Auckland Council has rejected 2 high-density apartment developments on public transport routes near the CBD. Hayden Donnell asks whether council’s consents department really believes in the Unitary Plan

Auckland Council has rejected 2 high-density apartment developments on public transport routes near the CBD. Hayden Donnell asks whether council’s consents department really believes in the Unitary Plan

By Hayden Donnell of The Spinoff*

The Unitary Plan was supposed to fix things. When it passed in 2016, huge swathes of Auckland were rezoned for apartments and townhouses. Developers were incentivised to stop building 400m² mansions on every tract of available land. Most importantly, the council’s full weight was finally behind a vision of a compact city built around public transport nodes.

Its officers were empowered to ignore the brigades of leafy suburb-dwellers whose public meltdowns had slowed Auckland’s evolution to a glacial pace for decades. Perhaps sensing defeat, many vocal anti-change campaigners didn’t bother to show for the hearings. “Had the villa-owning Boomer army lost their passion for kidnapping Auckland and returning it to the 1950s?” wrote some moron at The Spinoff. “One thing’s for sure: they lost. The plan is passed, and for the first time in its existence, Auckland has a sensible, coherent growth plan that covers the whole region.”

Lately, there’s been signs that optimism was misguided. A series of consenting decisions have made it look like NIMBYs are clawing back the ground they surrendered two years ago and raised questions over whether the council is truly committed to the vision of its Unitary Plan.

On Dominion Rd, a major arterial route which will one day soon be the route of the government’s multi-billion dollar light rail line, council officers opposed a 102-apartment development put forward by their own development arm, Panuku.

Council landscape architect Peter Kensington said the apartment would deliver adverse visual effects to nearby properties. Council reporting planner Ashwita Murphy said the development was out of character with the surrounding area. Council urban designer Chris Butler was concerned about the building’s lack of “transition and setback”. All three recommended resource consent be turned down.


A similar saga is playing out with the co-housing project Cohaus on Surrey Crescent in Grey Lynn. Despite the proposed development being next to major public transport routes and focused toward encouraging car-free living, council officers have recommended it be denied resource consent mainly because it only provides 10 car parks for its 19 apartments.


The decisions are potentially defendable under planning rules. Both the Surrey Crescent and Dominion Rd developments are non-complying with the Unitary Plan – breaking rules on minimum parking and maximum height respectively. But applying for a non-complying development isn’t like breaking the law. Council grants a non-complying consent just about every time someone decides to add an oversized garage.

Ockham Residential developer Mark Todd said council isn’t aggressive enough in fighting for the compact city principles of its Unitary Plan when it comes to developments like Dominion Rd or Cohaus. “Council culture is definitely lagging its own progressive Unitary Plan,” he said. “The Auckland Plan is a democratic document that asked for 70% of our houses to be in the existing suburban environment. That was publicly consulted. The Unitary Plan breathed life into that. And the council won’t really back it.”

Council is too risk-averse to take bold stands in favour of high-density housing when considering non-complying consents, Todd said.

“The Unitary Plan should have in brackets under it “rulebook for dummies”. The Plan can’t possibly anticipate all the good developments and make sure they go into this permitted funnel… So as soon as you lodge a non-complying activity it shouldn’t be “oh the sky’s going to fall down, what are we going to do with it?’ they should have a really positive attitude – ‘what’s the outcome [we want]?’”

He believes that a large part of the issue is a fear of costly legal action – something Todd believes is misguided.

“There is an institutional bias towards legal conservatism. They’re not really open to taking a positive view of how the legislation and the Resource Management Act (RMA) can be interpreted,” he said. “A non-compliant consent – that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just means the council’s got to use its professional skill to assess those effects directly against the RMA. And they’re quite within their rights to say they’re going to grant the consent because the effects are less than minor. And they won’t do that because their legal department needs a good kick up the arse.”

