Environment – A matter of perspective

Regulation is essential for governing how we co-exist in balance with each other and nature – for public and environmental health. Since 1991 in New Zealand, we’ve been significantly reliant on the Resource Management Act (RMA) to set out a framework for what activities are acceptable and what environmental effects limitations should apply. We all deserve certainty in our freedoms to do what we like, within reason, while allowing others similar freedoms, so long as the effects on us all aren’t too significant. The RMA has been like a moral imperative – do unto others as you would have done unto you, but environmental effects defined at high level are what determine the ‘moral’ legitimacy of any action.’

All the same, society is a bit perverse and assessments of effects can be subjective. Trees that provide amenity and habitat can also shade or obscure others’ views. Cynics sometimes say a ‘developer is someone who wants to live in the bush but an environmentalist is someone who is already there’. Many times, people in bush-clad or scenic locations object to newcomers doing the same. Mostly, that’s with good reason.

This year it’s likely that the government will continue with RMA reform to “speed up planning and consent laws”. Again, this might be good when it’s our own application and we just want minimum red tape and maximum decision-making in our favour. But when it’s a neighbour’s proposal that affects us, we’d like to slow the process down.

The government’s proposals are allegedly the most comprehensive since the Act’s inception. Opposition parties say it’s a ‘terrible piece of legislation’ that would ‘undermine the ability of New Zealanders to have a say’ and ‘would harm environmental protections’.

A compromise reached between the Maori Party and the government unlocked a stalemate and has provided better certainty to Maori that there would be more equitable involvement of iwi in Council consenting processes. It’s sheer expediency on the government’s part given, their criticism of Auckland Council plans that identify waahi tapu and other sacred sites, which can sometimes stand in the way of hurried developments. The Maori Party say the ‘iwi participation agreements’ are worth the trade off against other RMA changes that other parties say weaken the participation rights for others.

The recent case in Rodney where a gun club was given consent next to the Vipasssana meditation centre in Kaukapakapa highlights some of the problems in current protections and the amoral outcomes from even existing planning laws. In this instance, the meditation centre, located in a quiet and remote location, only found out that the gun club had been approved after consent was given. They were given no say on the proposal which is clearly hostile to their interests. There’s plenty of evidence that environmental considerations need more deliberation to avoid arbitrary or partial decisions, not less.