Key Philosophies

The Resource Management Act’s approach to environmental management is firmly rooted in the concepts of sustainable management, the integrated management of resources and the value of public participation. Other approaches adopted included 'effects-based' assessments, principle- and policy-based environmental management and decentralisation of decision-making responsibilities. 

West Coast (Credit: Raewyn Peart)

Sustainable Management

The Resource Management Act is underpinned by the concept of sustainable management which allows for development subject to environmental effects being appropriately managed. It is a narrower concept than the term 'sustainable development' which is widely used in international law. In comparison, sustainable management is more focused on ecological considerations and less focused on social and economic considerations. The purpose of the Resource Management Act is to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources.

Integrated Management of Resources

The Resource Management Act ambitiously seeks to integrate the management of air, land, fresh water and marine areas (out to the 12 mile limit of New Zealand’s territorial sea) into one piece of legislation.  Prior to the RMA, the management of resources was fragmented between agencies. When the RMA was enacted 78 statutes and regulations were revoked.

Integrated management of these areas is sought to be achieved via a hierarchy of policies and plans prepared at the national, regional and district levels. In addition, national planning standards and national environmental standards developed under the Resource Management Act can require the adoption of consistent standards at the regional and district levels. Integration between decision makers is facilitated through the requirement for joint hearings, in most cases, where an activity requires resource consents from more than one agency. Joint policies and plans can also be prepared by two or more councils.

Public Participation

The Resource Management Act encourages public participation in decision-making processes. The purpose of public participation is two-fold. First, it recognises and protects the particular rights and interests of those affected and more general public interests. Second, it enhances the quality of decision making. 458  District and regional planning processes allow members of the public significant rights of participation, including the right to submit, present to a hearings committee, and appeal a decision to the Environment Court. Prior to 2009, there was a presumption that resource consent applications must be notified (although less than 5% of consent applications were actually notified). However, there has been a general theme of reducing the Resource Management Act's emphasis on public participation processes over the last decade. In 2009 the presumption of notification was replaced with a general discretion to notify or not 459 . In 2017, the notification tests were altered to preclude notification of certain activities. 

'Effects-based' Approach

The Resource Management Act focuses on managing the effects of activities rather than regulating the activities themselves. This heralded a move away from a more prescriptive planning approach under the Town and Country Planning Act 1977, which sought to guide the location of activities and to separate incompatible activities. The Resource Management Act adopts a more enabling approach which seeks only to intervene where activities are likely to result in unacceptable environmental impacts. In practice however, most planning documents still have a strong focus on activities themselves.

Principle and Policy-Based Environmental Management

Environmental management under the Resource Management Act is to be guided, in the first instance, by the principles set out in Part 2 of the Act and the policies set out in any national and regional policy statements. Decisions on whether or not to allow activities are made within the context of these principles and policies. The Supreme Court has confirmed that policies may set ‘environmental bottom lines’ that must be complied with by decision-makers .  Nationally applicable principles and policies play a vital role in ensuring the effectiveness of environmental management, although this is largely dependent on the quality of decision-making at local and regional levels.

Decentralisation of Decision Making Responsibilities

Under the Resource Management Act, decision-making has been decentralised to local and regional levels in most cases. This is based on the principle that decision-making is best carried out at the level closest to the resources affected and better enables public participation in resource management decision-making. In general, decisions about land use are made at the territorial authority level and decisions about fresh water, soil conservation, air pollution and the coastal marine area are made at the regional council level. However, central government can direct how resource management decisions should be made through national policy statements, national environmental standards and national planning standards. Central government may also directly intervene in local decision making where consent is sought for a proposal of national significance or through the development of regulations. 

  1. See for example: Discount Brands v Westfield (New Zealand) Ltd [2005] NZRMA 337

  2. Section 95A of the Resource Management Act 1991

Last updated at 3:51PM on March 13, 2018