Call me cynical, but when city planners say, "Trust us, we know what we're doing", a peal of alarm bells starts thundering away in my head. For the past year, Auckland Council planners have been quietly plotting the big daddy of all "trust us" exercises.
They want, like Moses, to draw up one Super City planning rulebook to replace the 12 individual city and regional plans now governing development in Auckland, and present it to us - chiselled, clause for clause, for all time, in stone.
In the new Auckland, unlike the rest of New Zealand, citizens will be unable to appeal this sacred document to the Environment Court, except on narrow points of law.
It's a proposition that councillors at last week's Auckland Plan Committee endorsed, despite concerns from planning lawyers and community activists.
In a report by John Duguid, manager, Unitary, the planners argue the need to get the new plan operative by 2013, with fast-tracking amendments to the Local Government and Resource Management Acts.
There's talk of how in the past it took between five and 10 years to sort out appeals and council plans to become operative.
Behind the scenes, council planners and politicians have been lobbying their counterparts in Government since last November's election, pushing for legislative change "to ensure that the Auckland Unitary Plan can become operative as soon as possible [in order] to ensure that many of the strategic directions in the Auckland Plan can be delivered in a timely manner".
Treading warily, it seems, "Ministry of Environment officials have made it clear that any changes to legislation would need to be accompanied by a highly collaborative upfront process to develop the Auckland Unitary Plan ..."
So the planners are proposing "an enhanced engagement process" on the plan involving you and me, beginning next month. We're going to be "consulted" with all the usual hoopla, feedback sessions, roundtable discussions, an "Expo of Ideas" and so on and so forth. Then, after this intensive engagement, the planners will go off, finalise the plan, and, if the Government bends the law, cast the document in stone.
The pithiest putdown of this undemocratic fast-tracking proposal comes in a critique by Russell McVeagh planning lawyers headed by Derek Nolan.
"Rather than removing or limiting the right to appeal to the Environment Court, there should first be a focus on reducing the frequency with which submitters feel the need to exercise their right." In other words, do a better job to begin with.
These lawyers argue that not only does the possibility of an Environment Court appeal keeps those drafting a plan on their toes, but "they ignore the significant value to the quality of the plan at the end of the appeal process. Numerous policy statements and plans have been improved significantly through the appeal process, with comparatively few cases having to go to full hearings."
The critique supports the "enhanced engagement process" as a no-brainer - something that should occur anyway, but not a trade-off for existing appeal rights.
The Russell McVeagh team is usually identified with the big business side of development, but equally concerned are heritage and community advocates such as Allan Matson. He points to his eight-year battle to save the old Fitzroy Hotel in Wakefield St from the wreckers' ball and says it would not have been possible under the proposed regime. He showed how planners do get it wrong.
Despite the hotel building being over 150 years old and the city's oldest, Auckland City granted the owners a demolition permit. It was not even listed on the council's heritage schedule. In March 2004, Mr Matson requested a plan change scheduling the building as a Category A (75 points and over) protected building. The planners scored it 47 points and rejected the application.
On subsequent appeals, they reluctantly rescored it first 57, then 72, and agreed it was B category protected. It survives, mainly because of the economic climate, but also because of Mr Matson's doggedness and his appeal rights to challenge The Plan.
The battle to permit citizens' input into what is happening in their environment has been hard fought. If the planners get their way, the rich and powerful will still be able to afford to pay up for private plan changes and the like. The rest of us will be left to wave placards.By Brian Rudman Email Brian