But council isn’t just legally conservative – it’s sensitive to the political issues that come with upsetting NIMBYs. In opposing both the Surrey Crescent and Dominion Rd developments, council officers were acting in line with loud local opposition groups. That wasn’t unusual. Housing and public transport projects in Takapuna, Westgate, Mt Eden, and Mt Albert have all faced backlashes in recent months – many of them backed by local representatives. In every case, council has delayed, augmented, compromised, or rejected attempts to enact positive changes that will help a majority of Aucklanders as it seeks to appease a vocal minority.


There have been positive changes since the Unitary Plan passed. Council approved a near-record 12,843 consents last year. But Auckland needs 15,000 consents per year to keep up with its growth, and these cases make it look like the council still has its priorities skewed.                         

In recommending the Dominion Road apartments be turned down, it’s essentially saying the negative effect of eliminating residents’ views of “the sunsets across the silhouetted parapets of the Edwardian shop fronts, to the Waitakeres beyond” is more important than the negative effect of nuking a proposal to build 102 homes in the central city on a major public transport route in the middle of a housing crisis.

In turning down Cohaus, it seems to consider the negative effect of making car parking more difficult at times somehow outweighs the negative effect of f**king up a development. So in keeping with the council’s vision of a compact city, it may as well have been on the cover of the Unitary Plan.

There’s still a housing crisis in Auckland. Where is council’s urgency? If I was going to turn down 102 apartments in the middle of a housing crisis, it would have to be shooting lasers at passing children or dispensing neurotoxins through its heat pumps. Council has the ability to be bolder; to stop shitting its pants every time an angry person complains; to prioritise desperately needed houses over section 38b of its most nonsensical parking requirements.

For more on bad parking rules read: The low cost of ending the high cost of free parking.

Meanwhile, Housing Minister Phil Twyford is setting up an Urban Development Authority to take over consenting from council in 12 to 15 special housing areas including the Unitec development and along Dominion Rd. He just announced plans to build 10,000 homes in Mt Roskill. And he’s got a target of building 100,000 Kiwibuild homes hanging over his head.

If council can’t boldly back the principles outlined in its own Unitary Plan, it’s looking like government will.

*Hayden Donnell is a staff writer for The Spinoff. This article first appeared on The Spinoff and is used with permission.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


Comment Filter

Highlight new comments in the last hr(s).

Who told the bakers to bake more bread? No one. Yet despite the increase in population not once have I gone to the supermarket and not been able to buy bread. Why? because there is a free-market in baking bread - no one stops the baker from baking.
Compare that to housing where despite the usual market signal that more resources should be sent to a sector of the economy (i.e. increase in prices) housing supply has not been able to keep up with housing demand. Why? Someone, i.e. Auckland Council, is telling the builders not to build. They do this with effective bans in certain places (like Ponsonby and Grey Lynn) and excessive regulation such as resource consent and inspections that add significant costs to projects.
Mr. Twyford is sensing his way to the solution with his over-ridding the council for the new development in Mt Roskil but if it's good for Mr. Twyford and Kiwibuild then it is probably good for everyone else too. Reduce the regulation and allow people to build what they like on their property and the market will allocate resources the most efficient.


What, and give up Control? You must be joking, mate.

Unfortunately, I think that is probably the main reason for the Council acting the way it does.

Actually the council are a bunch of namby pamby do gooders. They have no backbone and are scared of bad press. Case in point would be the whining few around Western Springs that are killing that sport. The pubs and venues that have been forced to close because people whine about the noise.

The Bad press is what they fear the most.

That's probably also true. Nothing gets politicians scared more than a Facebook group or some mean tweets. Rather pathetic really.

It's normal for bureaucracies, with their cosy cultures nurtured on revenues one can pencil in on Day 1 of the FY, then forget, to lag Policy, which is essentially imposed top-down by independent hearing panels and the like. It's a mini-Deep State, and an Internal #Resist.

