The report of the Independent Hearings Panel on the proposed Auckland Unitary Plan injected a good dose of realism into the plan. It made provision for all the housing expected to be needed by the city's projected population growth over the next quarter century and recommended the removal of many of the design and development controls favoured by the Auckland Council's planners. Many of those who have studied the panel's report think it has sacrificed too much quality in pursuit of quantity.
The council planners have suggested a number of changes to the panel's plan that will be considered by the council today. The planners want the council to reinstate a minimum size for apartments, reject the panel's recommendation that up to four dwellings can be built on sections in mixed housing zones with neighbours having no right to object, reinstate heritage protections for pre-1940 housing, for sites of value to Maori, for landscape features such as Crater Hill, Papatoetoe, places of environmental value such as Okura estuary, and for rural land.
The council should agree to some of these changes, not all. Underlying the debate at each stage in the long preparation of this prospectus for Auckland's future shape and character has been the philosophical question of whether it is better to be permissive or prescriptive in urban planning. On the size of apartments, for example, the hearings panel saw no need to prescribe a minimum, believing it is up to buyers to decide whether an apartment is too small.
The council planners believe "shoebox" apartments are socially undesirable. Many would agree with the planners and wonder how anyone can live in such a narrow space. But should we ban them? If some people want no more than a place to sleep, there seems no reason to close that option. Likewise, the panel's proposal to permit up to four dwellings on a section in mixed housing zones as of right. This is one of the three ways whereby the panel suggests Auckland can accommodate another million people by 2041. The others are even higher density development around suburban centres, and growth of areas outside the present urban boundary. All of these probably need to be accepted if the council is serious about closing the gap between housing supply and population growth. It had better be serious about that because the Government has talked more than once about taking over the task.
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But Aucklanders would not thank the council, or the Government, if the pursuit of quantity leaves no room for standards of quality or heritage protection. The number of dwellings on a property is less socially important than their physical appearance. It may be difficult for a zoning plan to specify standards of design and appearance but there needs to be some sort of check on those qualities so that Auckland does not repeat the visual offences done to the city by some apartment developments. And there should be no need to intrude on features such as volcano craters, or compromise streets of restored character.
The tortuous Unitary Plan is nearly finished. A tweak or two by the councillors is now all it needs.