A Look at the Reforms of the Resource Management Act, Affordable Water, and Local Government Reforms

Emma Howie
GM Planning & Urban Design
woods august blog

In the planning and development space, change is often the only constant.

Over the past few decades, we've observed policies evolve, new frameworks introduced, and established Acts amended to address the shifting challenges and requirements.

Recently, there’s been a bit of a ‘reform storm’, with changes to the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA), the introduction of Affordable Water Reforms, and the review of local government regulations.

These changes are reshaping New Zealand’s landscape. It's important to understand what they are and what they mean for projects moving forward.


The Resource Management Act Reforms

For over three decades, the RMA has served as a bedrock of environmental regulation, directing land use, infrastructure provision, and resource distribution. However, with escalating environmental challenges and societal demands, the Act is struggling to achieve what it was originally set up to do.

Challenges including responding to population growth and housing demand in our urban centres, the effects of climate change, and the ongoing demand for protection of our natural environments have all contributed to the need for a reform of the RMA.

In February 2021 the government announced it would repeal the RMA, and three new pieces of legislation would be enacted:

  • Natural & Built Environment Act (NBA)
  • Spatial Planning Act (SPA)
  • Climate Change Adaptation Act (CAA)

The bills for the NBA and SPA are getting closer to the final hurdle to become legislation and are expected to be enacted before the general election in October this year.

The review process sets out to champion change in many areas, including costs, addressing shortfalls, and reviewing existing processes to help future-proof new developments. Significant strides have also been made in the form of proposals like the Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS) and the National Planning Framework (NPF).

A central aspect of the proposed Natural & Built Environment Bill is the NPF, a tool that empowers the central government with a more proactive and robust role in shaping our interaction with and how we safeguard our natural and built environments.

The National Planning Framework will:

  • Establish policies and standards for both construction and development projects
  • Define ecological thresholds pertaining to water bodies, estuaries, air quality, soil health, and native biodiversity

This framework is also designed to offer uniform policies and technical standards applicable to all planning and approval processes concerning infrastructure. This approach ensures increased transparency, reduces decision-making at the consent level, and facilitates faster development of housing and infrastructure.

As the RMA changes take effect, the National Planning Framework will be rolled out first. Once this is in place, we can expect the other documents to follow. Regional Spatial Strategies and Natural & Built Environment Plans will be progressively developed across 15 regions within New Zealand and will be overseen by newly created Regional Planning Committees. These plans will replace existing district and regional plans.

Whilst the changes certainly indicate a step in the right direction for balancing environmental protection and enabling growth, the success of the new legislation will only be known once we are through a drawn-out transition period.

The Affordable Water Reform

Formerly known as the Three Waters Reform, The Affordable Water Reform is refocused on the affordability of water services in New Zealand.

The main change to the reform since it was first proposed is that the number of water services entities (WSEs) will increase from four to ten. These new entities are anticipated to be established between 1 July 2024 and 1 July 2026.

These ten new entities will cover the management and maintenance of the majority of the country’s drinking water, wastewater, and urban stormwater assets from all existing authorities. The government has outlined the provision of more local authority within the entities, along with further community involvement.

Whilst being developed alongside the RMA reforms, the 10 water service entities do not align with the new 15 regions established under the NBA and SPA which may give rise to consistency challenges in the future for certain regions.

The Select Committee reported back on The Water Services Entities Amendment Bill which amends the Water Services Entities Act 2022 on 27 July 2023.


Local Government Reforms

Trailing behind the RMA and Affordable Water Reforms is a review of Local Government in New Zealand. In June, the Future for Local Government Panel released its final report on the future for local government. 17 key recommendations have been made across five themes:

  • Embedding local government's purpose and wellbeing focus
  • Growing authentic Te Tiriti-based partnerships
  • System renewal
  • Strengthening local democracy and leadership
  • Increasing funding

The panel's recommendation of system renewal also included a reorganisation of local government to strengthen, support, and resource councils to plan for and respond to increasing challenges and opportunities, and to set local government up for a more complex future.  The panel has recommended that councils in each region work alongside hapu/iwi and communities on what operating model will best deliver roles and functions. There are expectations that new councils may end up forming sub-regional clusters and it is expected that the 15 new regions created through the RMA reforms should act as a starting point for this change.


How is our approach changing?

In this wave of reform, we find our industry in a period of transition, filled with reviews, alterations, and shifts that may extend over the next decade.

For Woods, we view these changes not as a challenge but as an opportunity to reaffirm our position as a leader in our industry. While it is "business as usual" for us, we're keenly attuned to the shifts in the landscape, anticipating their impact on our processes and timelines.

Although it’s too soon to foresee exactly how all these changes will pan out, we have our finger on the pulse and our teams are fully on board as we continuously plan for future developments.