I’ve discussed previously that the upcoming Auckland Unitary Plan provides us with a once in a generation opportunity to reinvent how urban planning is done in Auckland. Certainly I think it’s utterly essential that Auckland’s planning documents are given a giant overhaul, as at the moment they’re horrifically complex, contradictory and outdated. Contrary to the popular belief that urban planning forces higher densities than the market would otherwise provide, looking a bit deeper into how planning documents actually works tends to highlight that the opposite is true – that our planning documents actually force urban sprawl. This is pretty dumb when our high level documents are trying to promote intensification as a key way for Auckland to grow.
One big positive that comes out of the formation of Auckland Council is that we have the chance to effectively “start from scratch” with our planning rules. So this “Unitary Plan” is pretty exciting – even if its timeframe for development is (I think) unreasonably quick, with notification of the plan expected by the end of next year. So how might this plan look, and what are some of the “broad brush” ideas that Auckland Council’s planning team are working on?
Former Auckland Regional Councillor Joel Cayford attended a presentation last week, given by council’s head planner Penny Pirrit, about these issues last week – and has some interesting observations about what was said:
The RMA issues were interesting. The RMA is not about outcomes, it is about effects. The Unitary Plan needs to be about positives, not just about negatives.
Penny explained that the Unitary Plan needed to be defensible. Her guidance is that the RMA needs to be “set aside” in order for the new Auckland Council to be able to produce a defensible plan. Identify areas of the Unitary Plan that disagree with the RMA. And then negotiate with Government and MfE to change the RMA.
Comment: Wow. Big call. About time. Not sure what Dr Smith will make of this though.
Penny advocated strongly “we need to stick our neck out, take the risk, and what we do might need to be tested in the Environment Court…”
Comment: This is another big call. It’s a bit like what Auckland Regional Council needed to do in defending the MUL, the Metropolitan Urban Limit, as a method that was appropriate in terms of the RMA in enabling integrated management of natural resources…
We were advised that Auckland Council has already put submissions in to Central Government to remove RMA appeal rights to plan changes, and new plans – because those changes represent strategic statements of the Council.
Another big call. I can’t imagine various land owners agreeing to this. They will want to protect their property rights till the cows come home. But I agree. How can a Council control natural resource use, when it’s going to be dragged into the Environment Court where some notion of “balance” and a “judge’s weighing of issues” can put at risk a broader call.”
As Joel says, it’s interesting and (I think) quite exciting to see Auckland Council seemingly so willing to be so innovative in their approach to planning that they would actually look to get ahead of RMA changes – then push for the government to change the law to fit with what the council comes up with.
Something else which is very interesting is the list of principles that the Unitary Plan is being developed under:
1) give effect to the Auckland Plan;
2) be innovative;
3) be user friendly;
4) be outcome focussed;
5) have minimum repetition;
6) use illustrations and diagrams;
7) ensure planning gain outweighs planning pain.
Joel’s not quite so sure about the focus on simplicity that filters through much of this – and that’s understandable to an extent. Overly simplistic planning rules can be very blunt and ineffective. But at the same time overly complex planning rules have huge problems of their own – being almost impossible to decipher, being self-contradictory and so forth. I quite like the broad principles outlined above. There are other issues to balance as well, pretty standard stuff:
1) Developers want certainty
2) The community wants involvement in all applications – except their own
3) Interest groups are quite prepared to waive private property rights in the public interest, and “are the hardest groups to deal with”
4) Designers who want flexibility in process to do what they think is best and not be fettered by rules…
- certainty vs flexibility (includes process vs outcome, rules vs criteria)
- level of intervention (lessons from the past, doing it right for the right reasons)
- integration of regional and district (RMA reqs, remove duplication, ensure env protection)
These are all fundamental planning issues that are always going to be debated – and it will be interesting to see how council approaches this.
One big issue that I think the Unitary Plan will have to consider is the extent to which we have a “rules based system” or an “assessment based system” in our plans. Do we set things up with a myriad of rules detailing the type of (for example) residential development we want: maximum heights, setback rules, site coverage, density controls, height-to-boundary controls, yard size controls, permeable area controls and so forth. Proscribing development to such a great extent means that we should have a fairly good idea about what these rules will produce, assuming that they don’t contradict each other.
Or do we approach things more generally, saying that we want a general type of development (say medium intensity housing) in an area, along with some outcomes we want (say a high level of amenity, an urban form that encourages alternative transport options, decent backyards, some level of privacy and so forth) and then leave it to architects, designers and planners so sort out the particular details for the situation – to demonstrate how a particular proposal meets those general requirements.
The second approach would mean that pretty much everything requires resource consent, and that potentially there’s a fair bit of subjectivity that goes into assessing each development. But I like its flexibility to enable scope for the best outcome in each particular situation to be found. I like the fact that, if we keep the guidance fairly general, what is a “good outcome” can adapt over time, so we don’t end up in the current situation where our rules are often around 20 years out of date – reflecting subjective decisions made back when the plan was drafted.
I suppose ultimately it comes down to the question of whether it’s just our current rules which are the problem, or whether it’s the idea of basing planning around a highly detailed set of rules that is the problem. It will be interesting to see which of the two approaches, or which mix of the two, we end up with. I’m fairly optimistic about things though, largely because I don’t think we can do much worse than what we have now.