One hundred per cent pure … economic growth

Amy Adams: “An effective and efficient resource management system is an important part of our business growth agenda.” So, change the law “to ensure that our planning and resource management law enables economic growth as well as providing good environmental outcomes”.

Those comments underline that GDP growth is the cabinet’s dominant priority. When the cabinet has completed its extensive legislative programme on resource planning and use, the balance between environmental protection and economic development will have shifted significantly towards the latter.

Adams’ comments were in a booklet launched at the National party conference detailing the third phase of changes to the Resource Management Act (RMA). This follows a bill passed in the first term and one now in the House and is alongside a bill passed, one in the House and one to come on local government and legislation to come on water.

Put that legislative torrent in the context of reforms of the state sector and its financial management, of labour and health and safety law, of mining law, of welfare law, of education, of the financial sector, of regulatory principles and practice and much else. John Key’s government is the most active since the radical deregulations of the 1984-88 Lange-Douglas era.

Within that programme the RMA and local government changes constitute major reform in themselves.

The RMA governs the allocation and use of land and affects property rights and the preservation of the environment, amenities and heritage — matters so central to our way of life that the RMA is almost an element of the constitution. Major changes to the RMA are significant changes in our governing arrangements.

Councils are to have imposed on them a framework for the single plans which will replace the present multiple plans. Councils will be able to tweak the content but only within the framework rules. The framework will include more national policy statements and environmental standards, including ones targeted to specific regions, to which councils will have to conform.

“Communities”, in other words, will have much less local sovereignty. Coupled with the extensive specific council legislation, this amounts to a significant shift in power from local government to central government. That is constitutional change.

This centralisation is at odds with neoliberal principles and with the principle of subsidiarity which says that, as between central and local government, decisions should be made at the level closest to those most directly affected by the decisions.

Is this centralisation so bad? A suite of rules in Adams’ forthcoming bill aims for more efficient and less petty and meddlesome rules on building and resource use and more consistency across councils. Many who have bumped up against the system will applaud.

Many, notably in business and among economic analysts, will also back the reweighting in favour of economic development. Bryce Wilkinson of the New Zealand Initiative said it will deliver greater wellbeing. Arguably, a voter majority would side with Wilkinson.

Still, hefty minorities disapprove of the development tilt. They link it to ministers’ enthusiasm for mining as a get-rich-quick path and to its timidity on climate change, illustrated on Friday when it reset the 2020 climate change target at a net 5 per cent below 1990 levels, which means we can go on emitting more greenhouse gases provided trees are planted or firms buy enough foreign “units”. Neither is exactly “clean-green” or “100 per cent pure”.

There may also be perverse results from Adams’ RMA changes. The new settings will be tested in court so could set a feast for lawyers. As a result, some projects may take longer than under current well-established case law, which does address economic factors.

Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) is not happy.

LGNZ endorsed Adams’ aim of greater consistency across councils and changes aiming to reduce complexity and cost and said that “if the government works with the sector and other key stakeholders, this can be achieved”.

But it said the timeframes for implementing the changes are not workable, “particularly given the significant requirements to amend council plans to reflect the new principles of the act”. It said some changes “will not deliver the outcomes intended” and added tartly: “We’re keen to work with the government in a more constructive way than has occurred to date to get this right.” Then, ominously: “We will work with stakeholders and foster media and public understanding of the consequences of a number of the issues.”

Might councillors’ grumpiness spill over into a voter backlash against Adams and Co 15 months from now?

Most likely not. The political calculation inherent in ministers’ standoff with councils is that voters rank the value of goods and services above the value of localised decisions and above the value of the environment.

And in that calculation Key’s energetic reformers are probably right.