In criticising the confidentiality involved in the latest stage of the Auckland Council's draft Unitary Plan process, councillor Christine Fletcher said she had never come across anything quite so "dodgy". That was quite a statement from someone whose political career has included the Auckland City mayoralty and three terms in Parliament as a National MP, including a spell as local government minister. But even if she could be guilty of some dramatic licence, her words would have struck a chord with many Aucklanders. The council's communication over the Unitary Plan was poor from early in the process. Now, its approach is fuelling concerns the city's future shape may be being redrafted out of residents' views.
Aucklanders' interest in the plan, and their willingness to engage with the council, resulted in 22,700 expressions of feedback. That is a worthy response. Now, however, many of these submitters will believe their effort is being second guessed in private gatherings. First, councillors have attended closed workshops on the controversial issue of height limits and volcanic viewshafts, which contained feedback from the Property Council, Fletcher Development and Tramlease, but no counter-view from community groups or the Volcanic Cones Society. These meetings have taken place even though Fletcher says she and other councillors have yet to receive full disclosure of the public submissions.
Secondly, local boards feel frustrated because they have yet to see the submissions for their areas. Orakei Local Board chairwoman, Desley Simpson, said, quite understandably, that her board wanted access to submissions by suburb, not just brief summaries "that don't give us a snapshot of how our communities have voiced their concerns". This is important because if local opinion is united and well reasoned, there may have to be rethinks. Local boards will be pivotal if communities are to have a say in their future, rather than being part of a one-size-fits-all prescription. They must be informed fully and quickly. There seems no good reason why the submissions have not been released. Those on legislation being considered by Parliament are routinely made public promptly. They are submitted on the basis that they will be open to the public and viewed widely. Groups concerned about issues such as commercial sensitivity must, therefore, be careful about what they say. The public submissions on the Unitary Plan should be no different. Nor should there be any need for groups to be involved in closed workshops that discuss matters they consider should not be aired before the public.
Many of the 22,700 submissions will contain specific viewpoints of limited value. Residents of some established areas, for example, seem opposed to any change whatsoever. But the council should be able to get a good grasp of whether Aucklanders are receptive to new ideas on housing, and whether it has convinced them that intensification can be accomplished in a way that actually enhances the city. In all likelihood, a major message will be that the master planning approach will need to be refined through a considerable amount of micro-management.
Master planning may be the preference of planners and deliver the benefits implicit in uniform development, but it pays too little heed to the circumstances and needs of individual communities. The next step would be about refinement, rather than ditching the Unitary Plan.
The mix of housing options at its core, and the aim of accommodating up to another million people in Auckland within the planning period, would not have to be undermined. Unfortunately, the current lack of openness could cultivate mistrust, rather than convince Aucklanders of the way forward. Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse's statement about the need to get a move on offers no excuse. It is far more important to get it right, out in the open.