Hard News by Russell Brown


A plea for sanity on the Unitary Plan

I know I'm not the only one feeling a growing sense of alarm at the degree of misinformation coursing around the debate on the Auckland Unitary Plan. But I went from despair to anger on Monday morning when I was forwarded an email being circulated by Eden-Albert local board member Pauline Anderson.

It's a bit long to republish in full here -- and frankly, it would rankle somewhat to be presenting something so faulty in full -- but Ben Ross has a copy on his blog.

The email repeatedly references Auckland 2040, a North Shore-based lobby group, more of whom later. And it starts like this:

I am writing to you as a personal contact because I have become deeply concerned about the future effects of Auckland Council’s draft Unitary Plan.

I want to alert you to these issues and persuade you of the need to act FAST, BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE!

The deadline for submissions is next Friday 31st May and the plan runs into thousands of pages. Given the 31st May deadline you don’t really have time between now and then to read and understand the Plan in detail ...

But I stress: you/we must act before the deadline or it will be too late!

This is completely wrong, to the extent that anyone circulating it is either misinformed or deliberately seeking to deceive. Friday is NOT  "the deadline for submissions". Formal submissions have not even been called for yet, and won't be until the draft is notified, probably in September. What is concluding this week is three months of an informal "enhanced engagement process", an initiative undertaken by the council in addition to its formal obligations. The whole thing will probably take three or four years to work through, and even then any council can amend the 30-year plan. It's not as if much (or anything) is actually going to happen soon. It's just important to start, in my view. You still have till Friday to submit feedback as part of this initial process.

Moving on, the vexed Mixed Housing Zone, which accounts for about 40% of the city's residential land, including the street I live in:

If you are in the Mixed Housing zone then your height-to-boundary rules are gone and the plan will allow construction of 10 metre high three storey multi-occupancy apartment blocks.

Yeah, nah. The Mixed Housing Zone permits a height limit of eight metres -- a two-storey house. You can just go ahead and do that (like, say, our next-door neighbours did years ago). Separately, anyone can apply to go to 10 metres as a "restricted discretionary" activity. You can't personally stop your neighbour doing this, but any application must meet a list of rules around shade, character and other things -- including height-to-boundary rules.

Thing is, that is almost exactly the same rule as now. The "restricted discretionary" category is there to relieve people of the burden of a notified resource content to put in an attic or a basement. And as Auckland Transport blog noted, it's a very popular provision.

There's also a limit of one house per 300m sq but if you have 300 spare square metres of section, you would be able to put a dwelling on that -- this is a return to the "granny flat" permit which was removed 10 years ago but existed for years before that.

If a developer is able to buy adjacent sections totalling 1200m sq or more, the density rules don't apply and they're able to build two-storey apartments to eight metres. If the rules are applied as they have been in the past, it will be difficult to get permission for three full storeys, but it could be possible (as it is now) if the building stays under 10 metres.

Of course, for such a purpose, existing houses have to be demolished. If the house has been built before 1944, an attempt to demolish it would be would require resource consent (and a council planner quoted in Metro's story seem to indicate the council will consider going one step further and automatically notifying those consents). This isn't the case at the moment. If you live in an older neighbourhood, the Unitary Plan strengthens character protection.

Moving on ...

If you are in the Terraced Housing and Apartment zone then your height-to-boundary rules are gone and the plan will allow construction of rectangular multi-occupancy apartment blocks with, dependent upon the width of frontage, in the worst case no effective height limitation.

No. The Terraced and Apartment Housing zone, roughly calculated (very roughly in some cases) as being 250m from a town centre, is limited to four storeys and all developments will have to be resource-consented and meet a range of new rules, including those around privacy and distance between buildings. They'll also be urged to use the new Urban Design Guidelines. In some areas, it all represents a strengthening of controls over what the current district plan requires.

In some parts of Auckland, taller apartment blocks will be permitted. Again, as they are now. And again, the Unitary Plan sets limits where there are currently none in places like Newmarket.

And what about the indirect impacts of such a development “plan”. Well these will affect everyone right across our city. That is because the “plan” does not stipulate where development will take place; it is designed to allow developers free rein to build high intensity (i.e. high rise apartments) housing anywhere within the new zones without the hindrance of objections from neighbouring property owners and these areas are spread right across the city.

