At first glance, the RMA's required provisions in statements and plans may seem complicated, and not to have obvious value. The number of required provisions means that plans can be huge, and sometimes risk being repetitive. Some district plans have one volume for the rules, and a separate volume for the other provisions - the second volume destined to sit on the shelf.
So why do plans have to contain these provisions, what is the point of them all, and why should you worry about getting them right?
Setting out the issues, objectives, policies, methods, and ERAs matters because it is part of the public policy cycle, and it creates a discipline for the policy maker.
The provisions themselves, especially the objectives and policies:
Identifying issues, setting objectives, policies, and methods, and establishing ERAs are key steps in the public policy cycle, and provide a clear logic to plan development.
The matters listed in sections 62, 67 and 75 of the RMA are not simply "nice to have" provisions. They are part of a process that relates directly to the public policy cycle, which is widely accepted as a rational approach to public policy-making. Descriptions of the cycle range from four to eight or more steps, depending on the amount of detail.
The public policy cycle is widely accepted as a rational approach to public policy-making. The steps involved provide a clear logic to plan development.
Identifying issues and establishing policy objectives that relate to these issues is the starting point of the public policy cycle.
Once relevant issues are identified and policy objectives established, the next step in the public policy cycle is policy formulation.
A policy is a statement of a local authority’s intended action or attitude towards an issue.
Policy is formulated by:
The next step in the public policy cycle is to implement the policy. This involves developing an implementation strategy and allocating human, financial and other resources to achieve stated policies and objectives.
The final step in the public policy cycle is policy evaluation. Policy evaluation involves establishing a benchmark for monitoring results. It is a process that assesses how well the policy is working through comparing monitoring data against anticipated results.
The provisions of sections 62, 67 and 75 thus reflect key steps in this process. They involve:
Drafting policy statement and plan provisions means recording each of these steps. Being required to record these steps acts as a discipline on the policy maker.
A well-drafted plan presents a strong case for the policies and methods it contains, and is harder to challenge. Setting out the steps of the policy-making process:
Stating the issues, objectives, policies, methods, and ERAs demonstrates consistency with the RMA by showing:
In Hawkes Bay vs St Columba's Environmental House Group (W085/94) the Environment Court expressed reservations about including in regional policy statements provisions (namely visions statements and principles) not required by the Act. The Court suggested that there is a danger such statements could create ambiguity and uncertainty.
In Nugent Consultants Ltd v Auckland City Council (A033/96), the Environment Court acknowledged that rules follow from objectives and policies, and should link directly to them. Rules can be found unnecessary if they cannot be shown to have a clear relationship to objectives and policies. This reinforces the importance of clear objectives and policies, and of good drafting.
In Suburban Estates v Christchurch City Council (C217/01), the Environment Court reinforced the role of objectives and policies in assessing the need for rules. It also supported the view that objectives and policies drive methods, not the other way around. In that case the Court stated that "the purpose of objectives and policies is to give guidance as to how the purpose of the Act is to be achieved".
Objectives and policies set out what the plan rules (or other methods) are aiming to achieve. Several sections of the RMA establish a clear purpose for objectives and policies.
Sections 104 and 105 give objectives and policies a specific role in decisions made about resource consents. This role is particularly important for decisions about activities that don't comply with the rules, as they help to decide whether the proposed activity would contradict the overall intent of the plan.
Objectives and policies can't limit the discretion of decision makers, but they can provide clear guidance about what decision makers think is relevant and important.
In addition, regional policy statements and plans provide a policy framework for some aspects of district planning. Clear issues, objectives, policies, methods, and ERAs in regional policy documents provide valuable guidance for district plan policy makers.
In Nugent Consultants Ltd v Auckland City Council (A033/96), the Environment Court
What the courts have said: examining objectives and policies
In Rattray and Son v Christchurch City (1984) 10 NZPTA 59 (CA)), the Environment Court found that the scheme statement objectives and policies could be examined to clarify any uncertainty arising from ordinances (rules).
In MacKenzie District Council v Glacier v Southern Lakes Helicopters (C083/97), the Court (relying on previous case law) stated a four-step process for interpreting rules of district plans. The steps are:
1. Give the words their "plain and ordinary meaning"
2. Look at the words in the context of rules as a whole
3. Examine the objectives and policies of the plan
4. Have regard to the purpose and scheme of the Act.
The decision-making value of all plan provisions, and objectives and policies in particular, give resource owners, resource users, and the community more certainty about potential resource use. The amount of certainty that a plan provides (particularly certainty about the degree of tolerable effect) is a useful way to measure good resource management practice.
Plans frequently outlive the tenure of local authority staff and politicians. The objectives and policies need to provide explicit, clear direction to anyone required to implement them, and to anyone wanting to use the resources controlled by them.