29 Feb 2016

Urbanist Tommy Honey

From Nine To Noon, 11:50 am on 29 February 2016
Tommy Honey

Tommy Honey discusses the latest twist in the saga of Auckland's Unitary Plan with Kathryn Ryan:

Another fine mess we’ve got ourselves into

By Tommy Honey

It’s been hot in Auckland this week; too hot.  Way beyond the point of overheated.  Muggy as all get out, temperatures rising, bodies drenched in sweat.  It’s been nearly as bad outside the Council meeting about the Unitary Plan.

What is all the fuss about, why the extraordinary meeting, what is this mess the council finds itself in and why even have a Unitary Plan?  Let’s peel this onion – layer by layer.

First things first: all councils (also known as Territorial Authorities) are required to have a District Plan that sets out the rules of what you can build, where and under what constraints.  Not all District Plans are alike.  This was particularly the case when the Auckland SuperCity was formed and the new conglomeration inherited a number of District Plans that needed to be unified – hence the “Unitary Plan”.  So rather than this being a mad new scheme invented by a mayor dreaming of legacies and a rapacious council (as some would describe it) it is actually a legal requirement.  The new enlarged city can’t have one set of rules for one area that are inconsistent with those of another.

There are also pragmatic considerations.  The previous individual councils were not obliged to think of the population growth of the whole region nor be responsible for the bigger picture; they merely had to deal with what occurred within their boundaries.  The new Auckland Council has this responsibility and is using the Unitary Plan to address issues of growth, land supply and housing as they bring together all the previous disparate district plans.

These bigger picture issues have - rightly or wrongly – overwhelmed and obscured the need for city-wide planning and consistency.  This planning has been going on since the inception of the new Auckland Council and the development of the Unitary Plan has been legislatively prescribed.  The Council developed the Draft Unitary Plan, which went out for consultation in 2013.  The Council doesn’t have the final say on the plan.  This is the responsibility of the Independent Hearings panel (the IHP) made up of independent experts and chaired by Judge David Kirkpatrick.

The draft plan tidied up the planning and building rules and made them consistent – a pragmatic achievement often overlooked by the media and various commentators.  Some areas experienced little or no change; for others it was more significant.  For some, their zoning changed.

The Council – looking at the bigger picture of population growth – did two things: they set a limit of “greenfields” development at 40% of overall growth; and created new zones to accommodate the 60% of growth in existing areas.  This latter growth can only occur through intensification, which was allowed for in new zones in some areas.

This was no universally well received but there was a consultation process and thousands of people made submissions.  As a result, changes were made to some of the details of the zones and where they applied.  And then the wheels started to come off…

Taking into account the changes as a result of the consultation meant that the city could not accommodate the amount of growth predicted.  The council had two options: return to the drawing board and restart the process; or make the change necessary and keep the process on track.

Going back to the beginning, redrawing zones and inviting submissions would mean that the Council would not meet the deadline of July this year to have this resolved.  So they chose the latter option of making the changes to the zoning and approving them which they did in December.  This doesn’t mean that these new zones are final and incontestable.  What they approved was a raft of changes (with a number of new sites zoned for intensification) that would be included in a submission to the Independent Hearings Panel for consideration.  This process ensures that the Council could present their submission to the IHP and have their experts speak to the panel about why they thought the changes necessary.  The IHP would still be the ones to make the final recommendations.  It also meant that the original timelines and deadlines could be met.

But this path has left the Council open to criticism of not following due process.  After following a rigorous democratic process with the initial Draft Plan, they now appear to have ducked down a side road to get the latest changes through.  They have now locked themselves in a cul-de-sac, from which they cannot escape, with the way out blocked by hordes of rowdy citizens from all sides of the debate, complaining about their disenfranchisement.

And it was these people – the Council, their experts, citizens, their experts, the media – that gathered this week in an Extraordinary Meeting of the Council that lasted seven hours, to discuss a way forward.  Given the process (or lack thereof) that preceded the meeting, a happy conclusion was never on the cards.  Special interest groups – the young, the not-so-young, renters, owners, owners of expensive houses, renters of cheap houses, economists – all clamoured to be heard by a group of councillors with their own concerns.  The Unitary Plan, although a statutory requirement, is perceived to be mayor Len Brown’s baby.  Some councillors like intensification but don’t like Len Brown; others like Len but are opposed to intensification.  Some are pragmatic; others political. Some concerned with process; others that the Unitary Plan get through, mindful of the political cost.  All are painfully aware that this is election year and whatever position they take now will be noted on judgment day later in the year.

In the meeting, as feelings mounted and emotions ran high, the tide of change receded exposing the sea floor of the status quo and the council voted to withdraw their submission to the IHP that contained their proposed changes announced in December.

This has been seen as a victory by some, a pyrrhic victory by others, a loss, a tragedy etc.  There were no winners on the day, not even the status quo, not even democracy.  Poor process has been rejected but nothing put in place to replace it.  There will be no new consultation process about new zones, no public submission to the Independent Hearings Panel for them to consider how to accommodate growth.

The real loss, if any, will be that having voted to withdraw their submission to the IHP, the Council has foregone the right to appear before them as a submitter.  This means that the planners and council experts have been silenced in the process and the IHP will only have the earlier results of the 2013 Draft Plan consultative process to go on; with nothing in front of them about how to accommodate the growth opportunities lost in that process they will only be able to guess what is in the council’s minds as they plot a way forward.  And we can only guess how that process will work.