Next Wednesday, the Auckland Council will release the recommendations from the hearings panel on the proposed Auckland Unitary Plan. Councillors have until August 19 to decide whether to accept the panel's findings. There are limited appeal rights.
The plan will guide development over the next couple of decades. It is a plan prepared under pressure, both from burgeoning population growth and hugely compressed timeframes. The panel has done an heroic job and deserves commendation for getting the biggest planning exercise in our history finished on time. The key question is whether it will deliver a quality outcome.
A concern for many is whether the acronym for the Unitary Plan (UP) signals the way the city will grow. Both up and out is the inevitable outcome, but within those broad parameters, there will be plenty of room for hot debate. Up where and exactly how high? Out constrained by limits or free to sprawl? Good public transport connectivity or rampant, car-based Los Angelisation?
However, the plan deals with much more than residential growth. It covers the entire Auckland region, including the sea out to 12 nautical miles. The marine environment is much bigger than the land area and rural land covers a greater area (this week at least) than urban. How should the panel have addressed the non-residential planning issues?
In the marine environment, it should sharply curtail sediment and contaminant runoff, which is smothering and poisoning marine life and reducing fish stocks and shellfish beds. Poorly managed urban growth, along with pressure from rural activities, could increase the rate of degradation.
The plan should also identify our remaining intact marine habitats, in both inshore and deep waters, and protect them from physically damaging activities such as dredging, dumping and trawling. Most of Auckland's marine environment has been fundamentally transformed, so it is essential that the plan protects the remaining ecologically intact areas.
In the rural environment it should protect remnant native forests, wetlands, outstanding landscapes, unspoiled parts of the coast, native freshwater fish and invertebrates, and productive soils. The plan should contain mechanisms to ensure there is no net loss of important indigenous species through development impacts. The Resource Management Act contains bottom lines the plan must meet.
A robust plan should include maintaining a firm rural-urban boundary and then tightly constraining subdivision and development outside of it. The idea of clearly identifying go and no-go areas for development needs to gain traction.
The danger is that an overriding focus on urban development will mean sloppy, compromised outcomes for the marine and rural parts of Auckland. To ensure quality outcomes in the rural and marine areas, we need clear, firm, decisive policy direction to resist the spillover effects from the demographic pressures.
We also need to get to the real nub of the housing debate. The emphasis to date has been on increasing the supply of dwellings to accommodate the extra 40,000 or so people coming into Auckland each year. But the reality is, that rate of growth is unsustainable. It will continue to fuel property speculation, make housing even more unaffordable, worsen already unacceptable congestion, compound the infrastructure deficit and lead to deterioration of the environment.
What is desperately needed is to put the brakes on migration into Auckland, to slow it down to match the realistic supply of housing and infrastructure. This could be achieved by tightening the eligibility criteria for the one-third of growth that is new immigrants. This could be adjusted upwards later, after the housing and infrastructure deficits have been fixed. The demand side of the equation is just being ignored. Auckland needs a balanced strategy.
There's a lot at stake here. The Unitary Plan is very important. It needs to ensure that the quality of the environment and way of life our diverse peoples enjoy are protected while managing unprecedented demand on natural resources and infrastructure. There is a risk that in seeking to remove obstacles to growth the plan may go too far and quality suffers. We will see.