Lindsay Gow’s thoughts on the RMA: 20 years on

Following on from his earlier contribution, Two decades of environmental policy – then and now, former Ministry for the Environment Deputy Secretary Lindsay Gow also shared his thoughts on the efficacy of the Resource Management Act since it was enacted in 1991, and on what tasks remain to be tackled in the area of environmental policy:

The Resource Management Act has been with us for nearly twenty years.  It was one of my biggest jobs.  I consider that, on balance, it has worked successfully.  It’s interesting to hear both pro and anti development people referring to the RMA as a legitimate means of making difficult resource decisions.

The RMA’s central notion of integrated resource management was ahead of its time in 1990.  Thanks to the establishment of regional authorities administering it on a whole catchment basis, the RMA has delivered some notable results. Examples of the change include the effective management of many point source discharges (discharges from pipes).  Raw sewage is no longer dumped into waterways as part of normal business, and dairy shed effluent has been progressively managed.  Refuse tips have been dealt to and hundreds have been closed – from now on there will only be managed landfills with effective leachate controls.  And New Zealand has finally woken up to the issue of air pollution.  Standards and measures to control this are now accepted, including fuel specifications and controls on vehicle and stationary (land use) emissions.

If there’s one piece of unfinished business with the RMA, it’s ensuring that plans are clear, simple, and deal effectively with cumulative effects.  And we probably need changes to relieve the urban planning world of some of the micro scale, effects based scrutiny it seems to be landed with.  Urban planning needs to focus on and from bigger ideas like urban design and integrating transport and land use development.

What else is still out there?  Non-point source pollution – mostly nutrients from dairying and other often intensive land uses, and contaminants from urban run off – is a major and growing issue.  So is the state of our soils and the pummeling they receive from intensive and often changing land uses.  Water allocation needs some serious decisions – we face some tough choices about who gets water for what purpose – particularly on the drier, eastern parts of the country.  Renewable energy is a huge issue for New Zealand and it also raises water allocation choices.   And we need to push energy efficiency harder.   But of all the countries on earth, we can and should make a serious go of having a totally renewable and efficiently used energy supply – it’s not easy but we have the natural resources with which to do it.

And then there’s the marine environment.  We need an oceans RMA beyond the 12 nautical mile limit, and we need more effective policies and practices protecting our valuable estuarine and in shore resources.  I have worked on oceans and marine issues and so have others.  Unfortunately it’s big and hard, and work on it has started and stopped more than once.  But for a country that  has a large coastal environment and such a huge oceans resource (I think the fourth largest in the world), we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the need for comprehensive marine policy and related management mechanisms.

[Photo top right: Lindsay Gow addressing staff at the Ministry for the Environment on his retirement in 2009 (Photo: Ministry for the Environment). Above left: The Ministry for the Environment, in Pipitea, Wellington. The Ministry is the central government agency for environmental policy development (Photo: C. Knight)]

See also: Resource management law in NZ – a potted history , Lindsay Gow: two decades of environmental policy – then and now

2 thoughts on “Lindsay Gow’s thoughts on the RMA: 20 years on

  1. What a great idea–you’ve contributed a wonderful resource–it’s the digital world’s equivalent of an oral history–and two fascinating posts, especially for someone like me who doesn’t know enough about New Zealand’s environmental politics. I learned a lot in a few paragraphs. Thank you!

  2. Congratulations Lindsay – and have a good retirement. My only concern is how the RMA has become something of a whipping boy for politicans and disgruntled applicants – when in my view the real issue is not the Act but rather the way TA’s use it.
    Is that what you refer to when you comment on the ‘unfinished business’?
    More than RMA revisions (although I am sure it can be tweaked to advantage after 20 years)- the whole process needs some clear leadership from the top, and defined expectations on process and outcomes.

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