Since the release of the Independent Hearing Panel’s recommendations on the Unitary Plan there has been a huge amount of information circulating about what the changes are. Some of this is understandable given the complexity of the process and the legalistic nature of planning, while some of this seems to be deliberate misinformation spread by those with an agenda to push.

Therefore, I thought it is useful to dive into the process and rules of the Unitary Plan and clarify a few issues that keep coming up.

Myth 1: The Unitary Plan process is undemocratic!

Fact: The Unitary Plan has undergone an extremely intensive public process, with many opportunities for public input in submissions. Firstly of course the Unitary Plan follows the lead of the Auckland Plan which was consulted upon heavily 4 to 5 years ago.

Since then we have had:

  • Public consultation on the Draft Unitary Plan in from March to May 2013
  • Submissions on the Notified Unitary Plan from September 2013
  • Further submissions in mid 2014, allowing people to respond to any other parties submissions
  • Independent Hearings Panel hearings from September 2014 to May 2016. This included pre-hearings meetings, expert conferencing, submission of evidence, responses to others evidence as well as presentations to the panel.

This public process resulted in:

  • 249 public meetings in making the draft unitary plan
  • 21,210 pieces of written feedback on the draft plan
  • 9443 public submissions and 3951 further submissions on the Proposed Unitary Plan
  • 249 days of hearings in front of the Independent Hearings Panel
  • 10,500 pieces of evidence received by the Independent Hearings Panel.

Myth 2: All heritage and character rules are gone. Our treasured suburbs and centres will soon be destroyed!

Fact: The Recommended Unitary Plan retains all the current heritage and character protection. For example the old Residential 1 & 2 areas (in places like Ponsonby, Mt Eden & Eposom) are now Single House zone with Special Character overlays. Character town centres have character rules like under the current plans, and this is the same with historic buildings. Some historic buildings have been added to the schedule, such as the old Farmers building as Category B, and the Civic Administration building as Category A.

Man concerned about Unitary Plan stands in front of villa protected by Unitary Plan
Man concerned about Unitary Plan stands in front of villa protected by Unitary Plan

Myth 3: The Unitary Plan removes all rules from residential developments and lets developers do what they want.

Fact. The Unitary Plan retains many of the core rules from our current residential zones. These are the rules from the Mixed Housing suburban zones with very similar rules in the Mixed Housing Urban and Terrace Housing and Apartments zones.

  • Height in relation to boundary (buildings within a 2.5m height plus 45 degree envelope)
  • 3 metre front yard & 1 metre side yards (10m by streams & by the coast)
  • Impervious area a maximum of 60%
  • Landscaped area of 40%
  • Outlooks space of 6 metres from habitable rooms
  • A complex set of rules ensuring daylight access to rooms by controlling the height of the building opposite given a certain depth from the window
  • Outdoor living space of 20m2 for ground floor units, and 5m2 (one bedroom) or 8m2  (2 or more bedrooms) for dwellings on the first floor or above.

Developments of 5 or more dwellings require a resource consent under the Land Use rules. However developments under 5 dwellings will still require a subdivision consent (whether this is traditional freehold subdivision, unit title or cross-lease). So unless a new development is being built on existing lots, they will require a resource consent.

Of course this also relates to the myth the Unitary Plan will allow “unlimited density”. Of course the rules above will control the density to a significant impact, as will the economics of land development.

Myth 4: The Unitary Plan will allow high rises to sprout all over Auckland. We will soon look like an Asian megacity!!!

(yes a few commentators have actually made this outrageous comparison)!!

Fact: A building height of 2 storeys will still predominate across Auckland. Only the Terrace Housing & Apartment Zone allows more that 3 stories, and this is mostly a 4-5 storey zone, with a few exceptions near Metropolitan Centres.

Will Taylor has done some great data visualisation using the zone data that helps highlight this.

Residential Development up to 2 storeys:

Will Taylor up to 3

Residential Development greater that 3 storeys:


Similarly Aaron Schiff has put a series of maps together showing all of the overlays and zones that create restrictions on building. Some prevent development all together, others just restrict what that development can be. All restrictions combined are shown in the map below while he breaks them down in individually on his blog too.

Aaron Schiff - restrictions map

Myth 5: Auckland Council will not have any control over the design of developments.

The key change made in regards to Urban Design was the removal of the specific need for design statements for developments of 5 or more dwellings. This was part of a broader change that removed references to all specific assessments, as the IHP said these could be requested as part of the standard Assessment of Environmental Effects. However the council will still be able influence control of the design of development where 5 or more dwellings are proposed. For example the assessment criteria for both the Mixed Housing Suburban & Urban Zone says the council should assess developments of more than 4 dwellings on the following matters :

(a) the effects on the neighbourhood character, residential amenity and the surrounding residential area from all of the following:

(i) building intensity, scale, location, form and appearance;

(ii) traffic; and

(iii) design of parking and access.

