Auckland Council have launched their pre-consultation consultation for the changes to the Auckland Unitary Plan in response to the governments housing rules under the National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD) from 2020 and the Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS) from 2021.
We’ve talked about the NPS-UD and MDRS a number of times and together they represent a significant and positive change in housing policy by the government by requiring councils to allow for more, and more intensive housing in our biggest cities. Helpfully they also have cross-party support meaning they should endure changes of government.
As a quick reminder summary of the two rules:
- The NPS-UD requires councils allow for at least up to six-storey buildings within walkable distances of the city centre, metropolitan centres, and rapid transit stops.
- The MDRS requires councils allow for up to three homes of up to three storeys on most residential sites.
In both cases there are some exceptions allowed, but not many.
This preliminary consultation is fairly short at just under 3 weeks and is being used by the Council to inform the changes that will be formally notified in mid-August. For the council, it is a useful exercise in order to iron out any glaring issues with the proposed changes. But my major concern about it is that Councillors and planners used the same process back during the original Unitary Plan debate to water down the plan and it was only the Independent Hearings Panel (IHP) that fixed large parts of it.
However, given the government rules behind this change there are unlikely to be as many avenues for council to water the changes down.
I think the good news is that many of the proposed changes would bring the Unitary Plan in line with what it probably should have been when it was first adopted in 2016. They will make it much easier to build more housing in the existing urban areas, especially around town centres and rapid transit stations.
For those familiar with the existing Unitary Plan, the council have used the same colour schemes with the MDRS changes being shown as tan-coloured Mixed Housing Urban Zone, and the NPS-UD rules being merged with the orange Terraced House and Apartment Building zone – both are highlighted in the red box below.
It’s easier to look at the maps directly through the council’s viewer, but you can see just how much they’ve changed with these two images.
The not-so-good news is it doesn’t feel like the Council are following the spirit of the rules. It appears the council planners have spent most of their time since these changes were announced trying to find ways to avoid change to many of the high-amenity and well connected areas near the city centre, which has left almost no time to actually plan how to make the city better.
In a briefing yesterday this perhaps summed by best by two comments from the council’s planning manager.
- “We’re all about special character”
- “We didn’t have time to investigate further”
Now to explain those in more detail.
The biggest unknown was how the council would deal with the “special character” areas they created in the Unitary Plan. These are largely the swathes of old villas chosen for protection based primarily on a view of aesthetic appeal – as opposed to being actual heritage protected buildings. As the council describe it:
Special character is where councils choose to use planning rules to help maintain a sense of history and place for whole groups of properties within older residential suburbs by limiting building heights and density, and in many places, requiring a resource consent to demolish existing character buildings.
These rules aim to retain and manage the ‘character qualities’, or the look and feel, where areas collectively share similar and consistent characteristics, such as shared streetscapes, trees, street patterns, building types and architectural styles.
The council have spent considerable time and resource performing individual assessments of the approximately 21,000 homes that had special character, on six different criteria. As a result of that, under the proposed changes that around 4000-5000 dwellings will no longer get that special character protection. These areas are shown on the map below – with the red areas proposed to lose special character protection, and the blue areas retaining it.
Where I stand on "special character" housing zones, with this artists impression of the Council meeting we had on it recently pic.twitter.com/9AbLVOeRXf
— Cr Shane Henderson (@HendoWest) April 19, 2022
Scoot has put together a good thread of some of the places losing special character protection, which highlights just how poorly it was implemented:
Let's us take a look at the places which are losing special character.
— scoot! (@ScootFoundation) April 19, 2022
While Matt Prasad has some examples of where Special Character protection is being retained:
AKL Council is proposing a "two-storey – single dwelling residential zone" for this site in Devonport and retain its special character overlay. Needless to say there are issues. pic.twitter.com/OZTqzrNDBJ
— Matt Prasad (@matty_prasad) April 19, 2022
The council should have used the rules as an opportunity to make significant changes, either removing this protection completely or at least having the vast majority of it removed.
Not Enough Time
As mentioned earlier, one of the requirements of the NPS-UD was to require zoning of at least six storeys close to rapid transit stops. That’s great, but if we really want to make these places liveable and reduce the need for travel – a key tool in reducing emissions – it’s also important that people have access to local shops and hospitality, etc. As an example, so residents can perhaps grab a cup of coffee before their morning commute, or pick up a bottle of milk or some food on the way home.
While many of our train stations are located in town centres which can support this, many are not. And so perhaps Mixed Use zoning which would help allow for this would have been appropriate in at least close vicinity to stations.
An example of this is the Ranui and Sturges Rd train stations where there is potential for a lot of housing, but without much (or anything) in the way of amenities and services supporting those residents to live and shop locally.
Yet when asked why this wasn’t done, council response is that they would like to but they simply “didn’t have enough time” to consider it.
So to be clear: the council had time to individually assess thousands of properties for special character protection – but not enough time to make the areas that will have to pick up the housing slack more liveable for the people who will be living there.
One of the most obvious issues with this proposal can be seen right in the centre of the isthmus, where no change is planned due to the light rail project. Essentially the council planners are just leaving this for light rail to deal with, which seems like a poor outcome, especially if light rail doesn’t end up happening.
A better idea would be to make the changes now, in line with the government policies, and make additional changes to support light rail when that project has been finalised more.
There’s also the issue that on the Eastern Busway there’s no supporting zoning around Edgewater and Burswood. Fixing this omission is important, as the NPS-UD includes in its definition that proposed rapid transit stops be included.
What the hell, Future AMETI stops along Ti Rakau Dr haven't been included in the proposed changes. This route is known and has very little variation. pic.twitter.com/xkPHg0SvTl
— Matt Prasad (@matty_prasad) April 19, 2022
Speaking of rapid transit, the definition for this is actually quite broad:
rapid transit service means any existing or planned frequent, quick, reliable and high-capacity public transport service that operates on a permanent route (road or rail) that is largely separated from other traffic
Based on that, the council should have also included many of the frequent bus service routes on the Isthmus – something I recall Phil Twyford, then Minister of Urban Development and the minister behind the NPS-UD, confirming at the time.
There is plenty more we will have to say about this Unitary Plan 2.0 in future posts.
Consultation is open till 9 May.