15 Apr 2013

Editorial: Council needs to step up and fight for city’s unitary plan

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Photo: APN
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 15 April 2013

John Key probably needs no encouragement.

John Key probably needs no encouragement.

Auckland’s newly promulgated unitary plan has entered a rocky stretch of water called local-body election year. Members of the council and local boards are going to public meetings where they are hearing predictable opposition to the building heights and residential density envisaged for the neighbourhood. A number of the council, mainly on the right, have taken fright. They have put their names to a letter to the Prime Minister asking the Government to slow the plan’s progress.

John Key probably needs no encouragement. Environment Minister Amy Adams had already turned down a council request to let the plan take legal effect as soon as it is notified in September. She has insisted it wait the three years allowed for objections, appeals and the rest of the procedure. So how much slower would the nine council members prefer?

They need to harden up. The people they are hearing at public meetings are probably not a cross-section of their community. They are likely to be older, established residents who dislike change. When they see designs for multi-unit, medium-rise developments, they say “not in my backyard or next door”.

Low turn-outs at local elections make them more risky than parliamentary seats and candidates are more vulnerable on an unpopular issue. But if Auckland is to make any sort of progress – and signatories of the letter to Mr Key have not produced an alternative plan – council members are going to have to find their courage.

Elections occur every three years but it may be 10 years before enough building has been completed to show the character of a town planning scheme. This one will take longer if Ms Adams has her way, and maybe even longer if Mr Key heeds the letter from Cameron Brewer, Sandra Coney, Christine Fletcher, Mike Lee, Calum Penrose, Dick Quax, Sharon Stewart, Wayne Walker and George Wood.

It is odd the names of Ms Coney and Mr Lee are on the letter. Neither represents a district that would be much affected by the plan and both believe strongly in containing urban sprawl with more dense development inside present limits. Perhaps the plan is not compact enough for them.

It is equally odd that the Government and right-of-centre council members should be prolonging the plan’s procedure. Their usual instinct is to streamline these things, as the Government is doing with reforms to the Resource Management Act and other environmental protections.

There can, of course, be a rethink of aspects of the plan where local opinion is united and valid; the Super City always foresaw communities retaining some say in their development and certain, distinct enclaves should not be straitjacketed with a one-size-fits-all policy.

That notwithstanding, three years is too long to wait for Auckland’s new building and development regulations. One year would surely be ample time for objections and appeals to be heard and decisions made. Developers, builders and – most importantly – home-seekers, should not have to wait three years to know the permitted height, density and design standards for different parts of the city.

We hear constantly from the Government and the council that Auckland has to accommodate another million people within the planning period and that the rate of new house construction is falling well short of the growth in demand. An arid argument of whether that growth should be on the periphery or within existing limits matters less than the need for a decision.

The unitary plan, for better or worse, is the council’s considered design. Council members should back their majority decision, explain it to worried voters and show some spine. They might not be popular but voters would respect them.


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