This suggests that while urban design assessments are not mandatory, the council will still be able to assess the urban design impacts of proposals of developments with 5 or more dwellings.

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  1. But the simple truth is the Government put its foot on the scales of justice. Submitters have no right of appeal to the Environment Court unless the Council rejects the Panel’s recommendations. In contrast the Council can change anything it wants without needing to go to the Environment Court. They only have to justify it if someone with limited appeals their change and the law was written specifically to limit that. This was an undemocratic process. It handed almost absolute power to the Council and stripped it from the people.

    1. Central government was also elected, so it’s incoherent to argue that their actions are undemocratic. Arguably, they have a broader democratic mandate than the council given that voter turnout was 78% in the last national election and around 40% in the last local government election.

      The only way this argument makes sense is if you’re arguing for a US- or Australian-style constitution with strong separation of powers between local and central government. Is that what you want?

      1. And if they carry out their threat to put in commissioners if the council doesn’t make the “right” decision is that democratic?

      2. Hell no- only an idiot would want a constitution. OK Peter if we must be accurate- it was a reduction in democracy for the Government to tilt the table in favour of the Council by removing rights from the people. Just because an elected government does something, that doesn’t make it democratic. We have democratic elections but after that we have a constitutional monarchy where the Government exercises the powers of the Crown (except the reserve powers) and the government can behave like a potentate if it wants. The same goes for the USA where they are a democracy at election time and a republic after that. In their case they have a ridiculous separation of powers and all power is limited by a Constitution written by some wealthy white slave owners who lived over 200 years ago. If someone made that crap up in a novel no one would believe it.

        1. “We have democratic elections but after that we have a constitutional monarchy where the Government exercises the powers of the Crown (except the reserve powers) and the government can behave like a potentate if it wants.”

          Yes. That is an accurate description of representative democracy. We *vote* to get people to *represent* us, and then, if we don’t like what they’re doing, we get regular opportunities to vote them *out*.

          It sounds like your complaint boils down to “a democratically elected government passed a law that I didn’t like.” Happens all the time. Doesn’t make it anti-democratic.

          A further point is that opportunities to submit on zoning changes or resource consents only arise in the context of the RMA. Unless you are arguing that RMA processes are an essential element of New Zealand’s (informal) constitution, in the way that the Bill of Rights Act or Treaty of Waitangi are, then I’m not clear on why you’re so adamant that slight limits on appeal rights are an abrogation of democracy. *Is* that what you’re arguing?

          1. Your last point is not as bizarre as it sounds. RMA processes are one of the key ways people interact with the Crown. There is a constitutional element to the RMA where the Crown or its many arms length bits can’t simply take your land or build something nasty next door without due process. The Government has the sovereign right to define the process as they did with the PAUP. My point is if they act to remove or truncate the rights of the people, as they did with the PAUP then that reduces democracy.

          2. “Lacking due process” is probably a better description of your critique than “anti-democratic”. But even there, I don’t think the claim stands up. We’ve just been through a three-year planning process, with – as Matt says – extensive public consultation and two rounds of submissions. The rules for the hearings were more informal than Environment Court processes, so average members of the public were able to participate without getting a QC. This is not what abrogation of due process looks like. Not even close!

            PS: The purpose of the RMA is to provide for sustainable development, not to limit change in the built environment at all costs.

          3. It was definitely a reduction in people’s rights. But I agree with you the government is allowed to do that in our system. The question is not one of whether they can but whether they should. What they have done is say that NZers are allowed to submit and participate in their District Plan and then appeal to a court of law if they are unhappy with the outcome. Unless they live in Auckland then you get to submit on something that could later change wholesale, participate in a hearing where the Council addresses the whole panel but you only get heard by half, then if you dont like the outcome tough, no appeal. But if the Council doesn’t like the result they can just swap it out with whatever the hell they want, no need to appeal. It is totally legal as that is what the law allows but please let’s not pretend it wasnt biased. Matt is mythmaking not mythbusting.

        2. Wrong mfwic. We have a representative democracy. If elected representatives act legally and within constitutional (whether formal or informal) bounds, that is democratic
          Helen Clark getting rid of the Air Combat Wing = democratic
          National getting rid of tree protection = democratic

          1. Not sure your examples help your argument. I would have thought the vast majority favoured getting rid of the Skyhawks, they were a huge cost with no real benefit. Same goes for general tree protection. The trees are there because people like them. Once they are in the way most people seem to favour chopping them -apart from a few notable trees that are still protected. In both cases the government had general support. You seem to be confusing representative democracy with the concept of democracy. Democracy is the rule of the commoners. Most times our governments try to increase opportunities for the commoners to be involved. When they can’t or won’t they use their Crown powers to rule. For the PAUP they favoured the representative part of the democracy part. Parliament is sovereign so they can do that, but don’t try and claim the process inflicted on Auckland alone was more than it was.

