Have we been too hands off when it comes to our environment?

Auckland city.jpgReflecting on what I learnt from researching the last 50 years of environmental policy and management in New Zealand, a question has arisen in my mind that is – I believe – a vitally important one, with strong relevance to the environmental challenges we face today. That is, in rejecting “top-down” town planning, as represented by the Town and Country Act 1977 and its predecessors, and embracing an environmental management regime that focused on minimising effects of activities once they happen, did the government abandon its legitimate mandate to shape a better future via environmental planning?

I don’t think the answer to this is a resounding “yes”: as enacted, the Resource Management Act 1991 did envisage that central government would have the role of setting high-level policy goals and standards for matters of national importance, but these were slow to eventuate. (The only national policy statement on a section 6 “matters of national importance” in the first two decades of the Act’s life was the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement 2010, which was mandatory under the Act.) But, any form of national-level spatial or strategic planning was most definitely off the table in the “market-determines-optimal-use” era of the 1990s, thinking that continues to prevail even now.

Back in the 1980s, in its first report on New Zealand’s environmental governance, the OECD gently chastised New Zealand for not doing any national-level planning to determine the best use of land and other natural resources (e.g., the best place to put plantation forests, that sort of thing). Subsequent OECD reports have repeatedly made the same criticism (though again, with impeccable diplomacy!)

So it is refreshing to read the first of three reports written by analysts at environmental think-tank EDS, which draws on extensive international experience. In the “International lessons” section of the report, Greg Severinsen and Raewyn Peart discuss the major themes that emerged as they travelled to various countries to gain insights from their experiences. A central theme relates to the role of planning in managing environmental outcomes. The authors point out that:

In many other countries planning is focused on proactively achieving positive community outcomes … The RMA, which focuses on ‘effects-based’ management, has a focus on preventing or reducing public ‘bads’ (ie environmental degradation) rather than on increasing or creating public ‘goods’.

This means that the system by definition is reactive – waiting for a developer to propose something rather than being proactive in encouraging the type of development a community needs, and maximising the public goods which can be delivered by the development process. As a result, fewer public benefits are derived from development.

They conclude, that this points to the importance of reassessing the role of planning and planners in the system, and the “proper role” of the market.

forestry slash damage.jpegFor instance, under the RMA, land-use decisions have been regarded as decisions over “private goods” (private property), and therefore the basic principle has been that unless there is an explicit rule precluding the use of land in a certain way, then people have the right to use their land in whatever way they like. However, as we have come to recognise in recent years, land-use decisions by landowners can have consequences that are far-reaching, including housing affordability, long-term economic growth, environmental quality, social inequality and the mitigation of, and adaptation to, climate change. As we also know, decisions rarely consider these externalities (either positive or negative).

As the report points out: “Planning is now connected with much broader agendas such as the transition to a low carbon economy, reducing social-spatial inequality, and creating opportunities for economic growth and prosperity.”

Is it time for the market to relinquish some of its defacto decision-making power, and for New Zealanders to regain control over the future of our country through proactive planning?

You can download the first two reports in the RM Reform Project series from the EDS website.

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