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Bryce Julyan: Beware of rush job on city's future

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Don't blame the planners if they're given too little time to analysis the Unitary Plan.

Penny Pirrit, senior planner at Auckland Council, at one of the many public meetings held to discuss the Unitary Plan. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Penny Pirrit, senior planner at Auckland Council, at one of the many public meetings held to discuss the Unitary Plan. Photo / Sarah Ivey

There's no doubt that Auckland's Unitary Plan is pioneering, with much unexplored detail as yet, and I empathise with columnist Brian Rudman's frustration as to navigating its dense blueprint - "143 spin doctors but precious little info".

While we may take issue with his assessment of planners, let us start from the point at which we can agree. A robust process of engagement is essential to a successful plan.

Meaningful engagement requires time to assess and analyse the information received or given. As long as that happens, Aucklanders can expect an integrated and well-conceived plan.

As the institute that supports the planning profession, our prime concern at this point is the lack of time afforded to the planners at the council to undertake a thorough and professional analysis that will support such an outcome.

This is absolutely not the fault of planners, whose role in the process is not widely understood.

The planner's role is to a certain extent defined and governed by legislation - the Resource Management Act and the Local Government Act particularly.

The planning teams at the council have developed a coherent spatial planning framework in the Auckland Plan that council has now adopted. This plan recently underwent considerable public consultation to come to the point that confirms the principles of managing the region's growth and development through well-planned urban growth, including intensification, supported by good infrastructure.

The spatial plan provides the direction in which Auckland is headed.

The Unitary Plan should translate the agreed "big picture" into an effective local framework for managing the region's physical and natural resources. This includes the protection of highly-valued physical and cultural elements of Auckland while providing for the social and economic wellbeing of citizens, including urban growth and development.

This is no small task and requires much critical analysis and professional evaluation.

Members of the NZPI are, as accredited, qualified planners, able to undertake this analysis, based on evidence, including research and best practice, and to evaluate issues objectively and professionally, in accordance with the ethics of the profession. Planners are equipped to make such evaluations in a way that considers social, environmental, economic and other values.

The task is not one without compromise and the Unitary Plan is ultimately not going to meet everyone's ideas of what it should entail, but it should be a plan that is future oriented, integrated, coherent (and not ad hoc), and responds to the direction set by the region in its broader policy framework.

That said, while planners are essential to undertake the technical work to develop a plan, and provide the professional assessments and opinion that informs decision-makers, the final decision-makers are the councillors.

For the Unitary Plan council planners are not just constrained by statutory impediments, but by the early and arbitrary "deadline" the council has landed upon to get the plan notified - which happens to be before local government elections later this year.

This all leaves the council planners with a hugely challenging task: to deliver a quality document in its final form before September this year.

The task is the rather unenviable one of obtaining the regional community's view of the merit of the draft plan, and the greater challenge is to respond in a meaningful and considered manner. And this is where the task can come unstuck, through no fault of solid planning. It is fair to say that 10 weeks is little time to properly assess the Draft Unitary Plan - a draft document that is not, as yet, entirely clear in terms of its implications.

It goes without saying that nothing in this will be simple, least of all the solutions finally offered up for councillors' consideration.

It is important to remember that the outcomes should meet the expectations.

Simplistic solutions to such issues as land availability and development are usually ineffective in delivering high quality, high functioning urban environments that attract and sustain strong communities. Housing affordability, another key consideration, requires a sophisticated and comprehensive response and is not a problem that can be solved solely by changes to the planning process.

Community participation and feedback is vital to the process and will inform the planners who are developing the plan for council. The Auckland Plan already provides direction, and the deliberate planning process being undertaken provides the opportunity to balance competing interests and views.

To build a future metropolitan area that is socially and economically successful while respecting and protecting its environment and cultural assets is the responsibility of the council, ably assisted in this task by the qualified planning professionals they employ.

The challenge for the mayor and councillors is to be brave enough to listen to the community feedback and enable the planners time to consider carefully the responses and formulate a robust proposed plan for the next stage of the process.

In order for this process to work properly, planners must be allowed the time to consider, assess and weigh the feedback, and make a professional recommendation for the council to determine the future plan for the region. That is, after all, what a professional planner is qualified to do.

Bryce Julyan is New Zealand Planning Institute chairman. The NZPI represents professional, qualified planners and specialists involved in the planning profession.

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