Culture change, as any grizzled old MBA can attest, is achieved principally by massive system shocks - like firing a floor's worth (any floor will do) of employees, pour encourager les autres, convince 'em that This Time We Mean It, and unfreeze the status quo. Then, and only then, can substantive change occur.

But, and of course, that ain't gonna happen. So the UP, with its good intentions, will continue to be foobarred by the staff because They Know Best, can steer just inside the limits of the law, and thus continue to enjoy the Power they wield, their plush lifestyles, and their camaraderie.

Applicants? They know their place.....they've read Kafka....

Ah, the Power, the Power. The petty tyrants rule the world. It is curious that we perform a sort of ritual obeisance of bowing to authority whenever we fill out a form. Name, rank, and serial number? Stand over there please.

The executive staff at the large Councils are worthless and spineless. The only way to get a Council to implement changes is for them to clear out all of the useless idiots holding everything up. Instead them just shuffle people around so they do not spill any dirt on senior management at the Council.

I suspect in NZ the public as well as institutions such as Auckland Council and its planning department need to go embrace 'cultural change' in order to fix the housing crisis.

In particular I think NZ needs to take a long hard look at its attitude towards density because compared to many successfully cities around the world kiwis have a very antagonistic attitude towards it. .

If we do not improve our attitude to density then how will we build enough houses in the locations where there are jobs, opportunities, amenities.... ?

I write about this here (David didn't want to publish it -probably because Hayden bet me to it with this article)

Hayden's excellent video shows what a retail politician Phil Goff is.

When Hayden questioned why the council is too conservative, too worried about character, shading and not prioritising housing? Phil Goff's response was people have a right to be heard -it is called democracy.

This is disingenuous because the Council do not consult the community evenly.

The Council do not go down to the car park filled with people living in cars and ask should they build houses in Dominion road or whether. The Council do not go to the hospitals and schools and ask the young staff if building houses in such and such a place is a good idea and would that encourage them to stay in the profession.

No they don't.

Phil Goff knows only a very narrow and unrepresentative group is ever 'heard'. By a huge factor local government consultation processes and elections favour those who already own a home versus those that don't.

So Phil Goff is talking about BS democracy that has similarities to the days when the landed gentry controlled the Parliaments. He is simply making up an excuse for doing nothing because he is a boring retail politician who would rather do what is easy rather than what is right.

Phil Goff knows that housing was one of only 4 issues that the 2017 election hinged on. A far higher percentage voted in the General compared to Local Elections. He also knows that it was always the intent of the resulting democratically elected government to change the urban planning parameters.

To claim this somehow wouldn't be democracy is foolish because it is not true -plenty of democratic countries do not have NZ's system of issuing resource consents to build houses, apartments etc. It is also foolish because he is entering in a contest of wills against the government which ultimately holds all the big cards.

At some point Jacinda and co will realise that their democratic support hinges on delivering the changes they promised. It would be foolish of Phil Goff to think he can use some flimsy claims of the importance of local government democracy to stop these changes.

The importance of improving the urban planning parameters were signalled right from the start of this government.

In the Speech from Throne read by Dame Patsy Reddy at the opening of Parliament -Wednesday 8th November, 2017 the following was said about housing and urban development;

"This government will take steps to improve our resource management system, with better spatial planning and better enforcement. An urban development agency will be introduced, and more emphasis placed on public transport and light rail.

This government will remove the Auckland urban growth boundary and free up density controls."

There is an interesting article here about reforming New Zealand’s feudal democratic franchises.

Most importantly, the council’s full weight was finally behind a vision of a compact city built around public transport nodes.

Ha ha ha.

The Unitary plan changes of 2016 expanded development at all major exurban towns and removed the RUB protections from every small exurban settlement. This council's vision is fully behind a sprawling out-flung expansion of Auckland. There are no compact city objectives in the Unitary Plan.

The success with which Auckland urban development is squashed is not a bug, it is a feature that aligns with the pro-sprawl plans of Auckland Council.

