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21 Jan 2015

National is to push ahead with wide-ranging reform of the Resource Management Act, Environment Minister Nick Smith says.

After failing to gain the support it needed to pass changes proposed in 2012 during the last term, today National signalled that it could use its stellar election result to proceed - with little change.

Although Environment Minister Nick Smith said it was National's "preference" to build support beyond a bare majority, the MP for Nelson made it clear that the party was prepared to do so with just the support of the single MP of the Act Party, which has long objected to what it considers to be an anti-development bias in the environmental legislation.

"Our first duty is make changes to the RMA that make the act work better for New Zealand. If we can't get the support of the Maori Party and the United Future Party to be able to advance the reforms, then we will still be progressing with the support of the ACT Party," Smith said.

Smith signalled that National was reviewing the most contentious of its proposed reforms of the RMA, covering changes to the act's principles - a move critics have argued would aid development - but otherwise the tone of today's speech was consistent with the last term.

"It's consistent with the direction that was set in 2012, but there's still a lot of detail in the amendments to deliver the overall package of reform," Smith said.

He expected "intense discussion" over some of the "hundreds" of amendments to the existing legislation.

In a speech in his home city of Nelson tonight, Smith called for changes to streamline the development of local planning rules and give recognition to the need for economic development.

Smith said National wanted to try to build "a broader base of support" for changes to the RMA, and promised National was committed to provisions protecting the environment, but warned that minor changes would not be enough.

"Tinkering with the RMA won't do," Smith told the Nelson Rotary Club.

"The act has some fundamental design flaws that require substantial overhaul. The purposes and principles are out-dated and ill-matched with the reality of the issues it manages, like housing development. The plan-making process is too cumbersome and slow."

Although light on concrete policy, the speech highlighted a series of material changes Smith said were crucial:

- Adding clauses covering the management of major natural hazards, referring to the Bexley subdivision in Christchurch which did not consider the impact of liquefaction even though the risk had been clearly identified

- Creating an explicit recognition in the legislation of the urban environment, with Smith claiming the report appeared to be designed "for a Garden of Eden" before cities were built

- Giving an explicit recognition of the need for affordable housing, with current rules tending to support more expensive development

Other changes proposed by Smith included forcing councils to use templates in developing planning rules, with Smith noting that New Zealand has "50 different definitions" for how to calculate building heights.

During his speech Smith used as a backdrop 80,000 pages of resource management plans from across the country.

"If in a single pile it would stand ten metres tall and probably require a resource consent for breaching local height restrictions. This mountain of red tape well illustrates the need for an overhaul of the Resource Management Act."

Smith also said he was "of the view that economic growth, jobs and exports need recognition" in the legislation.

"The idea that the only consideration in resource consenting is protection of nature is naive. This is not the National Parks Act."

National can already count on the support it needs to pass the legislation, but only barely. ACT's sole MP David Seymour has said the RMA has a strong anti-development bias and needs to be overhauled. Together with National's 60 MPs, Seymour gives National a majority in the House.

National's two other support parties, United Future and the Maori Party have warned they will oppose changes which would undermine protection of the environment.

Timed with the speech was the release of a report commissioned by the Treasury which claims that the current act was adding $30,000 to the cost of the average apartment and $15,000 to the cost of the average home.

"If you extrapolate this study over the past decade, the RMA has reduced housing supply by 40,000 homes and added $30 billion in cost," Smith said.

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