By Alex Tarrant
The government will set up a new panel to tell the Auckland Council which new development plans it can impose outside of the Resource Management Act (RMA).
The government on Wednesday dismissed a request from the Auckland Council for it to effectively be exempted from the RMA process carte blanche when imposing the whole of its latest development 'rule book' for the city aimed partly at addressing Auckland's housing crisis.
However, the Council will still get the chance to gain exemptions from being taken to the Environment Court over certain new development rules, but only if it accepts recommendations on its Unitary Plan made by a government-appointed independent panel, set up to consider the Plan and public submissions on it.
Auckland Mayor Len Brown asked the government last year to consider changes to Auckland legislation to allow it to fast-track new planning rules. Fairfax reported Brown saying last month that this would help to sort out the city's housing issues.
Brown also requested that the Unitary Plan, as notified, was granted immediate legal effect. Any appeals would only be allowed on points of law.
But Environment Minister Amy Adams announced on Wednesday that the government had rejected this proposal, "as it considered it did not provide adequate recourse for Aucklanders to seek full and impartial review of the council plan."
“In my view, the council’s proposal did not provide sufficient safeguards and reviews on council decision-making or ensure that stakeholders and the community would be properly engaged in its development,” Adams said.
“I am, however, concerned that under the current process, the first Unitary Plan is estimated to take between six to 10 years to become operative. No-one benefits from long, drawn-out and expensive processes during which time Auckland’s development stagnates in a cloud of uncertainty," she said.
“Auckland’s economy is too important to New Zealand to wait for up to a decade for the plan to be implemented.”
The Government proposed a process, with which it estimated that most, if not all, of the plan provisions would be operative within three years.
That proposal involved the Unitary Plan being developed and notified by the council. It would then be referred to a hearings panel "totally independent from the council, with the intention that it be chaired by a retired High Court or Environment Court judge," Adams said.
The panel, similar to a Board of Inquiry, would be appointed by the Ministers for the Environment and Conservation.
"The panel will have the power to direct robust mediation process, including caucusing of witnesses and grouping of issues, and will hear public submissions and evidence through a process which allows for cross-examination and careful testing of evidence," Adams said.
"After considering the plan, the panel will deliver its findings by way of recommendations to the council. Where the council accepts the panel’s decision, these provisions will be immediately operative, subject only to appeals on points of law," she said.
"In respect of any recommendations the council does not accept, full appeal rights to the Environment Court will be available."
The process would complete the Government’s objectives for Auckland local government reorganisation, and help address the shortage of housing and business land needed for Auckland’s growth, Adams said.
The process for the Unitary Plan would be incorporated into the Resource Management Amendment Bill that would be introduced to the House by the end of the year. Public submissions would be invited as part of Select Committee consideration.
Labour gives support
Labour Party Auckland Issues spokesperson Phil Twyford said the party gave its qualified support to the fast-tracking of the Auckland Unitary Plan so the Council could "get on with tackling the city’s housing crisis, as long as there is a fair process that guarantees the community a say."
“The Unitary Plan needs to become operative as soon as possible," Twyford said.
“Auckland’s lack of affordable housing is nothing short of urgent. Given all the work over the last three years that has gone into the Auckland Plan, which provides the base for the Unitary Plan, Labour believes it is justifiable to shorten the legal process in this case," he said.
“However, we do have concerns about whether the Government’s proposed changes will actually deliver the plan in a timely fashion or whether unforeseen legal wrangles will tie it up and deliver worse outcomes for Auckland.It is also concerning that the Government has reserved the right to appoint the hearings panel, given it has not fully signed up to the goals and direction of the Auckland Plan.
“There is considerable disquiet as well from local communities who want to have a strong say over the plan and we will need to be convinced that the enhanced consultative process will allow them that," Twyford said.
“Labour will discuss these issues with the Council and scrutinise the bill through the select committee process," he said.
"The Unitary Plan will tidy up the myriad of district and regional plans of the previous councils and will help guide the development of Auckland for years to come. Given it is aimed at tackling important issues such as housing provision, it's hugely important that we get it right."