This piece is a whine by some property developer who is not prepared to follow the Unitary Plan and has tried to build in a non-complying manner. Instead of trying to develop housing on Dominion Rd he could now be building 100s of homes on a bit of swamp land at Clevedon. A preferred development completely inline with the objective of Auckland Council and consented without delay.

Ockham Residential developer Mark Todd said council isn’t aggressive enough in fighting for the compact city principles of its Unitary Plan when it comes to developments like Dominion Rd or Cohaus. “Council culture is definitely lagging its own progressive Unitary Plan,” he said. “The Auckland Plan is a democratic document that asked for 70% of our houses to be in the existing suburban environment. That was publicly consulted. The Unitary Plan breathed life into that. And the council won’t really back it.”

The Unitary Plan did not breathe life into that. The Unitary Plan exists to deliver the results that the Unitary Plan is providing. The Unitary Plan creates 50% of development as sprawl, because the council wants sprawl.

Today Auckland is undertaking more expansive sprawl outgrowth than any stage in the last 50 years. Because this is exactly what Auckland Council wants.

What a self-serving lot. Generation Zero et al crowed when the UP was passed, now they're upset it's being adhered to?

BTW: Carrying on from yesterday's thread. Who funds the Spinoff and should a disclaimer (disinfectant) be added to their articles?

I hope one day you want to build something slightly outside the UP and get turned down...
My 1950's house breaks the UP height to boundary restrictions by a long way, yet was deemed fine back then.

I've 'played the game' in the past when I wanted to build an addition that infringed the 2 meter setback rule. I had to pay $2,000 to a council consultant to tell me it was ok if I get permission from six possible impacted neighbours, in writing. Two made it clear they were doing me a favour I might be asked to repay. Three of the properties were in trusts so I had to chase up trustee signatures. When we sold that property we checked the exact boundaries, existing coverage, envelope etc in the next house to ensure we wouldn't have a repeat. Last year we had a request from the neighbour to allow building outside the rules and we said no, because they had the boundary wrong by 1m (in their favour). Rules are a pain, but if equitably applied they are better than anarchy

They are upset because AUP is not being adhered to. Just because something needs a resource consent doesn't mean it doesn't comply with the rules. There are multiple levels of rules from Permitted, C, LD, D, NC through to Prohibitef with anything beyond Permitted needing consent with varying levels of consultation, complexity and Council input/discretion. There are also over riding policies and principles at Plan and RMA levels that are more important than rules (the rules are just an attempt to give definition to these). The problem is Council officers vary hugely in competence. Some can see bigger picture of what policies and plans are trying to achieve and recognise that rules don't always achieve the goals of the Plan. Others are obstructive pointy heads who will do anything they can to prevent building because they are too scared to approve anything beyond a D level consent.

The only things that are actually against the rules are Prohibited Activities. non-complying doesn't mean 'against the rules' just that more comprehensive assessment is required.

I loath The Spinoff. I’m not a fan of naming (with the intention of shaming) individual Council officers either. I happen to know that Chris Butler is a top notch urban designer, and if he said it was rubbish, it was almost certainly rubbish. Council officers are all for quality high density development.

I agree. It's a misinformed article. The Grey Lynn decision was about much more than parking. It was a high density proposal in a low density zone.
A totally different question is whether the zoning is right.
But given the zoning, it is the right decision.

Hopefully their planners advised them that they had a low chance of getting approval.

Well it shouldn't be a low density suburb, it is a stones throw from the CBD. Crazy rules made by crazy people with vested interests.

Agree. But based on the zoning (nutty as it is), it is the right decision.

I loath the Spinoff too.

It's not up to the council staff to decide what makes a 'quality' development.

They simply have to follow the rules. Rules they made.

Otherwise you get staff saying things like "Oh no we don't like that cladding..." This is still going on in Auckland.

I guess if the Nimbys are piling on the pressure and no one else was, the council will side with the Nimbys every time. Next time Chris Butler might think twice before taking the easy option... Good one Spinoff...


