Unitary Plan mythbusting

Since the release of the Independent Hearing Panel’s recommendations on the Unitary Plan there has been a huge amount of information circulating about what the changes are. Some of this is understandable given the complexity of the process and the legalistic nature of planning, while some of this seems to be deliberate misinformation spread by those with an agenda to push.

Therefore, I thought it is useful to dive into the process and rules of the Unitary Plan and clarify a few issues that keep coming up.

Myth 1: The Unitary Plan process is undemocratic!

Fact: The Unitary Plan has undergone an extremely intensive public process, with many opportunities for public input in submissions. Firstly of course the Unitary Plan follows the lead of the Auckland Plan which was consulted upon heavily 4 to 5 years ago.

Since then we have had:

  • Public consultation on the Draft Unitary Plan in from March to May 2013
  • Submissions on the Notified Unitary Plan from September 2013
  • Further submissions in mid 2014, allowing people to respond to any other parties submissions
  • Independent Hearings Panel hearings from September 2014 to May 2016. This included pre-hearings meetings, expert conferencing, submission of evidence, responses to others evidence as well as presentations to the panel.

This public process resulted in:

  • 249 public meetings in making the draft unitary plan
  • 21,210 pieces of written feedback on the draft plan
  • 9443 public submissions and 3951 further submissions on the Proposed Unitary Plan
  • 249 days of hearings in front of the Independent Hearings Panel
  • 10,500 pieces of evidence received by the Independent Hearings Panel.

Myth 2: All heritage and character rules are gone. Our treasured suburbs and centres will soon be destroyed!

Fact: The Recommended Unitary Plan retains all the current heritage and character protection. For example the old Residential 1 & 2 areas (in places like Ponsonby, Mt Eden & Eposom) are now Single House zone with Special Character overlays. Character town centres have character rules like under the current plans, and this is the same with historic buildings. Some historic buildings have been added to the schedule, such as the old Farmers building as Category B, and the Civic Administration building as Category A.

Man concerned about Unitary Plan stands in front of villa protected by Unitary Plan

Man concerned about Unitary Plan stands in front of villa protected by Unitary Plan


Myth 3: The Unitary Plan removes all rules from residential developments and lets developers do what they want.

Fact. The Unitary Plan retains many of the core rules from our current residential zones. These are the rules from the Mixed Housing suburban zones with very similar rules in the Mixed Housing Urban and Terrace Housing and Apartments zones.

  • Height in relation to boundary (buildings within a 2.5m height plus 45 degree envelope)
  • 3 metre front yard & 1 metre side yards (10m by streams & by the coast)
  • Impervious area a maximum of 60%
  • Landscaped area of 40%
  • Outlooks space of 6 metres from habitable rooms
  • A complex set of rules ensuring daylight access to rooms by controlling the height of the building opposite given a certain depth from the window
  • Outdoor living space of 20m2 for ground floor units, and 5m2 (one bedroom) or 8m2  (2 or more bedrooms) for dwellings on the first floor or above.

Developments of 5 or more dwellings require a resource consent under the Land Use rules. However developments under 5 dwellings will still require a subdivision consent (whether this is traditional freehold subdivision, unit title or cross-lease). So unless a new development is being built on existing lots, they will require a resource consent.

Of course this also relates to the myth the Unitary Plan will allow “unlimited density”. Of course the rules above will control the density to a significant impact, as will the economics of land development.

Myth 4: The Unitary Plan will allow high rises to sprout all over Auckland. We will soon look like an Asian megacity!!!

(yes a few commentators have actually made this outrageous comparison)!!

Fact: A building height of 2 storeys will still predominate across Auckland. Only the Terrace Housing & Apartment Zone allows more that 3 stories, and this is mostly a 4-5 storey zone, with a few exceptions near Metropolitan Centres.

Will Taylor has done some great data visualisation using the zone data that helps highlight this.

Residential Development up to 2 storeys:

Will Taylor up to 3

Residential Development greater that 3 storeys:


Similarly Aaron Schiff has put a series of maps together showing all of the overlays and zones that create restrictions on building. Some prevent development all together, others just restrict what that development can be. All restrictions combined are shown in the map below while he breaks them down in individually on his blog too.

