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What to watch out for in the Unitary Plan

There has been lot of media interest in the past few days about the upcoming release of the Auckland Unitary Plan’s discussion document – which will go out for public consultation on March 15th. There’s the usual scaremongering from the Herald about how the Plan will enable intensification and that will inevitably lead to slums:

The Auckland Council yesterday approved the draft unitary plan that sets out to change residents’ behaviour and expectations when it comes to their love affair with housing.

Councillors heard that apartments and intensification would not only give Aucklanders greater housing choices, but meet the desire of communities to jazz up town centres.

The proposals have not gone down well with some councillors, who fear it will lead to slums and multi-storey “walls” along popular beachfronts such as Orewa and Browns Bay.

Deputy mayor Penny Hulse, who is leading work on the unitary plan, said it tackled many sometimes difficult issues. “We want as many Aucklanders as possible to have their say to ensure we get a plan for all Aucklanders.”

Under the plan, the greatest intensification will occur in 10 “metropolitan” centres, where apartments of 18 storeys will be allowed. This is followed by 37 town centres, where four to eight storeys will be permitted.

Moving out of these centres into residential areas, the council has created a 250m zone for terraced housing and apartments of between four and six storeys.

The remaining residential areas will have a mixed-housing zone, allowing for one house per 300sq m with no density limits when developers landbank more than 1200sq m to build five or more houses.

The terraced house and apartment zone and mixed-housing zone account for 56 per cent of residential land, leaving 44 per cent for a single-house zone and a large-lot zone.

The single-house zone permits one house per 500sq m and includes the heritage suburbs, while the large-lot zone covers large single-house lots, typically on the urban edge.

There’s a lot of really interesting information in here to digest. But to start with I must say I find the “framing” of the debate exceedingly annoying – that the Plan is trying to ‘force’ people into changing their behaviours and all the references to slums. As we’ve been arguing on this blog for a very long time, there’s quite a lot of evidence that people really do want to live in a wider variety of housing if it means that they’re able to live closer to amenities, employment and so forth. By loosening the controls on development the Unitary Plan is simply enabling what people want to do.

There will be a lot of discussion about height limits, but at first glance it seems that the Unitary Plan is taking a reasonably balanced approach by linking height limits quite clearly with a ‘hierarchy of centres': much higher limits in metropolitan centres then stepping down to medium-rise for town centres. Whether this leads to “walls” or “slums” comes down to detailed design qualities in my mind, rather than the height limit itself.

Moving away from the centres, it seems like a fairly generous apartments and terraced housing zone is proposed. I just hope that there’s also some alignment of the zone to places with really good public transport and the 250 metre limit isn’t applied too arbitrarily – often in some situations I think it could probably extent much further (for example in areas around more major centres like New Lynn) while elsewhere it might not make much sense at all (say in a place like Howick which is pretty isolated).

The mixed housing zone sounds like the most widespread zone across the entire city, so getting it right will be critical. It’s very disappointing to hear that the zone will still have density limits – as these lead to incredibly stupid outcomes and militate against the provision of affordable housing – unless someone’s able to amalgamate over 1200 square metres to do a larger-scale development. I would suggest that small-scale intensification should be promoted to a greater extent in this zone, with questions over a proposal’s acceptability or not being more related to urban design controls, bulk and height – rather than how many units a particular building/buildings are broken up into.

Of course it will be the balance of enabling growth while trying to make that growth a higher quality than what’s often occurred in the past which will be the real challenge. Achieving this balance is really really tricky if a Plan is also trying to provide some level of certainty over what someone can and cannot do with a site. I think in many ways there simply isn’t a way to balance all three competing interests so it’ll be interesting to see what loses out.

The article mentions nothing about a changed approach to parking minimums (hopefully their complete removal) which will be something to look at in great detail when the draft is publicly released for comment in the middle of March.

33 comments to What to watch out for in the Unitary Plan

  • It seems that Cameron Brewer is once again taking on the role of chief scaremonger. In this interview yesterday (from the 14 minute mark) he goes on complaining about the terror that could happen as the Meadowbank shops could suddenly jump to four stories high. That your neighbour could demolish their house and put terraced houses on the site. He goes on to say that intensification will lead to more angry neighbours and other woes.
    He seems to be going past NIMBY to wanting no development anywhere.
    http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/afternoons/audio/2547108/the-panel-with-bernard-hickey-and-irene-gardiner-part-2.asx

    One thing that needs to be made clear is that these are limits, not minimums, requirements or targets. Most development will likely occur below the minimum level.