You haven’t got a clue mate

I suspect there is more to this story than has been revealed in this piece !

If the development proposal is within the Unitary Plan , and has been rejected by Council , then take the bastards to court .

And make Phil Goff one of the Respondents .

This will put a huge cracker up his arse ............and he , like The Donald, does not like any negative publicity.

You will soon get action

The article says that they are non complying applications. No sympathy. I was watching a historic house flip in Los Angeles, on TV last night. The house had non consented additions - no ifs no butts, they had to get rid of them. That's life. How about making it work within the rules? And they label Boomers as entitled.

Unfortunately the rules sometimes are effective guidelines instead of hard/fast rules. Well, excepting if refusing a waiver furthers ones goals... In the half dozen properties that I investigated in detail prior to purchase, virtually every one had a non-compliant element that had received a waiver from the council. Maybe my experience was in the six sigma range... somehow I doubt that. My experience suggests that most developments/properties appear to have at least one waiver from the rules.

On the other hand, building something that was unconsented, and without a waiver. That is a difficult path to recover from, although I've seen at least one retrospective waiver.

I can understand if it's a quid pro quo e.g. an architectural feature that balances over-height on one side for under height on another. However, I'm less enthused about value grabs e.g. a complete storey over height or no set back or insufficient parking. If you are willing to accept anything then that's what you will end up with.

There is this notion that 'non-complying' means 'doesn't comply with rules'. I don't believe this is the case. My understanding is Permitted means no consent needed (in many zones nothing is Permitted). Controlled, Limited Disc. and Disc means that Council has thought of uses people might want to use land for and written specific frameworks for assessing these uses. Non-complying means uses Council didn't think of - so haven't written specific frameworks for assessing (so they have non-complying assessment criteria for assessing these). 'Prohibited' means 'against the rules' so you don't even bother applying for a nuclear power station.

Why should a housing development aimed at people that want to use public transport be forced to meet minimum parking regulations? How can a resource management act enforce everyone to have a car? I would sue their arse off on the basis that cars are bad for the environment, not good. Surely you couldn't lose that case could you?

Successive govt policy has encouraged housing investment so now many people’s retirement nest egg is the house they live in and of course they don’t want the value negatively impacted.

More power to the NIMBY. I would fight tooth and nail to keep high density out of my street so good on those people on Dominion Rd.

Twyford says govt will override the unitary plan, well NIMBYs are voters and I suspect the govt will be less inclined than the council to upset them.

Less Properties = Less Rate Payers = Higher Rates for NIMBYs?

Auckland speaks like an old persons city, strange young people stay there .. or are they moving out? The government would probably be better served investing more money down here in Christchurch.

You get what you vote for Auckland (a "super" bureaucracy), you made your bed, now lie in it~!!!

Bigger property = more potential value for intensification = more land value = more rates.

More properties = more infrastructure = higher rates.

Auckland is full and more investment should indeed be going into other cities.

Unless you use a fuel tax to pay for those NIMBYs instead...One reason why the resort to fuel tax is unfair, done as it was to avoid increasing rates on inner suburb NIMBYs.

(Disclaimer: The fuel tax has next to no effect on me.)

Fuel tax is fair from the sense that those of us not requiring or asking for more infrastructure aren't forced to pay for it unless we use a ICE car. My X5 is used sparingly and filled up in Mercer which I think is fair as the bulk of its mileage is outside Auckland.

You don't need to use a car much because you live close to the CBD. However you also want to prevent other people living close to the CBD, but then you want them to pay fuel tax for the privilege of being forced to live miles away.

In a sense yes because, albeit I don't see why the immigration policies of successive governments should impinge on my quality of life. I've lived in overcrowded Asian cities and have no interest in living out my days in the NZ equivalent.

If you don't like density, why choose central Auckland? You could try Eketahuna!

Some of my wider family have lived somewhere or other in the Eastern Bays for the last 130 years. I have bought my burial plot at Purewa. This is my land, my Whenua, not some temporary hold to cash out of to migrate to the Regions. The zoning I bought into was low density. It's now medium. I don't want it to become high, albeit clearly I'm trying to push back the tide.

