Here’s a conspiracy theory. Building, demolition, waste/fill disposal and other resource consent regulations are being suspended in Canterbury following the recent earthquake. Indications are that exemptions to the RMA regime will be granted by order in council, and (among other things) the norm will be to permit building and reconstruction work to take place without delay, the consents being — here’s a phrase — restrospectively validated. It’s plausible that this will serve as a pilot scheme for the government’s next tranche of deregulation in the building industry and resource management sector.
I’m not a civil engineer or an expert in either town planning or disaster reconstruction. But I have a few concerns. There are obvious concerns with the possible quality of workmanship in the immediate term given the new lack of oversight which, at its most lax, could permit any chap with a hammer and a can-do ethic to undertake their own structural work which will need to be be certified (or not) after the fact; other concerns around the likelihood that rights of objection to resource consent applications will apparently be severely curtailed in order to expedite the reconstruction.
But my main concern is over the longer term. A government which has declared itself the enemy of all environmental regulation — in the local government sector, overseen by Rodney Hide, in particular — is making a There Is No Alternative argument to use Canterbury as the test-bed for its latest massive (and this time rather ad-hoc) deregulation project. The project will have two different and contrasting sets of outcomes. In the short term, the volume of reconstruction and reconstruction work will pick up swiftly, providing a shot in the arm both to a flagging construction sector and to a region whose core industries, particularly manufacturing, were hit hard by the economic downturn. This will begin to peak through the coming year or so, coincidentally about the time it takes to get many resource consent applications underway, and not coincidentally, about the time of the next general election. The adverse consequences of a less-regulated construction and resource management sector — let’s coin the term ‘creaky buildings’ — won’t begin to appear until well after that time.
So, expect the 2011 general election to be fought substantially on this topic of deregulation, particularly of the local government sector, and to be fought on the front-foot with Canterbury as the key battleground. The predominant line in rhetoric will be “under the RMA, nothing would have been rebuilt yet”, and we’ll hear all the same assurances as we heard last time. And based on the rapid development and booming construction sector in that region, similar reforms will be proposed across the country. After all, if it’s good enough for Canterbury, why not everywhere else? And just as before, when the creaky buildings constructed under this regime begin to creak, there’s an even chance it’ll be a Labour government which picks up the pieces. Not only is there No Alternative, for a government focused on the short and medium term with an imperative to grow now and pay the bills later, there is no downside.