The Unitary Plan. Sustainable management? – or 1980s-style ‘big-bang’ deregulation.

The deregulatory hurricane called the Unitary Plan swept over Auckland last month and it is fair to say the place will never be the same again. Goaded on by threats from government ministers, in four and half days the council approved the Plan (with a few exceptions) as presented by the government-appointed Independent Unitary Plan Hearing Panel.

The Unitary Plan is the finally and critical element of the ‘Super City’ amalgamation project, which like the Super City itself has been imposed on Auckland.

While the Plan has grown to have a life of its own – a key part of the government’s housing policy, legally-speaking it is the combining and updating of the former ARC Regional Policy Statement and the legacy council district plans. These were of course instruments of the Resource Management Act, the purpose of which, we should remember is ‘to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources.’ But RMA phraseology like ‘people and communities’,  ‘life supporting capacity of ecosystems’ ‘amenity values’, ‘aesthetic coherence’ indeed the notion of environmental sustainability is notably absent from the Unitary Plan.

What the ‘Independent Hearing Panel’ has carried out is actually a radical 1980’s-style deregulation of Auckland’s planning rules. The stated objective is to enable more houses – a lot more houses, 420,000, about double the 212,000 extra houses projected as needed in the original council plan of 2013.  (The ‘Independent’ Hearing Panel was unconvinced by evidence that Auckland’s present 3.1 persons per household would be maintained or even increased (especially given immigration).  Instead they foresee a much lower household formation figure, something closer to 2.4 persons per household in the Auckland of the future. Hence the need for substantially more houses. Well, deregulation to achieve more houses.

As the government no longer actively builds houses (New Zealand built more houses in 1974), the idea is to encourage a developer-friendly market to incentivize the private sector building of more houses. This to be achieved in two ways: First, by expanding the rural urban boundary (RUB) by 30% (abolishing it entirely around coastal settlements and controversially on Waiheke Island) and enabling it to be even further extended by developer-initiated plan changes. This unprecedented urban sprawl into the rural greenbelt, including over prime horticultural soils, has not stopped the council and the Independent Hearing Panel talking about a ‘compact city’.

Secondly, by intensification. 42.6 % of single houses on the central isthmus have been upzoned for intensification. This will mean major changes to how Auckland looks and feels. The pre-1944 building demolition control overlay has itself been demolished, meaning hundreds of quality 19th and 20th century houses across the isthmus, having been upzoned are now incentivised for demolition.   Along with this, requirements for quality design standards for new intensified developments have been thrown out.

Some good things came out of the process, councillors cheered on by the public pushed back against the recommendation to urbanise the largely pristine Okura peninsula north of Long Bay. But that just restored the status quo.

The councillors also declined the Independent Panel’s removal of minimum apartment sizes and restored a minimum of 30 square metres.   I also managed to get the art deco Housing NZ apartment building on 44 Symonds Street put back into the heritage schedule Category A after the Panel had thrown it out.  Incidentally when I went to take a picture of the building to post on Facebook, I found it closed and fenced-off with razor wire, a shameful waste of an ideal inner city accommodation.  The Fraser Labour government built these smart apartments in 1948 for low income single Aucklanders or couples with no children. The present Housing NZ evicted the tenants a couple of years’ ago and put the building up for sale (and apparently demolition).   So much for official sincerity about dealing with the housing crisis.  On this point, I was also dismayed to see council’s previous requirements for a quota of ‘affordable homes’ thrown out by the Panel, disappointingly supported by council staff advice and by a majority of councillors despite the arguments of mayor Len Brown, myself and other councilors like Cathy Casey, Wayne Walker and John Watson.

What the Unitary Plan ‘blue print for growth and development for Auckland for the next 30 years’ didn’t and couldn’t deal with was the infrastructure needed to cater for the extra growth it encourages – and how will this be paid for. Even now overloaded sewerage systems are regularly spilling into the harbour and despite a massive investment in transport over the last 10 years, there is increasing traffic congestion. Despite this the government’s continues to bring more and more people into Auckland, making us the second highest immigration city in the OECD. Wouldn’t it make more sense to lower immigration rates until we get our housing and infrastructure problems sorted?

Despite its deregulatory radicalism the Unitary Plan’s provision for inner-city housing is actually quite conservative and unimaginative. A large swathe of Great North Road & Grafton for instance is still dedicated to business use and office buildings much of which should go to the CBD or moved further out.

‘Intensification well done’, will not be achieved with a hands-off ‘leave it to the market’ approach. The past – think leaky buildings – should teach us that. It also needs to have the support of the community. It is unacceptable that Aucklanders learn after-the-fact that the amenity of their homes and their neighbourhoods have been compromised and their rights of appeal removed by special legislation. At my request the council has agreed to initiate another plan change early in 2017 to deal with some of the more bizarre and unfair property anomalies that inevitably occurred in the rush to meet the government deadline.

Which brings me to another concern about the Unitary Plan. While the big property interests are understandably exultant, their allies and supporters, apparently taking a lead from the regularly red-in-the-face-angry Nick Smith, young and old enough to know better bloggers and denizens of Twittersphere (who no doubt pride themselves on their political correctness) have been vituperatively targeting anyone challenging the official narrative – especially older people. It is rather sad and unfair that the generation of Aucklanders who bought run-down villas and bungalows in Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and Westmere etc., and lovingly did them up, often with their own hands, are now meant to feel guilty. Auckland and Aucklanders deserve better than this.

A version of this article appears in the September 2016 Ponsonby News.

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