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Time for a Proper Urban Planning Framework

Time for a Proper Urban Planning Framework

Despite continuous reviews, New Zealand still looks years away from a planning framework that concentrates on outcomes rather than processes. The Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA) continues to read as a list of planning considerations, followed by complex process instructions. No guidance is contained in the Act as to how matters are to be provided for and how they can be simultaneously pursued in the real-world environment.

The comment raised almost 20 years ago remains relevant:
“The New Zealand Government, communities and businesses must return their focus to the environmental outcomes that are being sought through the RMA rather than simply the processes associated with the Act.”
Taken from the 1998 Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment report ‘Towards Sustainable Development, The Role of the Resource Management Act’.

Recent national planning initiatives have sought to speed up the planning system by reducing opportunities for public participation, at the same time as increasing Central Government involvement in local decision making. These changes were recognised in the New Zealand Productivity Commission ‘Better Urban Planning Final Report 2017’ and OECD Environmental Performance Reviews for New Zealand 2017.

Opportunities for public scrutiny, feedback and challenge, have long been the principle means of testing the quality of local decision making. This check is being progressively removed without a thorough review of the costs and benefits of hearing and appeal processes, including the new streamlined plan making process for the Auckland and Christchurch replacement plans.

In its place is a higher reliance on process requirements and key decision makers exercising good judgement. This increases the risks that decisions made will be ad-hoc, politicised and inconsistent with decisions made in other areas. There is little point in requiring reports to be produced or certain groups to be consulted, if there is no check on the quality of reports or the capability of groups to respond.
As pointed out by the Resource Management Law Association in their 2012 Position Statement on ‘Plan Agility and First Schedule Reform’
“Any reform [of the plan making system] would become a self defeating exercise if the quality of the end product suffers to such an extent that greater overall social, economic or indeed environmental costs are imposed through inferior planning outcomes, than are saved through more timely preparation.”

I consider that removal of existing checks on the plan making process, such as the removal of appeal rights can only safely take place, where alternative safeguards apply. One method which may be able to achieve this is national direction on key outcomes in urban environments that need to be achieved and guidance on how Councils should manage competing priorities.

I doubt that the majority of New Zealanders want increased housing supply at any cost. Rather it is anticipated that the majority of people seek housing which is affordable, safe and comfortable. As well as a wider neighbourhood which is accessible, safe, clean, attractive and interesting.

The point was made by the New Zealand Institute of Surveyors in their 2013 submission on the RMA Discussion Document that: “There is little point in developing new places to live, if the overriding objective of the RMA does not require the provision of amenity”. The concept that new housing should be pleasant to live in, is also supported by planning policies and design guidance produced by the New South Wales (NSW) and Victorian State Governments.

In a real-world situation, we know that the only way that multiple objectives can be simultaneously achieved is through a balancing of priorities. Policies which pursue one priority over all others, are likely to lead to less desirable outcomes.

Considerable debate exists in the planning arena of how much each competing objective can or should be provided for (such as whether minimum standards should apply) or what objectives should take priority where trade-offs need to be made. There is significant potential for objectives regarding housing growth, housing and infrastructure costs, accessibility, reduction in natural hazard risks, protection of heritage and cultural resources, safeguarding of water quality and biodiversity, provision of public and private types of amenity and access to recreation resources to clash.

Planning policy in other countries refers to specific urban outcomes and objectives, that go beyond a growth in housing supply. The English National Planning Framework 2012 contains the objective “always seek to secure high quality design and a good standard of amenity for all existing and future occupants of land and buildings”. Planning Policy Wales (8th edition 2016) identifies that urban redevelopment should not lead to a serious loss of privacy or overshadowing of neighbouring dwellings. The 2016 Victorian Apartment Design Standards contains several amenity objectives regarding daylight, privacy and outlook for new and existing residents. With the NSW State Environmental Planning Policy 65 (reviewed 2015) having the purpose of improving the design quality of residential apartment development.

The OECD Environmental Performance Review for New Zealand 2017 identifies recent planning changes, including the Housing Accord and Special Housing Areas Act 2013 and 2016 National Policy Statement on Urban Development Capacity as not consistent with international best practice due to reduced rights for public participation, lack of inclusion of sustainable development principles, lack of direction on natural hazard risk and overly narrow focus on new housing development. In contrast, it recommends that policy be introduced which “clearly outline what standards and outcomes local plans and developments should achieve”in urban environments.
The same criticisms appear to equally apply to proposed enabling planning provisions for Urban Development Authorities contained in the Urban Development Authorities Discussion Document, released in February 2017 by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. With the accompanying Regulatory Impact Statement identifying risks for the proposal as including “the potential misuse of powers for private gain”,“the Executive having unjustified control”, “overly politicised” decision making, and possible conflict with the objectives of existing local policies.
Existing planning legislation and proposed changes fail to provide a good urban planning framework, which clearly sets out desired outcomes for urban environments. Principles and standards are needed for key outcomes such as affordability, housing supply, amenity, accessibility and safety. Rather than each local area entering into localised and potentially highly politicised battles of what represents a “reasonable level” of amenity to protect or provide, it would be better for national direction to be given for different types of urban environments. At the end of the day, most residents want a home they enjoy living in, rather than just a roof over their head.

Allison Tindale is a resource management professional with over fifteen years of experience in New Zealand, Australia and Britain. She is a member of the New Zealand Planning Institute and holds a Masters of Urban and Regional Planning (with Honours) from the University of Sydney, Australia.

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