USB stick holds key to Auckland's future

5:38 am on 20 July 2016

Analysis - A humble USB data stick will on Friday be handed to the Auckland Council containing the plan that will shape Auckland for the next decades.

Aucklanders and their councillors will have to wait a further five days to see how the long-debated Unitary Plan will change the city's landscape, after the country's biggest-ever planning process.

Homes at the Waimahia development in Weymouth in Auckland.

The Unitary Plan has been five years in the making, but councillors have just three weeks to absorb it before making a final decision. Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

The USB stick holds volumes of documents drawn up by the Independent Hearings Panel following nearly 250 days of hearings on a plan five years in the making.

The location of higher density housing, future high-rises, and where character homes will be protected, will be revealed publicly on Wednesday 27 July, shortly after council staff present it to councillors.

The plan has sparked heated and passionate debate across Auckland over the council's desire to accommodate 60 to 70 percent of future growth within the urban area, and limit sprawl into rural areas.

What's likely to be the final chapter - barring appeals - in the debate crucial to Auckland's future, will play out over less than four weeks from the public reveal next Wednesday.

The plan drawn up by the panel is only a recommendation to the council, but special legislation gives the politicians little room to make changes, with final decisions due by 18 August.

The government is keeping political pressure on the councillors with repeated public statements that they need to deliver a plan that will provide for rapid housing expansion in an affordable way.

It was standing room only for the extraordinary Auckland council meeting.

It was standing room only for the extraordinary Auckland council meeting earlier this year. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

It hopes the plan will slow steadily rising home prices, believing that Auckland's past councils' approaches to planning choked construction and created a shortage of homes thought to be around 30,000 or more.

The councillors, now less than three months from an election, are caught between that government pressure, communities and voters who oppose intensification and those calling for higher density zonings.

Advocates of higher density argue that smaller dwellings in clusters of townhouses, terraces or apartments, will be the best way to create homes more affordable than traditional stand-alone houses.

The debate has at times been portrayed as a generational divide, with the most vocal opposition coming from those living in upmarket or "leafy" suburbs, while younger people say intensification may be the only way of creating homes they can afford.

The final political act will play out in up to seven days of council meetings scheduled from 10 to 18 August, when the plan must be signed of.

Councillors can only reject the findings using evidence considered by the panel, and must come up with an alternative proposal within the parameters of ideas before the panel.

Any rejection of a panel recommendation leaves the council exposed to possible Environment Court appeals by any of those who submitted on that particular issue.

Auckland mayor Len Brown at the gathering of graffiti agencies in Auckland.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown will stand down in October. Photo: RNZ/Kim Baker Wilson

The meetings could be the most difficult in the two terms since Auckland Council was formed in 2010 and set off to create the "world's most liveable city", a slogan promoted by the inaugural mayor Len Brown.

Mr Brown is not seeking re-election in October, but most of the 20 councillors are. And on the campaign trail through September, they may have to face communities not keen on what the Unitary Plan brings.