The Auckland Council Unitary Plan team is underway with stakeholder engagement on the draft provisions of the Auckland Unitary Plan.
Local boards and key stakeholders have been asked to provide early input on some drafts, with the proviso that the engagement process is running parallel to the Unitary Plan Political Working Party review, so there is not yet any formal political endorsement of the draft provisions. Various workshops have been taking place over the last few weeks, with draft residential, business, recreation, infrastructure and heritage provisions amongst those being discussed.
On the basis of input from the engagement exercise and the Political Working Party Review, council officers will produce a discussion draft of the Plan to release to the public for informal feedback, which at this stage is intended to take place from March to June 2013. During that time, targeted engagement will continue with stakeholders on issues of key concern. After incorporating feedback, a proposed draft Plan will go to the full Council in September 2013 for a decision on notification and formal public consultation timeframes.
While the Council's early engagement with interested parties is welcomed, there are some obvious difficulties emerging from the process. As the consultation is occurring at a relatively early stage in the drafting process, many of the provisions currently available for feedback are incomplete, making commentary and understanding difficult. The draft zone maps are changing on an almost daily basis and are not yet available, so, as a result, it is difficult to appreciate the implications of many of the draft provisions in their absence. Timing is also an issue, and the sheer amount of work faced by officers is daunting. So while participants are keen to continue to provide input as subsequent drafts evolve, it is possible that the Council team may simply run out of time to get everything done before the release of the discussion draft in March.
Adding to the mix is the Environment Minister's recent announcement of the proposed one-off process for development of the Unitary Plan. The Government proposal involves the Unitary Plan being developed and notified by the Council, and then referred to an independent hearings panel, appointed by the Ministers for the Environment and Conservation with the intention that it be chaired by a retired High Court or Environment Court judge. The panel will have the power to direct mediation processes, including caucusing of witnesses and grouping of issues, and will hear public submissions and evidence through a process which allows for cross-examination. After considering the plan, the panel will deliver its findings by way of recommendations to the Council, in a way similar to the recommendation on a notice of requirement by a requiring authority. Where the Council accepts the panel’s decision, these provisions will be immediately operative, subject only to appeals on points of law. In respect of any recommendations the Council does not accept, full appeal rights to the Environment Court will be available.
The proposed process will require changes to the RMA which are likely to be included in the next round of RMA amendments due out shortly. There will be the opportunity to make submissions on the Bill to the Local Government and Environment Select Committee.