Editorial: People want local choices made locally

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Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Steven McNicholl

There is a place for a fast-track planning process that ensures decision-making does not bog down. Projects of national significance should not be hostage to undue complication. But there is a world of difference between these and developments that affect only a particular community. In such cases, every effort should be made to ensure the community's wishes are recognised.

Regrettably, that notion has eluded the Auckland councillors who late last week sought to limit the regulatory powers of the city's local boards.

To some degree, they succeeded. Local boards, unlike the community boards that preceded them, will not be able to make submissions on, and appeal against, resource consents. That deprives the community of one potentially powerful voice when, for example, the future of heritage buildings or the construction of high-rise apartments are at stake. The boards will, however, have an early say on whether resource consent applications will be notified and the chance to express their views in council officers' reports on these.

This is in addition to an earlier decision that allowed council and local board members to sit in on "significant" and "contentious" resource consent hearings.

In theory, this should help prevent repeats of the episode at St Heliers early this year when a set of 1930s art deco houses was demolished to make way for a retail and commercial development. Strong protests and polls of the community made it clear this was not what residents wanted. Yet even the latest safeguards have potential fish-hooks. The definition of what is "contentious" could, for example, prove problematic.

After the disquiet at St Heliers, it would be a brave council planning officer who did not err on the side of caution in advising local boards of controversial applications. The council is fond of proclaiming that attitudes have changed markedly. But local boards will have to be vigilant. There have been enough occurrences of inappropriate demolition and development to place confidence in the council's planners at a low ebb.

The mayor, Len Brown, has also proclaimed that local board empowerment would be at the heart of Super City democracy. That ideal won the broad support of Aucklanders, who clearly wanted the local boards to be more than conduits of information between the council and citizens. Most envisaged the boards as having the power, responsibilities and financial wherewithal to meet their residents' needs.

Last week, Mr Brown was one of those to oppose local boards having an early input on resource consent applications. He may be hanging his hat on a unitary approach yielding a superior planning process. But this is not what most Aucklanders seek, as the voting of a majority of councillors acknowledged. People want each area to be able to decide its priorities and its character.

In the case of St Heliers, that was to remain a seaside village. Other suburbs will have their own priorities. Each wants its local board to be able to respond to its particular needs. They do not want local government swamped in a single city. They are happy to see diversity, not a brand of bureaucratic standardisation. To achieve this, they and their local boards must have an active say in the development of their neighbourhoods.

When that is at stake, the time taken over resource consent applications is a far lower priority than for nationally important projects. Top of the list for the council should be meeting the community's wishes. Last week's decisions indicate that message is still to be fully heeded.

- NZ Herald

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