RMA reforms put spotlight on climate change

An Auckland Council geotech specialist inspects a landslip after Cyclone Debbie. Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Councils will have to think much more carefully before they allow housing developments on flood plains and in low-lying coastal areas because of little-noticed reforms buried within the latest changes to the Resource Management Act (RMA). And, although these reforms don't apply to existing homes, councils are becoming more aggressive about adding information to LIMs warning property buyers of the risks of flooding in severe weather events or due to rising water levels.

This week's passing of RMA reforms means councils are now on firmer ground when it comes to making zoning decisions and refusing consents on the grounds of natural hazards.

The risk of floods and landslides, as well as coastal erosion from rising seas and earthquake and tsunami risks, have been elevated to "matters of national importance" in the legislation.

Land bankers sitting on land they hope to sell for development may want to check out how it coped in the latest storms. Councils will now be looking even more closely at development applications and subdivision applications to ensure the land does not have a record of flooding, or if it is at risk of flooding or erosion with the increased rainfall and extreme weather events created by climate change.

"The impact of putting natural hazards into the issues of national importance of the RMA is that when councils are approving subdivisions, when they are approving major developments, they have to give greater weight to issues like earthquakes and floods," Environment Minister Nick Smith told Newsroom.

"That may mean in some circumstances not allowing a development to occur … or it may require the developer to put substantive mitigation works in place to ensure the area is either protected from earthquakes by underground strengthening of the soil if that is possible, or by putting stronger flood protection in place."

Pointing to climate change as one driver of the changes, Smith said the frequency of floods, landslides and cyclones was likely to increase.

"That makes it even more important that in the engine room of the RMA we make natural hazards such as earthquakes and floods a far more important consideration," he said.

Under the existing legislation, councils already had the function of controlling land use to avoid or mitigate natural hazards, and 2010 advice from law firm Simpson Grierson to Local Government NZ said the RMA provided councils with "a comprehensive mandate to prevent or restrict both new development and the extension of existing development in hazardous areas"

But, speaking in parliament on the third and final reading of the RMA reform, Smith said "planners had been so diverted by the more political correct requirements of the current Act that those requirements were overlooked."

“The introduction of natural hazards into the core principles of planning and consenting is critical to New Zealand lifting its management of risks from earthquakes and floods," he added in a later press release on the passing of the reform.

Local Government NZ welcomed the strengthening of that mandate to manage "significant risk" from natural hazard, but said it still didn't provide the clarity councils needed around natural hazard management.

"This still raises further questions on defining 'significant risk'," the LGNZ said.

Keep an eye on LIMS

Councils are also likely to beef up the information on LIM reports about natural hazards, even while they wait for more concrete central Government advice and local government consensus about how to deal with the hot potato issue of climate change impacts such as coastal erosion and rising water levels.

Many councils, including Auckland Council, already include information on LIMs if they know a property is prone to flooding. After flood events such as last week's, surveyors report any new "overland flow paths", with the information used to update LIMs and also feed into the council's flood hazard modelling software. Auckland council is in the early stages of considering more detailed and consistent information on LIMs about flood risks.

Biggest impact on new developments

The elevation of importance of natural hazards in the RMA reform doesn't affect existing homes and developments.

The legislation "has a very strong principle of existing use rights," said Smith. "It doesn't affect the decisions where development has already occurred, even though we may subsequently have worked out it more exposed to flooding, quakes or other natural hazard risks."

But, with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and the even gloomier predictions of sea level rise, the thorny issue of what to do when suburbs, such as South Dunedin, are flooding too frequently or cliffs are eroding too close to homes is going to have to faced by councils sooner than they may have expected.

Both Labour and the Greens say they didn't oppose the elevation of natural hazards to "matters of national importance", but both argue that the government is not doing enough on the issue.

"The change in the new act is all show and no substance," said Greens spokesperson Eugenie Sage. "There is no national policy statement to guide councils and the new permissive approach around subdivision- no resource consent needed if it is in an area zoned residential - will make it very difficult for councils to require floor levels to be higher or impose other conditions to reduce hazard risk. GNS also wanted greater scope for council conditions on resource consents re hazards, but the Government opposed."

The Ministry for the Environment is currently researching a National Policy Statement on natural hazards, with a discussion document due next year.