Medium density housing in Mt Eden, Auckland

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – Hearing Panel recommendations on the Auckland Unitary Plan

Green Party MP Julie Anne Genter’s latest thoughts on the Auckland Unitary Plan

The Auckland Council staff officers have prepared a 600+ page document responding to the Independent Hearings Panel (IHP) recommendations on the Unitary Plan. I haven’t been able to evaluate the whole thing in perfect detail, but here are some of the highlights.

The councillors themselves vote on all the IHP recommendations, one by one. As I write, the voting is still happening.

The recommendations from the IHP are a mixed bag.

Auckland, where the average house price reached $975,000 in June 2016. Image credit: Malcolm Peacey
Auckland, where the average house price reached $992,000 in July 2016. Image credit: Malcolm Peacey

The Good

The considerable increase in the ability for more dwellings to be built within existing urban areas is a hugely important win. To put it in perspective, the zoning in the original plan proposed by Auckland Council would have resulted in far fewer homes being built in the areas close to jobs and public transport. This would have kept house prices very high, and been bad for climate change because a greater percentage of growth was proposed to be accommodated in sprawling, low density, car-oriented zones.

For this reason, the Green Party has been broadly supportive of the plan as recommended by the IHP, with the proviso that we’d propose additional central government policy to ensure quality building and people-oriented urban design. The Building Code isn’t up to scratch, so we need to fix it.

In my opinion, even the proposed rezoning falls short of what is needed to respond to climate change and incrementally build a greener city over the next thirty years. I would like to see 100% of new dwellings provided within the urban area (sprawl repair) or limited to new areas within walking distance of high frequency train, tram, or ferry services. There’s no good reason for more new sprawl, when it means much higher infrastructure costs (from brand new transport and water infrastructure). But the compromise reached by the IHP is still a big improvement on the zoning initially proposed by the Council.

The Bad

I can’t claim this is an exhaustive list of bad recommendations, but here are some that stand out for me.

Not everyone wants to live in endless urban sprawl. Image credit: Mark Strozier
Not everyone wants to live in endless urban sprawl. Image credit: Mark Strozier

Okura Bush Scenic Reserve – Long Bay

The Hearing Panel recommended extending the Rural Urban Boundary (RUB) and including provision for an “Okura Precinct” which would develop this pristine coastal area with 750-1000 houses. Needless to say, building those houses far from the city is hardly going to do much to improve affordability, it’s just more car dependent sprawl. And while it might benefit the developer – it’s really not the type of new housing Auckland really needs. It’s certainly unacceptable, when there is so much capacity for redevelopment in the existing urban area, to lose this pristine ecological treasure. Fortunately, the Council officers seem to have recommended rejecting the precinct plan (although they also recommended accepting the RUB change). Just before I finished writing this, the councillors agreed not to urbanise Okura.

Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area

The IHP recommended some changes to zoning in the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area. Most of the changes seem inconsequential, but there is one that may prove substantive. The change in activity status for subdivisions from “prohibited” to “non-complying” has raised concerns among many Westies. What this means in practice is a step towards making subdivision and development easier in the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area.

The combination of the Waitakere Ranges Heritage Area Act and the overlays does suggest that building and subdivision will nonetheless still be extremely unlikely (see for example the red restriction sin this map). But I wonder, why bother changing the activity status if that will be the case? Personally, I would prefer to leave subdivision as “prohibited” because, aside from the area within walking distance of the western rail line, I can’t see why we would want additional housing at the expense of native forest.

Mana Whenua Sites

I’m not sure that the IHP got it right by recommending the removal of protections for over 2000 sites of cultural significance to mana whenua. I know there are a range of views about this, and it seems like the process for selecting these sites might not have been done as well as it could have. But the big problem I have is that if the list of sites is removed, and the tools and processes for deciding  if sites are significant are also removed, but without anything to replace them, we risk ongoing loss and degradation of significant sites.

Councils have a Treaty of Waitangi obligation to work in partnership with mana whenua on the decisions that affect their rohe, so the removal of provisions from the plan that uphold Te Tiriti is a step backwards.

I think this is an area where the councillors – both new ones and those who return after the upcoming elections – will need to think hard, and quickly, about how to achieve the right level of protection for the right sites.

Rangitoto and Auckland Suburbs

Arguably the worst: Parking minimums return

Although it may sound inconsequential, arguably the most harmful and unexpected recommendation from the IHP was the reintroduction of minimum parking requirements for retail and commercial services in quite high density zones. Council had finally gotten rid of them in Metropolitan Centres, Town Centres, Mixed Use and Terraced House Apartment Building zones. But the IHP has brought them back in a big way – 1 car park per 30m2 gross floor area. This in practice means using nearly as much land for parking as for shops or offices. It’s a disaster because it fragments development, drives up costs, and subsidises car use in places where we should be fostering walkability. In practice, it may simply mean new small retail and offices can’t be provided in these zones. In turn, that means people will have to use a car to get to big box retail, completely undermining some of the key benefits of increased density.

The IHP recommended on the basis that it would help manage “spill-over”. There is really no evidence anywhere that requiring an oversupply of parking reduces parking problems, it usually exacerbates them. More carparks = more cars. But shopping mall developers lobbied hard at the hearings to keep them in the plan. Their business model relies on car dependence and they’ve already supplied a heap of subsidised parking. The parking minimum rules serve as a nice barrier to entry for small shops, which would benefit people living and working in those parts of the city.

Ultimately, parking requirements show a failure of imagination by people who can’t see any kind of future that isn’t full of cars.

Sadly, despite people across the political spectrum agreeing they are a stupid idea and there are better ways to manage parking, the Council officer report accepts this recommendation from the IHP. I’m not sure there’s much hope of Council rejecting it now.


The Ugly

One of the most surprising facts about planning rules to many environmentalists is that in many cases, the rules have actually caused very ugly development, rather than prevent it. Retained development controls still make it easy to do really ugly things, and difficult, if not impossible, to do great things.

Consider these art deco apartments in Mt Eden. They would be illegal to build under the proposed plan rules, because they exceed height limits, don’t have a set-back, violate the height to boundary rule, provide ‘insufficient’ parking (thank goodness) and use more than 40 percent of the site for the building (while nonetheless being very lovely and having trees and a garden out the back.)

Medium density housing in Mt Eden, Auckland
Medium density housing in Mt Eden, Auckland

Or these new character flats developed by Ockham – which are extremely affordable to construct relative to apartments, but were non-complying under the previous plan rules and thus extremely unlikely to be built. It was only Ockham’s fortunate position and dedication to good design over risk avoidance that led to these being built. Arguably the setback isn’t necessary, and the land out the front could be used for better purposes than just grass.

Medium density housing in Auckland, by Ockham
Medium density housing in Auckland, by Ockham

Contrast these buildings with the following brick and tile sausage flat. Somewhat surprising development controls have determined and will continue to result in sausage flats, which are smaller, have a lot more parking, and result in a much less attractive view from the street.

Common brick and tile units
Common brick and tile “sausage flat” units

It’s hard to guarantee great design, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but at the very least more flexible rules could actually allow much more attractive places to be built than the development controls proposed by the Council that have not been changed by the IHP.

So where does all that leave us?

I still support the Unitary Plan overall. It could be better. I hope it forms a baseline, from which we can build on in the years and decades to come. Auckland deserves the best.