Your inner libertarian is being firmly stamped into the ground ;-p

And before that it was farmland, and before that it was native bush. Your current occupation rights (remember a freehold title is actually a perpetual rolling lease from the Crown) don't give you the right to impede progress.

My occupation rights are defined by the law of the day. In a democracy I have every right to voice my thoughts on what that law should be and to stand up for my rights under the existing law, which I do. Given your choice of moniker I gather you're not of the same opinion re the law. Can I lend you a sword?

I never understood that argument. Higher density = higher value!
Have a look at property prices in Manhattan, London, etc...

Girl Get Your NIMBY On ..

Three little NIMBYs sat on my window
And they told me I don't need to worry
Summers coming like cinnamon, so sweet
Arthritic NIMBY's, double-dutch on their villa's concrete
Maybe sometimes we got it wrong, but it's all right
The more things seem to change, the more NIMBY's stay the same
Ooo, don't you hesitate - make that council compliant

Girl, get your NIMBY on, sing your council swan song
You go ahead, lay your compliant down
Sapphire and faded jeans
Auckland Council gets your NIMBY dream
Just go ahead, lay your compliant down
You're gonna find your inner NIMBY somewhere, somehow

Wonder why you wish your life away
Waiting for the perfect home to buy
Waiting for the perfect wind to sail away
Life's shining around you
Don't miss a day..

This is the world your parents made
There is no better place for them, it's true
Light a fire where you are
Underneath a blanket in the cold
Lying in the dark, your anger will grow
Miracles just like a winter rose will be
Give up all the things you can't control

Any Planners out there?

Surely even if a non complying activity, Part 2 of the Act still needs to be considered ?

The adverse effects of not allowing for the development means reduced housing supply and more people living in caravans / garages for longer & higher property prices & higher mortgages - these adverse effects outweigh the non compliances of the above developments.

Part 2 still needs to be considered. This is a requirement of section 104(1) of the RMA.

Proposals that infringe a Unitary Plan rule have one of the following activity statuses - Controlled, Restricted Discretionary, Discretionary and Non-Complying. Putting it very simply, Controlled is the easiest to get through, Non-Complying is the most difficult.

Non-complying just means that the proposal needs to pass an extra "gateway test" set out in section 104D of the RMA. Consent can only be granted if the adverse effects of the activity on the environment will be minor or the application is for an activity that will not be contrary to the objectives and policies of relevant planning documents.

The RMA allows planners to consider the positive effects of developments, but the planner wouldn't consider the adverse effects of not allowing them.

Part II should be given expression through the plan. The Unitary Plan rightly or wrongly ( I think wrongly) has zoned the site and wider area Single House zone with a 'Special Character Overlay'. Effects are largely defined by the zoning context.

Again the problem is not the council consent planners, the problem is the policy makers who zoned most of Grey Lynn and Ponsonby Single House zone where it is so well located for medium / high density development.

But surely people would rather live in a caravan or under a bridge than in an ugly apartment building or a house with minimal car parking?

The Unitary Plan is very permissive for high density in this area so if this 102 unit development didn't even manage to comply with that I can't see why the objectors who won should be vilified? Surely just because the decision didn't suit your housing preference doesn't mean the Unitary Plan rules need to be discarded for project you happened to like. It does however show that the council run Panuku is happy to waste ratepayers money designing non-compliant schemes - presumably without even bothering to ask the councils own planners.
And in this case the perhaps the "people who have time to submit on council projects" are right anyway - and the "normal people" (presumably awarding yourself this title) are wrong. TOD's (Transit Oriented Developments) in the built up areas are probably the last thing Auckland needs, While the work OK in fringe locations (like park and rides) you find in these more central locations most people who live in them have cars and surprisingly few use the public transport - so you are adding traffic congestion exactly where you don't want it.