    • JohnP

      It’s baffling because on the one hand he usually wants less regulation, more free market etc. And yet he wants more regulation on how and where we can intensify?

      • harrymc

        The neo-cons are fairly consistent in their inconsistency. They want less regulations stopping them from doing what they want but they want regulations against things they disapprove of (think anything vaguely socialist, such as PT).
        What Brewer really doesn’t like is that at the moment he doesn’t count – he’s an irrelevancy.

      • Cameron Brewer is the ideal representative for his constituency of Remmers, Meadowbank and other old-money areas. I don’t think he’s a narrow-minded, suspicious, reactionary NIMBY, but he’s certainly putting forward the views of such people in an effective way.

        • TheBigWheel

          Dear Doloras.. I’m afraid it is you who are narrow-minded in making such a sweeping generalisation of people who live in Mr Brewer’s constituency!

          I have no “old money” and am neither narrow minded nor a NIMBY. I recently posted on another topic to the contrary. I live in Meadowbank. And I am looking forward to the improvements that the plan changes will bring. I think Meadowbank is already a fantastic area. But I also think that intensification along the Remuera Road bus routes and the eastern train line will improve it further, if it delivers more shops, cafes, offices, better transit.. like continuous bus lanes through to Newmarket and the CBD, more off road cycle routes through Purewa Valley, across Hobson Basin, more local amenieties in walking range.. In short, make it more liveable.

          On the other hand I am definitely suspicious of people like Mr Brewer.. who as harrymc says simply aren’t making sense on this topic. Their views do not represent mine, or many of the people I know, and they belong in the bad old days, from the middle of the last century.

    • JohnP

      Plus, the Meadowbank shops are crap. If intensification leads to better designed, more vibrant shops, then that can only be a good thing.

      • Greg N

        I agree to a point.

        As long as we just don’t get sporadic 4 storey high modern crap instead of 2 storey high “old crap” I don’t care.

        And thats what Rudman was alluding to this morning in his article in the NZ Herald.

    • Greg N

      Brewers biggest gripe was that he doesn’t think the 1 million extra people is going to happen. His rationale for that:

      1. People in the rest of NZ now go overseas directly from the provinces rather than move to Auckland for a bit then leave.

      2. Technology is going to magically reduce the need to go to work each day in a city, instead we’ll all live in the provinces instead of agglomerating in Auckland or other big cities.

      3. No one in Council can substantiate to him where this 1 million gospel figure comes from (I think he fingers Penny Pirrit as the person who should be able to explain the 1 million number but can’t says Brewer).

      4. Stats says the rate of growth of the NZ population is slowing and is projecting less growth going forwards compared to the 2002 to 2012 period.

      • Dave Otara

        Would be great if he actually spoke out against the government’s short sighted immigration policies instead which result in this decline in living standards.The massive increase in population is mostly controllable per a Massey University professor. New Zealand is on track to end up like the UK.

        • Oh please Dave 4.5 mil v 60 mil; almost the same, nearly….

          • This does raise an interesting question.

            Increasing NZ’s population will eventually hit a point where the disadvantages outweigh the benefits. Where might that point be?
            6 million? 10 million? 20 million?

          • Of course, but remember people always think current conditions are permanent, growth is not inevitable, not certain to continue.

          • swan

            Geoff,

            It depends if you include the benefits to the new arrivals. Or if you consider them not to count. Much like hypothetical future apartment based residents in Ponsonby.

          • I’m thinking holistically here Swan, at some stage the environment will be ruined by over population and a forward thinking country would stabilise numbers before it hit that point. To do that, of course, you’d have to work out the pop. ceiling.

            Random comment about apartments though…

          • swan

            Well I guess what I am saying the population in NZ would have to be pretty high before the average joe from Mumbai did not get massive benefits from moving here.

          • TheBigWheel

            I’m not sayng this answers the question but.. if we spread everyone evenly around the world we’d have 15 m or so living here.

            Japan is more or less the same size as NZ and has 130 m.. i.e. 2x UK. Is that better or worse? No-one could argue their railways aren’t way superior to ours ;-). And while Japan is densely populated still about three quarters of the land is mountains, forests and wilderness. Arguably as “80% pure” as NZ there.

          • Dave Otara

            Obviously different numbers…..but same concept in terms of large immigration based population increases. These are used to prop up the economy/house prices and reinforce the dominance of one city over all the rest, rather than the more balanced/controlled result seen in other countries. Who actually benefits from large increases in population? Certain planners, property owners and developers do- but for your average person it is very questionable. Wages are low here so the “lifestyle” is displayed as the benefit for immigrants- if that goes then where do your immigrants come from? Some of the wealthiest nations have smaller population growth than here so to say wealth is linked to resident population is absolute rubbish.

