before returning home to join Harrison Grierson earlier this year


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