Are RMA reforms the solution for HB’s housing issues?

In February, Environment Minister David Parker announced the government’s proposals to repeal and replace the RMA with the following three Acts:

1. Natural and built Environment Act

2. Strategic Planning Act

3. Managed Retreat and Climate Change Act

These actions are in response to a broad consensus that the system introduced by the RMA has not adequately protected the natural environment or enabled development where needed and has under-delivered for urban areas – contributing to rapidly increasing urban land prices to the extent that NZ’s housing is amongst the least affordable in the OECD. While it will be interesting to see if it is the legislation itself or implementation by people, or in fact other non-RMA factors such as engineering approval
or infrastructure delivery processes that is the culprit, which will inevitably be borne out over in time, the option of fundamental change certainly seems to have been favoured over targeted improvements. Let’s hope that day to day resource management is improved as a result and we’re not getting wholesale change for a few issues in a few areas of country. Immediate issues with housing supply cannot be denied however, and with the Randerson review referring to poorly managed urban growth leading to increased homelessness, worsening traffic congestion, increased environmental pollution, lack of transport choice and flattening productivity growth, the reality is its not just enabling development for developers, its actually about enabling development for society.

Here in Hawke’s Bay urban growth is underpinned by the Heretaunga Plains Urban Development Strategy. Embedded within the Regional Policy Statement the Strategy requires Councils (or private parties) to complete a complex Plan Change process to re-zone land, including development of Structure Plans to guide future subdivision consent applications and infrastructure development. That process is then followed by a subdivision consent application layer prior to commencement of residential development (building houses).

This process can typically take 3-5 years plus to get to a point where a house is constructed. Given our housing shortfall and the severity of associated social issues, this ‘release’ timeframe is unacceptable. Will the reforms assist us? In time probably yes, but what is the time frame? While an ‘exposure draft’ is said to be released in September this year, media releases refer to this containing only limited details and not details such as consenting processes, designations, proposals of national significance, Environment Court workings or transitional arrangements. While these details will obviously follow in time, initial indications are that the new laws will not be in place for three years or more.

Indeed, Central Government has suggested it will be five years for the reforms to have effect! Can we wait? and if not, why must we remain bound to the current ‘preferred’ but inadequate process? We say, ‘lets not’. Let’s not ‘do nothing’ in the hope of future solutions. Let’s not wait for change that may not even work. Let’s not leave families to raise their children in motels and substandard housing during their formative years – in the hope of a house when they become teenagers, only for their first home to be unaffordable.

Let’s bite the bullet, let’s buck the system, let’s, as a community, try a few  different things and see if there’s a model that enables Councils to design concepts within existing areas that developers or ministry organisations can pick up with greater certainty and get on with building for example. Lets look at those areas already identified in HPUDS, or parts them, and really think about the need for prolonged and expensive Plan Change and Structure Plan processes and consider whether we can jump straight to a subdivision process – potentially saving years of delay. I’m not suggesting we do away with planning tools. Indeed, the Resource Management Act, in its current form, includes tools to help enable this brave approach – we just need buy-in from Councils and the Community to get a little more creative on how to apply those tools and be open to applying different methods to different situations. We can do this – Hawkes Bay is different to Auckland and Tauranga, our new development areas are not actually that big, so let’s just keep things in the box.

Just doing this may well achieve at least some of the outcomes that we as a society desperately need a whole lot earlier than the alternative. Who knows, with a narrower approach seemingly being talked about, it may well be that we lose some of the flexibility that is actually there if we choose to use it. Given what is at stake, shouldn’t we be willing to look at things a little differently and get a little more enthused about trying to make things happen, as there is a real risk that the solutions being talked about are in fact for the next problem, in 10-15 years’ time – not this one.