            This is not a dig at apartments/high density living which if done correctly can be great – it is a dig at the rate of population growth and the ability for certain cities such as Auckland to actually question whether huge numbers of immigrants are a good thing. Auckland and New Zealand for the most part has proven to be relatively incompetent with infrastructure and quality housing developments – until they can sort this out then maybe the flow of people should be reduced.

    • Well Brewer is, in a wonderful phrase I read today; ‘invincibly stupid’.

  • JohnP

    As for the thing about shoebox apartments, I’d be very surprised if any of those get built in the next decade or so. One of the main drivers of those were growing international student numbers, and they’ve gone downhill since the mid-2000s.

    • Perhaps, but should we make it illegal to build more if a developer thinks there is a market for them?

      And perhaps we need to separate the “small, cheaply built, nasty dormitories for transient students”, from the “small”. No reason you can’t have very nicely built, well designed compact apartments of 30m2, europe, asia and New York are full of them. That’s a sort of trade off, for the same money you could have a very nice 30m2 apartment, or a sh*tbox 50m2 apartment. Do we want to make the former illegal?

      That might have unintended consequences. If we regulate an arguably arbitrary minimum size, we’re basically legislating a minimum cost. To build affordable but larger places developers will have to cut corners on design, amenity and quality. If we don’t want them to do that, then we’re basically saying apartments can only be both large and high quality, making it illegal to build affordable apartments anywhere desirable.

      • I WISH my current flat (out the back of a shop in Balmoral) was 30 square metres!

      • JohnP

        Sorry, should have been clearer. I’m absolutely in favour of removing the minimum size limits. And yup, small apartments can actually be done well – you walk into an Ikea store in Australia and they’ve got heaps of example layouts, pretty neat I thought.

        So developers can go ahead if they reckon there’s a market. But my personal opinion is that what we need more of is 2-3 bedroom apartments, townhouses, terraces and the like. Reducing minimum section sizes will help that kind of thing, and hopefully the next wave of development in the CBD includes some larger apartments.

      • M. Lee

        Agreed.
        One and two person households, who let’s not forget make up the majority of Aucklanders, are not well served by blanket rules, about minimum floor area.

  • swan

    One aspect I will be interested in is the timing. I hope that they intend to rezone everywhere at once. Otherwise it will mean that extra capacity is only dripfed to the market, and will continually be the subject of political pressure. In such a situation house and land prices will likely stay elevated as there will be continual uncertainty as to the future supply of housing.

    • Yes and that’s an issue about the bus redesign/EMUs/ticketing integration; timing. The new connection based service and process has to be there when the old direct routes are redirected. Already the professional whiners are winding up to moan…

  • Please God let them have dumped the parking minimums!

    The few bits of the pre-draft we have seen they were still in, everywhere from memory…

  • Tamaki

    The intensity limits in the draft will be the opening bid.
    Lobbying will bring them down, but mostly in those areas that are rich, politically engaged, and well networked. So i expect intensity will be greater in lower socio-economic areas. And developments won’t have the same quality, as residents won’t be as vigilant.
    Properties in richer areas will remain relatively scarce. Existing social divisions will be exacerbated. Although there may be a net benefit, the benefits and costs won’t be distributed fairly.

    • Yes I agree Tamaki, generally that is the way of the world. However one mitigating factor is the market: Intensification is not pushing against the market but following it…. I expect this to surprise many a numpty, like Crl Brewer who thinks he is building a constituency on opposition to it but, methinks, will find himself only allied with a discontented rump….. the man walks backwards and has all the certainty of vision of all those who do.

      • swan

        I hope the council sets it up such that there are only a few simple zones – i.e. as per the media reports (town centres, regional centres etc). And then the only comment is about the details of each zone, not what is happening in Milford vs Birkenhead vs Meadowbank.

        • Mr Anderson

          What the Unitary Plan does potentially mean is that there’s one really huge fight over the planning rules with some wins and some losses, but at least the changes aren’t drip-fed all the time which enables the NIMBYs to oppose each and every little attempt at upzoning.

      • Tamaki

        He just opposes everything cause a contrarian view gets his name repeated in the media. Seems to work unfortunately.

        The market wants intensity, but will only get it within regulations.

        I don’t think the unitary plan will do anything to smooth the social divide between areas.

        Anyway, keep up the good work. This site brings some good analysis to these issues.

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