Aaron Schiff - restrictions map


Myth 5: Auckland Council will not have any control over the design of developments.

The key change made in regards to Urban Design was the removal of the specific need for design statements for developments of 5 or more dwellings. This was part of a broader change that removed references to all specific assessments, as the IHP said these could be requested as part of the standard Assessment of Environmental Effects. However the council will still be able influence control of the design of development where 5 or more dwellings are proposed. For example the assessment criteria for both the Mixed Housing Suburban & Urban Zone says the council should assess developments of more than 4 dwellings on the following matters :

(a) the effects on the neighbourhood character, residential amenity and the surrounding residential area from all of the following:

(i) building intensity, scale, location, form and appearance;

(ii) traffic; and

(iii) design of parking and access.

This suggests that while urban design assessments are not mandatory, the council will still be able to assess the urban design impacts of proposals of developments with 5 or more dwellings.

Myth Busting: Aucklands Geography

Myth: Auckland isn’t geographically suited to public transport.

I’m not sure where this myth even came from but if I had to guess, it would have been from the 50’s or 60’s, the same time that many of our transport myths originated from those looking to justify building the motorways instead of public transport. The theory goes that cities like Wellington are more suited to public transport, and in particular rail, due to the the geography largely forcing development into a couple of long thin corridors. As such, Auckland which extends out in all sorts of directions is said to be more suited to car based transport.

At first that seems logical which is why I guess so many people have taken it to be true but then how do you explain why public transport is able to be provided easily in river cities. Some of the worlds greatest cities sit on river plains and they spread out in all directions yet they have been able to build fairly extensive PT systems. Some of that is related to density (and I will address density in a future myth busting post) but not, an example I have experienced myself is Munich where urban area itself is not that much smaller than Auckland’s and the population is a fairly similar size.

What is interesting about Auckland is that unlike many cities, the outer parts of the urban area are naturally shaped into a handful of fairly defined corridors that connect to the isthmus at just a dozen pinch points, something that is actually perfectly suited to PT. This is further helped by some of the infrastructure we have already put in place like the rail lines and funnily enough those motorways.

  • The North Shore, which thanks to the Hauraki Gulf and the Waitamata Harbour is a fairly defined corridor all the way up to Albany.
  • To the West we have the land curving around and bordered by the Whau river on the eastern side and hemmed in by the Waitakere ranges and foothills on the western side.
  • SH16 has opened up a further corridor to the North West which is again bordered on one side by the upper reaches of the Waitamata.
  • In the East we have a similar situation to the west, in this case with the Tamaki river on one side and more hilly terrain on the other.
  • Lastly to the South we have development that has largely followed the rail line and motorway stretching development out in a long ribbon.

When you also add in our current and planed rapid transit network (RTN) you can see how the the areas away from the isthmus are largely contained into a few defined areas. In fact all most of the cities development is within ~1.5km of these RTN lines, including those bits within the isthmus. Lets have a look:

On top of this many of our older suburbs on the isthmus were actually developed with the help of public transport in the form of trams. These suburbs are uniquely suited to the provision of PT both in the past and in the future. However we don’t have to wait for decades to be able to afford this. As we have seen recently with the proposed new bus network, we have been able to get significant improvement out of our existing resources and as such by 2022 we will see the percentage of households that are within 500m of a service that runs at least every 15 minutes from 7am to 7pm will jump from 14% to 40%. Here is the 2016 version of the proposed PT map showing just how much coverage the new network will have.

So really Auckland is really quite suited to the provision of public transport. In many ways is not suited to urban motorways as those pinch points act to funnel traffic into a handful of places, something which decent public transport infrastructure can easily bypass while moving huge amounts more people. Further that motorway infrastructure has required huge physical alterations to our environment which have led the wholesale removal of suburbs. What has stopped us up until now has been poor decisions and planning that have forced PT to become substandard. The good news is that with a little bit of work, like the bus network redesign, we will be able to get it working much, much better.