So false I'm losing the will to live. I'll leave the rest to you. Please use the comments to add anything you think shoud be here, or tell me if and where I'm wrong.

This is what I think is going on here. Firstly, there are many people genuinely concerned about the implications for their neighbourhoods, but most don't seem to clear about what is actually changing and what the implications of any change might be. Those people -- mostly older Aucklanders -- deserve to be heard and they deserve good information.

But I think there's also a strong political dimension to this. The centre-right has despaired of getting anything on Len Brown -- hence the absence of any candidate bar the independent John Palino, who has little to do with the centre-right establishment. But they've realised that the Unitary Plan might work for them, if they can drum up enough fear, uncertainty and doubt around it. And when Jeanette Fitzsimons has bought the hype, you'd have to conclude that they're winning.

Enter Auckland 2040, which seems to be the source of Anderson's email. It's a new lobby group backed by Takapuna neighbours Richard Burton and software millionaire Guy Haddleton (who, ironically, built a very large three-storey house). Until last week, the group's home page prominently endorsed a centre-right ticket -- Cameron Brewer, Dick Quax, George Wood and others -- but that part was removed after it became a topic of discussion. Whale Oil has enthusistically adopted the "Len Brown's folly" message, which probably means Judith Collins' office is interested.

They probably don't have a chance -- or the candidate -- to unseat Len Brown, but they could leave him as a lame-duck mayor mayor with a hostile council,which would have implications for the City Rail Link and other initiatives.

Do they actually believe what they're saying? It honestly  seems hard to credit. Dick Quax, an Act Party member, campaigning against property rights? George Wood was instrumental in some of the proposals he campaigns against. And Cameron Brewer admits in the excellent cover story of the new Metro magazine that new town centre rules "give people a lot more choice."

People with a better grasp of the issues than me have been identifying flaws in the Unitary Plan -- from odd, arbitrary zoning pockets to the need for better gradation where zones meet. It's a draft plan, after all. It's vital that residents and business owners have their say. Even groups like the youth-oriented Generation Zero, which is strongly in favour of the plan, want the Urban Design Rules given statutory weight. 

Could this all have been better communicated? Certainly. The council's communications team has launched the Shape Auckland website, but it has struggled to tell people clearly how things would change and how that would affect them, if at all. Some elements of the site (including a colour-coded GIS map of the city for which the key to the colour-coding is really quite hard to find) are terribly conceived.

Much of the information has been "by planners for planners", but you could say that of the plan itself. It's a technical document. And they probably didn't anticipate that misinformation about the plan would so quickly reach a Tea Party pitch. This simplified overview of the plan is the best quick-look summary on the site.

The stories by Simon Wilson and Chris Barton in the current Metro magazine are undoubtedly the most useful media coverage I've seen so far, along with Campbell Live's reports here and here. I strongly recommend you get yourself a copy of the magazine (and that the stories be published online next month). The people at Auckland Transport blog  take a position, but they know their stuff. And Ben Ross (who I don't think would rankle at being called a young Tory) has been putting a great deal of energy into the issue. If you're lucky, you'll have a local hero like Cameron Greig, keeper of the Point Chevalier Hub, who has posted a thoughtful, and accurate, analysis of the impact of the plan on our suburb. You might also care to listen to Todd Niall's fascinating Insight report on the relationship between central government and Auckland Council.

Also, my friend, who had a query about his own situation, had a good experience with the Auckland Council Unitary Plan hotline: ph 09 301 0101. There's also a list of ways to give feedback, which includes just tweeting withe the appropriate hashtag.

This thing is really important. The extra million Aucklanders expected in the next 30 years, whose presence the Unitary Plan tries to anticipate, is not the dream of some council marketing plan -- it's what Statistics New Zealand forecasts Auckland's population will grow by. We need to plan for that, and telling people to scatter to Auckland's hinterland and build houses on farmland won't work. What will happen without a robust plan is stupid, ugly, inadequate development where we live now.

Also, this: I was lucky enough to be able to buy a house in a central Auckland suburb. That house has increased prodigiously in market value in 14 years, but I don't want to deny people younger than me the chance to buy and live within reach of the city where they work and play. I plan to live where I live for a long time yet, and I welcome that vitality around me.

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