RM Reform Project


Click the cover image above to view and download a pdf version of the paper. Prefer a hard copy of the working papers? Check out our bookshop; we can send you a copy for free, just pay postage and handling.


Over the next 18 months the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) will be undertaking a major review of New Zealand's resource management system. The project will take a first principles look at how the system operates, and provide an evidence-based perspective on how it could be improved for the coming decades. It is funded by the NZ Law Foundation and others.

Reforms to the Resource Management Act (RMA)– New Zealand’s main environmental statute - have occurred in a piecemeal fashion, producing a patchwork of laws and a framework that in 2017 has lost much of its original simplicity and coherence. Thirty years on, we are due for an overall review of the Act as a whole. But the system by which we manage our natural and built environments is much wider than the RMA. It is about infrastructure planning and funding, conservation management, forestry and mining, climate change mitigation, institutional structures, capacity and capability, the role of Māori, and much more. There is clear momentum building that we could be doing better than we are across the board.

It is in this context that a series of significant environmental challenges have emerged in recent times. Many indicators of environmental health are now rapidly declining. For some – such as freshwater and coastal environments – tipping points appear not far away or even exceeded in some places. Cumulative effects are not being managed well. Climate change is another issue that needs addressing. Our system of environmental law and its implementers have not fully realised the aspirations of sustainable resource management and ecosystem integrity.

The system is also failing to deliver on social, economic and cultural outcomes. This is particularly evident in large urban areas (especially Auckland), where dramatic increases in population and development pressures, a booming housing market, and a scarcity of resources have caused many to question whether the system remains fit for purpose in the context of cities.

The RMA provides a single framework for managing urban and non-urban areas. It provides for both land use/growth planning and common pool resources like air, freshwater and the marine environment. But the urban challenges the country is now facing – such as housing affordability, pressure on infrastructure, and development uncertainty – are shaking the foundations of the law, and provoking difficult questions. Are there better ways to achieve good urban outcomes while not threatening the integrity of the natural environment? Should there be a dedicated focus on integrated urban management? Are cities so different they require special treatment? A recent report on urban planning by New Zealand’s Productivity Commission has added fuel to the fire in this conversation.

The EDS project will involve a phased and comprehensive programme of research and analytical work, considering a range of themes, topics and issues. Its primary lens will be a legal one – the regulatory and institutional arrangements needed – but it will also investigate non-legal matters. Analysis will encompass diverse topics, including international law, legal principles and environmental ethics, legislative design, governance and institutional structures, participatory arrangements, and legal/economic tools.

The project will produce a series of working papers for wide input and comment. Tangible options for reform will be included in a final report in late 2018.


Raewyn Peart, Policy Director

Greg Severinsen, Senior Policy Researcher


Thank you to the New Zealand Law Foundation for their support of this project.

Also thanks to the Employers & Manufacturers Association, Property Council New Zealand, Infrastructure New Zealand and Watercare for providing financial support for the project.

Last updated at 10:06AM on October 5, 2018