The RMA Quality Planning Resource

The way in which a plan is structured, and the content within it organised is critical in assisting the understanding and effectiveness of that plan. Good structure and organisation can help ensure important plan provisions are not overlooked, enable better integration between provisions, and improve understanding as to the origin and intent of provisions (particularly rules). However, where the intent and origins of plan provisions are unclear, or not well integrated, then those provisions could become prone to legal challenge and be less defensible.

The Resource Management Act (RMA) contains provisions relating to the overall content of plans but little guidance has been available as to the structure and organisation of plans. The philosophy that local authorities should decide for themselves has, consequently, seen the structure and organisation of plans vary markedly between, and sometimes within councils.

A degree of commonality and consistency in plan structure and organisation is important to:

  • assist those who use the plans of many councils (such as consultants and the Environment Court) to quickly find the information they need without having to first work out the structure and organisation of each plan and internal linkages
  • better enable business and the public to understand the role and structure of RMA plans through adopting a structure that is familiar to them regardless of which plan they are looking at
  • allow similarities and differences between plans to be quickly identified and evaluated by those preparing, using or monitoring plans
  • make it easier for central government to prepare national policy statements and national environmental standards that align with how plans are structured, organised and written
  • allow staff transferring from one council to another to quickly adapt to using the plan of their new employer (thereby creating less down time and greater efficiencies in administration).

This guidance note suggests an example structure to assist in achieving a degree of commonality and consistency between plans; is it not intended to remove the ability of local authorities to structure plans in a way they consider best meets local circumstances.

Who the plan is for?

The purpose of regional or district plans under the RMA is to assist a regional council or territorial authority to "carry out [any of] its functions in order to achieve the purpose of this Act" (ss63 and 72). This implies that the intended primary users are local authorities.

The reality is that district and regional plans are also regularly used by others including the general public and businesses (who may be considering applying for a resource consent for the first time), developers, consultants, surveyors, architects, lawyers, judges, commissioners, various environmental or business interest groups. The level of knowledge and regularity of use by each of these parties varies widely but catering to their need for quick and easy access to the information they need from a plan will benefit all.

Plan structure: Overarching principles

Before deciding on a particular plan structure and organisation, consider a number of key principles.

  1. Structure around user expectations and conventions: Many publications follow a particular organisational style and format that people sub-consciously absorb and expect to see in other documents (tables of content and an introduction at the start, appendices and an index at the back, for example). The format of legislation also follows a set pattern and style. These styles reflect writing, non-fiction publishing and legal conventions and principles.
  2. Keep it simple: Avoid the temptation to put 'everything' into the plan (thereby adding additional sections and chapters that most readers will never use). It can be helpful to ask the following when considering sections or chapters that are not related to core provisions:
    • Does this add value to the plan and make it easier to use?
    • Would plan users actually need, or use, this information?
  3. Keep the bigger picture in mind: Second generation regional and district plans form part of a much wider suite of plans and strategies than those prepared in the 1990s. For example, plans give effect to regional policy statements; take into account planning documents recognised by iwi authorities, and should have some form of relation with Long Term Plans, and with Regional Land Transport Strategies. The following links demonstrate some of the relationships with other documents:
  4. Consider how the plan will be monitored and enforced: Developing the plan monitoring strategy (or monitoring indicators) alongside the plan provisions is very useful for improving clarity and enforceability of plan provisions (e.g. how the council knows provisions are being complied with), weed out provisions (or possible monitoring indicators) that may be unnecessary or impractical, and better align monitoring reports (particularly those under s35(2A)) with plans.