The Unitary Plan would be the rule book for what could and could not be done with public and private property in Auckland, and how the region’s natural resources could be protected and enhanced, the Auckland Council said in August.
It will replace the district plans and regional policies of the eight former councils. By determining how Auckland can develop, the Unitary Plan will be the key tool for putting the 30-year Auckland Plan into action, the Council said.
The Unitary Plan would cover areas such as resource consent (planning approval) for building, alterations and demolition, and protection for historic heritage and important environmental resources and features.
"To ensure future development has a positive impact on the lives of Aucklanders, we need to give everyone the chance to engage and have their say on the Unitary Plan," Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse said in August.
"We want to produce a great plan that will work for all of Auckland. To do this, we need to get our communities involved in developing it."
Between August and November 2012, local boards are meeting with key stakeholders and community groups to gather information and ideas that would be used to prepare the initial draft Unitary Plan, which would then be available for informal public engagement between March and June 2013.
A final draft Unitary Plan will go to the council’s governing body in September 2013 for a decision on notification. Formal consultation and hearings would follow.
The Council said key issues for engagement included:
- housing availability and affordability
- the protection of historic heritage (the natural and physical resources that contribute to New Zealand’s history and culture)
- a rural-urban boundary to establish new areas for development
- infrastructure such as water and stormwater drainage
- the rural economy
- business development areas
- provision of open space and community facilities
- transport improvements including public transport, cycleways and new roads.
One of the key issues the Council is seeking feedback on while developing the plan is the city's 'rural-urban boundary', or its metropolitan urban limits (MUL), Kensington Swan partner Greg Milner-White and special counsel Grant Hewison said in September.
The Council plans to allow for 30-40% of new development over the next 30 years to occur outside the current limits ('greenfields' development), meaning 60-70% of new development within the limits ('brownfields' development).
Research in 2007 by Motu Economic and Public Policy Research showed house prices just inside the city's limits were 10 times that of prices just outside the limits.
In 2009, Motu economist Arthur Grimes said in a report on Auckland's high land and house prices that extension of Auckland's Metropolitan Urban Limits was one way to remove roadblocks to the development of New Zealand's biggest city.
Auckland's development was at risk from being stifled by high house prices, with current policy settings around the MUL making houses more expensive.
Auckland was land-rich, Grimes said, adding that the MUL could be extended around existing infrastructure such as the Northern Motorway. This would have the double effect of lowering Auckland house prices and creating more space for productive 'urban' activities not allowed outside the boundaries in rural zones.
'Urban' activities not allowed included setting up factories or housing, or even schools in rural zones. Here is a 2008 working paper from Grimes and Yun Liang on the Northern Motorway extension.
Lower land prices would make it less expensive for businesses to operate inside the expanded boundaries, and lower house prices would mean workers would be better able to afford to live in the city rather than being forced away by high prices.
Grimes recommended Auckland's growth limits should be reviewed in a more flexible manner, rather than having long periods between boundary reviews, especially because of the increase in Auckland's population (38% between 1991 and 2006).
Auckland house values and sale prices have continued to rise over the year, hitting new highs almost monthly. Ongoing population growth and a lack of supply of new house building is considered the catalyst for this.
In July, Westpac economists noted that over the three years to June 2011, for every new dwelling in Auckland, the city's population increased by seven new residents.
The government has indicated a supply-side approach to affordability issues following a report earlier this year on the subject by the Productivity Commission.
That response is likely to include making new land available for building, relaxation of Resource Management Act requirements, and attempts to ease building costs. See Alex Tarrant's article, Wholesale changes to how government approaches housing affordability as it drops helping demand and focusses on supply side.
Finance Minister Bill English has said the biggest opportunity for brownfields housing development within Auckland's city limits was in the hands of central government, due to its large land holdings for state housing.
English has said the government's response to the Productivity Commission should be released by the end of October - delays were down to the workload of the RMA changes.
The majority of changes are likely to be to the Resource Management Act - overseen by Environment Minister Amy Adams. Two bills are set to be introduced to Parliament by Adams detailing the changes shortly.