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By Greg Presland

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Auckland Council’s draft Unitary Plan is now out for comments from the public.  It has already been the cause of some pubic dissent and well attended meetings in the north and east have expressed opposition.  Their concerns appear to be based on a misapprehension of the effects of the plan as wall to wall skyscrapers in otherwise sleepy suburbs are not planned.  The cries of nimby have been very loud.

The plan has had the unusual result of creating unity amongst left and right councillors concerned at the proposal that the plan has legal effect from advertisement, which should be in September of this year.  The concern is that the plan is not fully understood and that unintended changes may occur.

Creation of the plan is a herculean task.  The desire is to amalgamate fourteen different regional and district plans into one document, and for there to be a universal language and zone definition so that the same rules apply throughout the region.

The Council has high hopes for the plan however.  Not only do they want to amalgamate plans but they want to review provisions and make changes so that the desires of Auckland’s Spatial Plan are achieved.

The intent is to build a compact city, able to absorb the significant increase in population that planners anticipate will occur over the next 30 years.  It is thought that the City’s population will increase from 1.3 million to as high as 2.5 million in that time.

There are two major features to the plan.  The Rural Urban Boundary is designed to put limits to Auckland’s growth.  And intensification at areas such as transport interchanges such as rail stations is needed to accommodate the expected growth.

The ambitious nature of the changes have a significant number of councillors expressing concern by way of letter to the Government.  Predictably from the right Christine Fletcher, Cameron Brewer, Dick Quax, George Wood, Callum Penrose and Sharon Stewart are opposed to Len Brown’s intended changes.  But in a surprise to many Sandra Coney, Mike Lee and Wayne Walker also endorsed the letter   Their concern, particularly that of Sandra Coney is that if the plan has legal effect from an early stage then current environmental standards may be compromised.

I have a great deal of sympathy for her view although the Council has found itself in a difficult position.  The Government has threatened to take over aspects of Auckland’s planning functions unless Auckland Council does something about affordable housing.  The motivation is undoubtedly political, blaming Auckland Council for the country’s housing affordability problems, but the threat is real.  So the danger in supporting a careful measured process of change is that the Government may then step in and impose unacceptable change and damage to Auckland’s goal of having a compact urban form.

The trouble is that urban sprawl has a number of adverse effects.  Private car use is increased, the cost of providing infrastructures is prohibitive and the land sprawled into tends to be the most fertile.  You tend to get sleepy suburbs without a social centre and with all the attendant social problems.  And in the long run they are more expensive suburbs to live in as the compulsory cost of owning and running a car add up.

I believe the political risk for Auckland Council to be significant.  This Government has shown a propensity to take powers off local authorities if it is dissatisfied with their performance.  For instance Environment Canterbury’s elected Council was replaced by commissioners in 2010   The strong impression is that the Government intervened following lobbying by Federated Farmers whose members were frustrated at ECan’s desire to preserve water rather than increase its’ availability to farmers.

Nick Smith raised this as a possibility when he vowed in March “to break through the stranglehold that the existing Metropolitan Urban Limit has on land supplies”. He said this barrier against urban sprawl was “killing the dreams of Aucklanders” by driving up land prices. He was on the hunt for “new tools” with which to knock down the MUL.  The violent language used is not conducive to meaningful discussions.

As has been pointed out by Brian Rudman Smith’s instance that something happens now clashes with Amy Adams’ refusal to allow the Unitary Plan to have effect from the date of being advertised.  On one hand Auckland Council is being told to do something straight away, on the other hand they are being told to wait.  Amy Adams has made her views quite clear, she believes that the plan will come into effect in three years and there is no justification for making this any earlier.  There is no sign of Auckland being able to get the plan approved more quickly than this.

I expect within the next month or so there will be special legislation introduced by Government which will have a dramatic effect on the proposed Rural Urban Boundary.  It will be in the name of improving housing affordability but it will allow wealthy land owners to profit significantly.  And Auckland’s dreams of a unitary plan to intelligently guide future growth will be under major threat.



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