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The purpose of this project is to explore whether the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) has delivered desired environmental outcomes for New Zealand. It is intended to complement wider assessments of the efficacy of the Act. The project is focused on gathering the best available information on the state of the environment in New Zealand and the influence of the RMA on that state. This evidence is intended to help enable an informed discussion on the future of the RMA.

This report concludes that the environmental outcomes of the RMA have not met expectations, largely as a result of poor implementation, but also due to a wide range of other factors. Addressing air discharges, most point source freshwater discharges, implementing mitigation and offsetting to address unavoidable impacts, standardising decision-making and providing a framework within which most communities can function are all achievements it can claim.

The effectiveness of the RMA would seem to have been greatest where community aspirations are more easily reconciled with extractive interests, but has been weakest where resources are past comfortable allocation limits. The Act has been strongest on adjudicating individual permitting functions, and weakest on overarching management of cumulative effects and other longer term strategic issues. As a result, it has largely failed to achieve the goal of sustainable management to date. The key issues are identified below. Some are symptoms of other key issues – they are all linked:

  1. While the RMA has brought together a lot of decision-making processes, it could be more integrated. 
  2. A lack of effective strategy and oversight of decision-making has reduced the potential to protect environmental values, including the capacity to manage cumulative effects.
  3. The incorrect jurisprudence related to the ‘overall balance’ approach undermined the potential for environmental bottom lines to be applied.
  4. Agency capture of (particularly local) government by vested interests has reduced the power of the RMA to appropriately manage effects on the environment.
  5. A lack of national direction has limited the potential of the RMA system to effectively and efficiently achieve its environmental goals.
  6. Agency capacity has often been insufficient to successfully implement the RMA and opportunities for central government to provide financial and logistical support have generally not been taken.
  7. The design of implementing institutions and allocation of different mandates requires systematic review to ensure it is the best means of delivering on statutory aspirations.
  8. Rigorous evaluation and monitoring of outcomes has been limited
  9. A narrow range of instruments has been employed to generate behaviour change which, in many instances, has not been fit for purpose. 
  10. Future reform of the resource management system for New Zealand should proceed only where the anticipated improvements are certain and where any changes are based on robust evidence.

This report was commissioned by the Employers and Manufacturers Association, the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development and the Property Council New Zealand and was prepared by the Environmental Defence Society (EDS).

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