Section 32 of the Resource Management Act provides a process for the critical evaluation of planning policy and proposals. Lucy Cooper examines whether the recent changes to s32 will improve the quality of s32 evaluations and the basis upon which we develop planning policy in New Zealand:
The amendments to s32 of the Resource Management Act that were introduced recently are designed to address both procedural issues – i.e. how to do a s32 evaluation – and improve the evidential basis upon which policy development and ultimately planning decisions are made. Accompanying the changes is the Ministry for the Environment’s (MfE) interim GUIDE TO SECTION 32 OF THE RMA, a 95-page document that provides a step-by-step manual to the s32 evaluation process, from scoping and project managing the evaluation right through to the publication of the report.
No doubt, checklists have their place and are very useful in making sure planners execute their legislative responsibilities. But in terms of ensuring the development and delivery of an engaging, robust and defensible evaluation report of “why we developed this policy in this way”, perhaps we need to be more creative, resourceful and, dare I say it, brave, and use the s32 evaluation process to demonstrate a greater ownership of, and pride in, the policy that has been developed. And that to me seems to be where the new s32 provisions have failed to address the problem – they focus on the report instead of on the evaluation. Yes, we need help with our reporting but perhaps the unfavourable attitude towards writing s32 reports is founded in a form of guilt that we are trying to document an evaluation that we know we should have done, but didn’t.
Perhaps Parliament, when it embarked on the changes to s32, was looking at this problem from the wrong end of the telescope. According to the MfE interim guidance, Task 2 of a s32 evaluation is the ‘integration of the evaluation with plan development’. “Sufficient evidence”, we are told on page 21, “is critical for evaluation reports”. Hang on. Shouldn’t that read, “sufficient evidence is critical for policy development”? Is the reason the s32 process and the reports that result are considered frequently unsatisfactory by authors and stakeholders alike, that the evidential basis for our policy development is not strong enough to withstand protracted and intense scrutiny?
You probably suspect at this stage that I’ve slipped into some sort of Dead Poet’s School of Planning, that I’m advocating all passion and no process. Not quite. However, I am suggesting that a shift in attitudes, at both the individual and the institutional level, towards policy development could serve our communities and the environment well. It involves a shift to better evaluation as an integral part of the policy development process that begins right from the very beginning.
- Define the problem (issue statements)
- Define the outcome (objectives)
- Define the options for solutions (identify alternative approaches)
- Evaluate the options (evaluate alternative approaches)
- Construct the preferred option (draft the provisions)
This has implications for the following:
- How the development of policy is structured, reported and documented; and
- How research to support policy development is designed, commissioned and reported.
The ultimate implication is that integrating s32 evaluation into the policy writing process should result in better policy, and in the achievement of anticipated environmental outcomes. And best of all, it should make writing the s32 report a piece of cake. Worth a thought, perhaps.
Essentially, I hope the table shows that a s32 evaluation is not distinct from policy research and development; it is policy research and development. Indeed, I would suggest that the planning profession consider renaming Section 32 to ‘policy development process’. Section 32 has been treated as an ancillary process to policy development for too long, instead of being treated as the method by which policy is to be developed. Perhaps, with a shift in focus, we planners may just CLIMB UP ONTO OUR DESKS and look at RMA policy development in a different way!
Lucy Cooper is a resource management planner who loves cost benefit analysis, and hula-hooping.