Tuesday 26 July 2011

What would 'Party X' do about the environment? - PART 3: Small Consents

IMAGINE A ‘PARTY X’ that was actually committed to opposing statism ,and to advocating for free enterprise. Imagine such a party had a cabinet committing to rolling back the state, and an environment minister brimming over with ideas to do that.
    Here, in several parts, are the sort of environmental policies such a party (and such a minister) could advocate. Seven simple policies using present-day political realities to roll back the state without introducing any new coercion along the way.

No serious environmental policy can avoid the elephant in the room that is the Resource Management Act (RMA).
Today, I present for your consideration a simple solution for removing RMA pain from the little guy, and a step towards making more affordable housing.

“When the productive have to ask permission from the unproductive in order to produce,” said Ayn Rand, “then you may know that your culture is doomed.”

That’s true.

Just ask anyone who has waited in line for a resource consent.

But although it’s practical to remove the RMA overnight, it’s not yet politically possible.  So here’s one way to get that particular ball rolling using political pressures that presently exist.

For all the high-profile RMA horror stories that hit the news, as former Federated Farmers president Charlie Pederson observed, "it's little, not large, that suffers most RMA pain." So let’s start there. Let’s start by freeing up the little guy so he doesn’t have to stand around cap in hand waiting for a pimply-faced graduate of some planning school to decide if your carport extension is “a sustainable use of the earth’s resources”—which is exactly what happens now.  And let’s start in the place that will have the most impact on making new New Zealand houses affordable: by removing the delays and uncertainties involved in smaller more affordable projects.

Here’s how it could be done.

FIRST, ENACT A CODIFICATION of basic common law principles such as the Coming to the Nuisance Doctrine and rights to light and air and the like.

Second, register on all land titles (as voluntary restrictive covenants) the basic “no bullshit” provisions of District Plans (stuff like height-to-boundary rules, density requirements and the like).

Next, and this will take a little more time, insist that councils set up a ‘Small Consents Tribunals’ for projects of a value less than $300,000 to consider issues presently covered by the RMA and by their District Plans. These Consents Tribunal should function in a similarly informal fashion as Small Claims Tribunals do now, with the power to make instant decisions.

This would mean that instead of talking to a planner about your carport, about which he couldn’t give a rat’s fat backside, you decide for yourself.  And, if your carport would violate one of the covenants, you then talk about it to your neighbour—with whom you and he would have plenty of negotiating room.  And once you (and your neighbour if necessary) have made your mind up, The Consents Tribunals would consider your small project on the basis of the codified common law principles, the voluntary restrictive covenants on your title, and the agreements (if necessary) you’ve negotiated with your neighbour(s). Simple really.

You should be able to reach agreement in an afternoon, and have your title amended the next day.

So instead of cluttering up the Environment Court with minor projects that only add to the already lengthy delays there, a ‘Party X’ keen to roll back the state could start by freeing up the huge number of small projects that are either in long delay, or are stillborn due to the expense and delay of the presently unpermissive environment.

Setting up such tribunals should be sensible, relatively simple, and politically achievable. And at a stroke you’ve made lower-cost housing easier and more attractive to build.

And at some point it should become clear to most land owners that these restrictive covenants on their titles are not vague prescriptions coercively mandated by statute, but instead are ‘voluntary’ in the sense that (as with basic common law principles) they are covenants in favour of neighbouring landowners–i.e., covenants that protect your neighbours’ legitimate rights.

Furthermore, these are things over which you don’t need to go cap in hand to a planner to change. Instead you may negotiate with your neighbours to add to them, amend them, or remove all or any of them--making any reciprocal deals you may imagine. (And you’re negotiating with people whose business it really is.)

Here’s how these examples could work out in practice.  If for example you like my tree, and I like my view over a particular corner of your section, then we can negotiate at our leisure and have these interests registered on our titles as a covenant and an easement respectively. That’s how the whole process starts. With simple voluntary agreements like this.

Over time we should slowly see emerging a network of reciprocal covenants built up between neighbouring properties reflecting the voluntary agreements over land that neighbours have freely negotiated—a network reflecting not a planners’ commands, but a network of legitimate rights, interests and values.  And in time, as more of these agreements are negotiated between neighbours, the former District Plan provisions(stuff like height-to-boundary rules, density requirements and the like) would become increasingly unimportant, and it will be these voluntary agreements on which the Small Consents Tribunals will be adjudicating.

NOW AT A STROKE these Small Consents Tribunals will make affordable housing more affordable, and encourage more interest in projects at this end of the market.

At a stroke too it should free up the Environment Court and council offices for more important projects than these small ones, and depoliticise many neighbourhood disputes. Everyone kicks a goal.

Who could possibly object?

As the success of these Small Consents Tribunals becomes more evident, as I'm confident they would be, and as their own sophistication in common law increases, then public pressure should build up to raise the financial value of projects accepted by the Tribunal first to $400k, then to $500k and beyond, and eventually there should be sufficient public pressure and political will built up to abolish the RMA altogether in favour of common law protections.

That’s the secret of good judo: using simple means to rid yourself of a large opponent.

[Tune in tomorrow for policy proposal number four: “Iwi then Kiwi - a unique kind of privatisation.”]

* * * * *

INTRO: 'What Would 'Party X' Do About the Environment?'
PART TWO: 'A Nuisance and a BOR.'
THE SERIES IS BASED ON THE PRINCIPLE DEVELOPED HERE: 'Transitions to Freedom: Shall We Kill Them in Their Beds?'


PaulB said...

Would there be any point in attempting this from the council level up? i.e. if a council was to state its policy was to essentially rubber stamp consents and meet their minimal obligations under the law.

Peter Cresswell said...

Hi Paul,

Council has to do what council is required to do by the RMA. Which is to write District Plans and get the hell in your way.

And if they tried anything else, short answer is that Nick Smith would fire them and appoint statutory managers--just as (for different reasons) he did in Canterbury.