  2. To a certain extent, I agree, but if the document changes so fundamentally from the one that was proposed then it suggests 1) the original document was majorly flawed and that raises issues; or 2) there was always an intent to make major changes after feedback had closed, which is equally as questionable. Natural justice does not start and end with “People could make submissions”.

    1. “changes so fundamentally”

      It doesn’t. Enormous majority of the city changes no more than one level of intensity up or down, when compared to the original draft it’s *very* similar.

        1. it’s funny, I seem to remember that consultation happening in 2013? Perhaps it’s just me who remembers that the council is supposed to change their plans when consultation disagrees with their initial idea.

      1. Not in my area, the majority of housing has now been rezoned for 3 story 12m height restriction, 4 dwellings to a site. This is a change from res 6. Nobody has had a chance to say anything about that. (Not that I’ve got a problem with it)

    1. The huge amounts of single house zoning so close to the city in the inner west, on the isthmus and on the lower Shore make no sense. The interactive graphic really serves to highlight this.

      1. Absolutely a huge missed opportunity. Maybe it was to keep orsman happy? Or housing NZ does not have many houses there?

        Should all be thab 😎

  3. Great post guys. It’s critical to counter all the intentional misinformation (read: lying) that is coming from certain quarters….

  4. Evidence Geoff?
    There is plenty of credible international economics research that points to a strong influence of planning rules on housing affordability.
    If you could outline research that counters that dominant view (embraced by left and right and major economists like Krugman and Glaeser) then I would be interested to see it

  5. The problem with the changes is that the assessment criteria is so subjective and gives to much power to planners who become fashion police when it comes to assessing quality design outcomes. The Panel did a great job removing all the subjective rubbish from the unitary plan but now we have it creeping back with any development with 3 or more dwellings. Good design is about creativity and education .Trying to make rules to foster good design is like herding cats. Besides planners are probably the worst people to leave in charge of design as they are not qualified. Much of our best architecture has happened despite the rules in the district plans not because of it.

    1. Tend to agree. I think there is generally too much regulation of design but….
      I thought the Panel’s recommendation for 5+ dwellings was good. It means ‘easy density’ can be achieved – 4 dwellings on 600-800 square metre sections.
      But the council planner’s recommendation would mean every small ass 3-4 dwelling development would need consent!
      It’s a moot point where the lie should be drawn – 3, 5, 8???
      But I think more often than not 3-4 dwelling developments will be fine, there are plenty of other rules to control impacts, how much pain can be caused with the odd bad design at that scale?
      Some perspective, please!!!!!

  6. After reviewing the panels recommendations and councils response I came across a problem with access widths for rear lots. 2-5 dwellings require 3.0 m formed and 3.5 legal width and clearance between buildings. As most rear lots formed over the last decades were subdivided to the then standard of 3.05 it becomes impossible to develop rear lots under the proposed plan. I submitted on this issue along with others and it was agreed and changed to 2.5 and 3.o m before the panels report came out. I alerted Penny Pirrit of the problem so that they could look into it. Result didnt even get a mention in the councils response. Looks like I have to appeal it. sigh.
    The planners are more interested in protecting their jobs because 4 dwellings as of right means no resource consents and so they will not need most of the planners. Most of the consultants would be out of a job and urban planners wouldnt be sticking their noses into design areas best left to architects .
    I will also be appealing the 3 plus requirement for RC

    1. My experience is that minimum standards are very useful for developers because they offer a clear baseline to design to, though shouldn’t be applied too strictly. The Planner’s job is to balance the design proposal vs other objectives. I don’t think the RMA or Policies section provide useful default positions because they are so fuzzy and even more at the mercy of a planner who doesn’t understand design outcomes. Even with driveway widths, for example, there are opportunities to bend the rules through a consent, if you get in front of the right person (is this an ATCOP standard?).

  7. Thank you, Matt, a helpful analysis. It’s a pity the plan doesn’t remove the Special Character overlay from some of the inner suburbs, but I suppose none of us got everything we wanted from this exhaustive democratic process, did we 🙂

  8. Myth 2: All heritage and character rules are gone. Our treasured suburbs and centres will soon be destroyed!
    Fact: Large tracts of Grey Lynn’s single-house zone containing historic villas has been excluded from the special character overlay. The point being made by the “Man concerned about Unitary Plan” in your photo above is correct. There is no protection for those villas, and no intensification benefit because a demolished villa can only be replaced by a single house. Auckland’s city fringe suburbs contain the largest collection of Victorian wooden houses in the world. Failing to protect large numbers of them means only one thing – the loss of our built heritage for NO intensification gain.

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