Just over two months ago, the Auckland Council issued a public discussion paper that gave us a taste of the kind of city it wants Auckland to be. The document, Auckland Unleashed, was open to discussion until today. Doubtless, the council has received numerous submissions from professionals in urban planning and design, environmental groups, community activists and civic associations, but the document has not achieved the popular debate the subject deserves.

We offered our view here the day after its release. We observed that the city they propose would be very tightly leashed. The planners' aim, as always, was to stop sprawl by enforcing urban limits and directing population growth
away from the coasts. Thus Auckland would become a more compact city, filling up in the inner city, the west and southwest rather than spreading along more bays and headlands of the Hauraki Gulf.

It may be that just about everyone broadly endorses the direction the council is setting. Its planning staff will be happy to take this message from the public response. Urban sprawl has few supporters on paper. It is costly to continue extending roads, public transport and piped services further from the city centre.

But if the public does not support urban sprawl on paper, it supports it in practice. Property values and rural subdivisions tell their own story. What people say when they are surveyed, and what they do with their money, are not always the same. It is also hard to know whether public restraint is supported for private benefit. A compact city is very good for a semi-rural lifestyle on the urban fringe, public transport is attractive to those who look forward to driving on less-congested roads.

The answer to urban sprawl is to charge for it. If the cost of extended roads and pipes was fully reflected in tolls, water rates and drainage levies, Auckland might become more compact. If the city continued to expand, however, those who made the choice would be meeting the costs. The choice can be theirs.

Planners, as we argued at the release of Auckland Unleashed, have the choice of working with public behaviour or against it. Often they work against it. The former Auckland Regional Council was forever trying to contain the city's sprawl, not always with the support of its constituent city and district councils. The Super City faces no such problem. Its subservient local boards have, as yet, no planning power. It has acquired regional planners unleashed.

Their discussion paper has been just the first round of "public consultation" requirements for an Auckland Plan. They intend to write the first draft of the plan during June and after more discussions, they will release a further draft, for more public consultation, in August. Then a round of public hearings will be held before the final version is written.

And this is only one of many types of plan the council has to produce. Council members are supposed to concentrate on these big ephemeral "strategic" directions, rather than spending their time on the minutiae of planning consents and other concrete decisions.

This is called a separation of policy-making and "governance". It is the reason so many of the council's responsibilities have been given to subsidiary boards. Strategic planning is one of the few tasks left for elected representatives. Unless they ensure their planning officers produce discussion documents that excite or arouse public interest, they are going to go off the ratepayers' radar.

There is not much anyone can do with dull, windy documents that do not confront the public with strong argument and hard decisions. When later stages of this exercise produce more specific proposals the Herald will do what it can to try to ensure the Auckland Council's next attempt to engage ordinary citizens is not a fizzer.