In the age of the Resource Management Act we should be reluctant to put any more complications in the path of development, least of all new rules for something as subjective as building design. But in parts of Auckland the need for higher standards is plain for all to see. The inner-city has suffered a rash of residential and commercial developments in recent years and rash is not too strong a description of too many of them. It has to be doubted that even the developers take much delight in the design of the blocks they are putting up. They are in business and they are plainly scrimping on architectural expenses because they can.

Not for much longer, if Mayor Dick Hubbard has his way. He made building design one of his prime concerns in his run for election last year and it struck a chord. It is, in fact, the one project in his platform that he can claim not to have inherited from previous mayors and it could well become the measure of his performance in office, much as his predecessor was judged on a pet project, the eastern highway. If Mr Hubbard is to point to an appreciable improvement in Auckland's building design within three years he needs to start now, and he has.

The announcement of a "mayoral taskforce" to recommend ways to go about the project might not sound promising but probably it is a necessary first step. It is easier to criticise the appearance of buildings than to suggest guidelines that might produce more attractive results. And it is even harder to suggest who should be the city's arbiters of design. The taskforce of 14 people consists of architects, developers and the Property Council, which should ensure all interests are considered from the outset, and it will be chaired by Deputy Mayor Bruce Hucker, whose role could deliver a council majority for whatever is agreed.

If it follows the example of an exercise in Edinburgh, on which the taskforce has been modelled, it will recommend more carrots than sticks as a method of improving building design. Among the proposals of the Edinburgh group were the appointment of a top architect as an official patron of high standards, the production of an annual dossier of successful buildings and a "hall of shame". It is doubtful that those would be enough to raise the sights (and the costs) of developers. More effective, perhaps, would be Edinburgh's "exceptional fast track" to planning approval for buildings that meet its desired standards. That might give property owners an incentive to spend a little more on architectural quality.

But the taskforce should not shrink from considering the regulatory stick either. Regulations that further restrict what people can do with their own property should never be lightly adopted; there must always be good reason to do so. Moreover, the regulations must be capable of producing the desired public benefit and the benefit must outweigh any possible disadvantage to the community. The disadvantages of tougher design regulations may be that less development takes place and apartments and commercial space becomes more expensive and less accessible to many who need it.

Against that, the benefits would be a more visually pleasant environment for everyone living or working in the areas of intensive development or passing through them. And we could even hope that the agreed standards of design might begin to give Auckland a character of its own, in harmony with its harbours and landscape and distinctive of New Zealand. That is a tall order but there is no reason for the taskforce to lower its sights.

Aesthetics are subjective but it is possible for people of taste to agree more often than not on what constitutes a reasonable standard. Their judgment will not impress everybody in all instances but if they are confident and consistent they could do wonders for Auckland's civic pride.