Whether we like it or loathe it, the Resource Management Act (RMA) is so much part of our social fabric and the way we make decisions about the environment today, it is hard to believe that only 20 years ago it was considered revolutionary, and groundbreaking by international standards. When it was enacted in 1991, the RMA repealed 78 statutes and regulations, and amended numerous others, to provide a single piece of legislation for the management of land, water, soil and air throughout New Zealand.

It came at a time of great change in local and central governance in New Zealand, particularly in relation to environmental management. Up until 1986, most policy and legislation relating to the environment was developed or administered by the monolithic Ministry of Works or the Forest Service, the key pieces of environmental management legislation being the Town and Country Planning Act 1977 and the Soil Conservation and Rivers Control Act 1941 (not to be confused with the Water and Soil Conservation Act, enacted in 1967) . But by the 1980s, there was a growing recognition that these pieces of legislation had become outdated and were in need of review. In 1986, the Environment Act was enacted, and the Ministry for the Environment and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment established. The following year, the Department of Conservation was established. A few years later, as part of sweeping local government reform, local bodies, district and regional authorities, catchment boards and other authorities were reduced from more than 800 to 86. As part of this reform, regional councils, which are charged with the bulk of environmental management functions in New Zealand, were established in 1989.

Environmental history is replete with paradox and ironic twists of fate, and the story of the RMA is no exception. As David Young points out in his history of the RMA, Values as Law, the so-called “Think Big” era of the Muldoon government (1975 – 84) was, in an indirect way, instrumental in the development of the RMA – or at least the thinking that led to its formulation. This era of large-scale development in an effort to achieve economic self-sufficiency, with the impatience with due process and excessive government secrecy which supported it, is said to have crystallised the environmental community around halting what was seen as government sponsored environmental destruction.

A second irony is evident in the way the Resource Management Bill evolved. The Bill was first developed in the late 1980s under a Labour Government, with Geoffrey Palmer as Minister for the Environment. The Bill was underpinned by the concept of “sustainable development”, based on a concept of balancing economic objectives against environmental objectives (otherwise known as “trade-offs”). However in 1990, before the Bill could be enacted, the Labour government lost power, and a National government took office, with Simon Upton assuming the environmental portfolio. To the surprise of many, Upton decided not to abandon the Bill but instead to review it. As a result of the review, there was a shift from balancing economic and environmental objectives, to that of economic objectives being “constrained” by environmental ones; a shift encompassed in the concept of “sustainable management”, which is fundamental to the purpose of the law (Section 5). As a result, when the Act was passed in 1991, it was, according long-time environmentalist and then-government advisor Guy Salmon, “greener” conceptually than the Bill originally conceived by the more left-leaning Labour government.

[Photo top left: a coastal subdivision development in Matapouri, Northland. One of the more common functions of the RMA is the consenting function, including of subdivisions. Bottom: irrigation circles near Twizel in the MacKenzie Country. Land use in the MacKenzie country has come under intense scrutiny in the last months as a result of a proposal for factory farming of dairy cows. Opponents suggest that irrigation would irrecoverably alter the unique landscape and ecology of the MacKenzie Basin (photo: taken by the International Space Station from an altitude of 348 km – NASA)].

[Sources/further reading: Values as Law – the History and Efficacy of the Resource Management Act (2001), by David Young; Resource Management Act – Historical Overview, Environmental Defence Society]