So today’s the big day that the independent hearings panel’s recommendations on the Unitary Plan get unveiled. It’s not exaggerating to say that this is a hugely important document as the rules and controls included in the plan determine what is allowed to be built and where.
The Unitary Plan is a monumentally huge plan, running over 9000 pages apparently and with very complicated overlapping controls relating to zones, overlays, precincts, development controls, urban boundaries and so on. However, 95% of the plan is probably of little interest to most people and won’t be what the big debates over the next few weeks will centre on. So let’s run through what I think are the big issues and what you should look out for when the plan is released at 1:30 this afternoon. In a rough order of importance:
- Zoning in the central isthmus and around major public transport corridors
- The location and nature of the Rural Urban Boundary (RUB)
- Height limits in centres
- Parking rules
- Residential development controls
Let’s go through each in turn.
Zoning in the central isthmus
The biggest disappointment with the Proposed Unitary Plan was how little upzoning occurred in the parts of Auckland that have the best transport options and are market attractive to higher density development – namely the central isthmus. This was a direct contradiction from the Auckland Plan’s development strategy, which highlighted the isthmus as a key location for growth:
Since the Unitary Plan was notified in 2013 the importance of upzoning this area has increased further, with Auckland Transport announcing plans to build light-rail along some of the key arterial roads to ease bus congestion in the city. Ensuring the planning rules in this part of Auckland enable a lot of redevelopment into terraced houses, townhouses and apartments is crucial to the question of whether light-rail should go ahead or not.
The ATAP interim report highlighted a shortfall of 50,000 dwellings on the isthmus in the Unitary Plan compared to the Auckland Plan so we’re not talking about a little tinkering here and there with the upzoning. We’re talking significant change from what was in the proposed plan.
My best guess is that the IHP will recommend more upzoning in the isthmus, but probably not enough to close the 50,000 dwelling shortfall. It will then be really interesting to see how the politicians respond and whether the councillors representing this part of Auckland actually want to do something bold to improve housing affordability or not.
The Rural Urban Boundary
A lot of discussion about how the Unitary Plan can help bring down houses prices has focused on the Rural Urban Boundary (RUB) and the supply of greenfield land. As I explained back in May, much of this talk misunderstands what the RUB is – which is a long-term line that separates land likely to be urbanised at some point over the next 30 years compared to land intended to stay rural in the long-term. Changing the location of the RUB isn’t the main way to make more greenfield development happen: there’s already an area of about two Hamilton’s of greenfield land inside the RUB and the key is being able to service it with (expensive) infrastructure. But the chatter continues and it will be interesting to see both where the IHP recommends the RUB goes, as well as whether it’s a “hard RUB” (only able to be changed by the Council, giving greater certainty to infrastructure providers about where development might happen and allowing them to invest with confidence) or a “soft RUB” (able to be changed by anyone through a private plan change, removing certainty for infrastructure providers and making their investments much more risky).
I’m not very optimistic about this one, as it seems likely the IHP will recommend a soft RUB, which could actually delay greenfield development by making infrastructure investment far more difficult to plan and a much riskier proposition.
Height Limits in Centres
The Unitary Plan has a pretty sophisticated hierarchy of centres, from the City Centre right down to the tiniest little neighbourhood centre. Generally these areas are the focus for a lot of future growth and a real mix of uses: allowing retail, offices and apartments to be built. The real test will be in relation to the height limits of these centres and whether they allow enough redevelopment potential for it to be viable and for a good chunk of Auckland’s future growth to be located in areas where people can do many of their daily tasks without having to travel far at all.
I think there might be some improvements in the IHP’s recommendations but this will be strongly linked to where the panel land on the volcanic viewshafts as it is these view protection restrictions that limit heights in many of the most important centres for redevelopment (Newton, Newmarket, Mt Eden etc.)
We’ve been going on about the evils of minimum parking requirements for years and the Unitary Plan takes some good steps towards eliminating or lowering these stupid rules. The council’s closing statement to the hearing on parking suggested the main area of contention was whether minimums should apply in major centres, with some major retailers arguing for them
for anti-competitive reasons because they were worried that people visiting the area would park in their carparks. Importantly, the council’s position on residential parking minimums shifted from the proposed plan so that nowhere will more than a single space be required per dwelling (and in a lot of zones, no parking at all will be required).
I’m pretty confident of a good outcome here and a major step forward in reducing the evils of parking minimums. There’s always a chance the IHP might have read Donald Shoup and get rid of parking controls altogether.
Residential Development Controls
Before the Unitary Plan was notified in 2013 this is where most of the controversy was focused: on the detailed rules and regulations that governed height limits, density controls, setback requirements and many other restrictions in the residential zones. However, in the hearings this became less of an issue as most of the major submitters came to an agreement with the council to relax density controls and instead focus on controls that affect the building envelope (height, site coverage etc.) In general this is a step in the right direction, as it is density controls (how many square metres of land per unit) which really undermine the provision of affordable housing as they force larger house sizes to maximise profitability.
Without reading through the screeds of detail it looks like a reasonably good outcome is likely here. However, this section really just lays out the rules relating to each zone: how the zones are distributed is a whole different question and will inevitably be the focus of so much discussion going forward.