In March 2013 Auckland Council released its Draft Unitary Plan for informal public feedback. Almost 23,000 pieces of feedback were received by 31 May, a clear indication that the largest town planning exercise ever undertaken in New Zealand is being closely watched by all sectors of the community. While the Council considers that feedback and makes final changes to the Unitary Plan before public notification later this year, central Government has released several reform proposals in an effort to accelerate provision for growth in New Zealand’s largest city.

Auckland is home to one-third of New Zealand’s population and is growing fast, with another million people expected to live in the city by 2043.  Housing is already in short supply, exacerbated by a lack of development during the difficult economic climate of the past five years, and the residential property market has reacted accordingly, with housing affordability in Auckland now a principal focus of both local and central Government.

Before amalgamation in 2010, Auckland was governed by seven district authorities and one regional authority.  The Royal Commission on Auckland Governance criticised these governance arrangements as fragmented and lacking a strong regional focus.  Amalgamation of these authorities into a “super city” was accomplished formally in November 2010 by a range of local government legislation reforms, and one of Auckland Council’s principal tasks during its first year was to develop a spatial plan to guide the city’s growth.

The Auckland Spatial Plan, released in 2011 and formally adopted by the Council in March 2012, sets out a high level strategic direction for the city over the next 30 years, particularly in relation to transport, land use, housing and economic development, and contemplates how growth will be accommodated while having regard to the need to protect the natural environment and urban amenity that are highly valued by the community.

Whether by accident or design, however, the Auckland Spatial Plan sits outside the framework of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA), New Zealand’s principal land and resource use legislation, which places primary responsibility for planning on regional and district councils.  Plans prepared under the RMA must identify local resource management issues, and develop objectives, policies and methods (including rules) to address those issues within the context of the overall purpose of the Act (the sustainable management of natural and physical resources).

Not surprisingly, work began on integrating the twelve Auckland legacy RMA plans soon after amalgamation, in parallel with preparation of the Auckland Spatial Plan, and the resulting Draft Unitary Plan is regarded by Auckland Council as the key tool to implement the strategic direction of the Spatial Plan.

In substantive terms the Unitary Plan will replace 99 different residential zones with five, and for the first time encourages growth in Auckland to go up in urban centres, rather than out into the rural hinterland, subject to the fine tuning of a rural-urban boundary to accommodate new urban development in suitable areas that are served by infrastructure networks and do not compromise rural production capacity.  Policies and rules to encourage intensification of the existing urban environment are proving controversial, with widespread community concern expressed through the feedback process about the height and design of new housing development and the vulnerability of Auckland’s historic character suburbs to more intense patterns of development.

Given its concerns about housing affordability in Auckland, central Government has acceded to Auckland Council’s request to develop a one-off, fast-tracked process to assist the Unitary Plan through the complex statutory requirements of the RMA in a shorter timeframe than might otherwise occur. A bill to amend the RMA has emerged from Select Committee and is expected to be passed this month.

The standard RMA process for developing a plan of this nature is highly participatory, with extensive rights of submission and appeal, so the Bill’s proposed removal of appeal rights to the Environment Court has been controversial.  A specialist Hearings Panel will be appointed by the Government to hear and consider submissions on the Unitary Plan and to make recommendations to Auckland Council.  Full rights of appeal will only arise in the event that the Council rejects a Hearings Panel recommendation; where the Council accepts the Panel’s recommendations, the Unitary Plan provisions will take immediate effect.  The Amendment Bill requires the Council to make those decisions within three years of formally notifying the Unitary Plan, which it aims to do in late September 2013.

Not content to wait that long for the more enabling development rules of the Unitary Plan to take effect, central Government has also introduced the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Bill.  If passed, the Act would apply for three years and allow the Minister of Housing to declare special housing areas, within which a more permissive and streamlined planning regime would apply.  Where the Government and councils enter into housing accords to address housing supply and affordability, with targets for residential development, councils will exercise the new regulatory powers.  If an accord cannot be agreed, the Government will exercise those powers.

These planning processes offer an interesting parallel with those being undertaken across the Tasman.  In March 2013, the New South Wales Government released a draft Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney, identifying many of the same growth issues facing Auckland.  With an expected 1.3 million additional residents in Sydney by 2031, the Strategy proposes to revitalise existing neighbourhoods and develop new housing in greenfield areas while simultaneously planning for long term transport and infrastructure.  With a more “top down” approach to land use planning under the NSW Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, and a process that permits public submissions and hearings but no rights of appeal against final ministerial decisions, it will be interesting to observe the speed with which each city rises to the growth challenge.