A Simple Plan?
The Auckland Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel’s recommendations to Auckland Council are clear, and as simple as they could be following the two-plus years of submissions/mediations/expert conferences and hearings involving almost everyone in Auckland’s design and planning community.
Gone are the peripheral concerns around matters that are, or should be, dealt with by other regulations, such as dwelling and room sizes, ceiling heights, window sizes and insulation standards which, in the Panel’s view, are Building Code matters. Arguments around socially aspirational outcomes (affordable housing, universal access) have been swept aside. The much debated rural-urban-boundary, following agreement by our national politicians that it’s a bad idea, has been predictably neutralised as an issue, although it’s still there in name. Gone are the so-called urban design rules on such matters as garage door setbacks, windows to the street and front fence heights. Requirements for parking on private land are, thankfully, mostly gone.
So, a simple plan; a plan that is, as they say, focussed on outcomes and integrated both vertically and horizontally. By way of example, in the residential rules (the main area of my involvement), the outlook requirements from habitable rooms are now common to all the main zones, and I never did understand why, in the originally proposed plan, the mixed housing zones had yards and height-in-relation-to boundary-controls, while the terrace house and apartment zone had stepped setback dimensions to achieve much the same end. All these zones now have a common set of rules, covering such matters as coverage, building separation, outdoor living and fences.
The Panel has taken the Auckland Plan very seriously, and has modelled their recommended plan on the principles set out in the 2010 document. But more than that, it has actually delivered on the compact city vision, with almost 60% of the planned 422,000 dwellings over the next 30 years to be located inside the 2010 Metropolitan Urban Limit. Some of the increase in the planned numbers above the originally proposed 212,000 came from mediated changes to the zone rules during the hearings process (it went up to around 296,000 as a result), but the huge increase to the present number appears to be largely a result of applying the zones differently on the maps. Density around centres and transport corridors has been emphasised.
So this is the good news, but the other part of the Auckland Plan’s vision for the quality compact urban form is the “quality” part, and this is where the recommended plan encounters some difficulty. While “recognising that the need to achieve a quality design is increasingly important as the scale of development increases”, the Panel’s report goes on to say “good design is based on principles rather than rules. Mere reference to good design or the listing of preferred design principles is ill-suited to a regulatory framework which imposes binary ‘grant/decline’ outcomes. Discretionary decision-making must be exercised on the basis of relevant and clear objectives, policies and assessment criteria rather than on subjective preferences”.
Auckland Council’s brave attempt to start to address this issue through the mandatory provision of Design Statements has been ruled out as being costly and ineffective, but there’s little on offer as a replacement, and no mention of peer design review which has proved so successful at Hobsonville Point, for instance.
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect an RMA plan to deliver a blueprint for design quality, but reading on it feels a little as though they’ve given up:
“A lack of specific standards, factors or criteria can result in the assumption that the objectives and policies are intended to achieve a uniformly high or excellent standard in in all locations or from all activities. While there are certainly many aspects of Auckland that are of high quality, the Unitary Plan must also address many things that, realistically, are unlikely to be described that way.”
“The real issue is whether the Unitary Plan provides the necessary context by setting out clear reference points to enable ‘quality’ to be assessed in an appropriate context. In the Panel’s view, the objectives and policies should establish such context to enable people to determine whether their activity or use of resources achieves the appropriate standard of quality.”
So while the assessment criteria for a resource consent do include “intensity, scale, location, form and appearance”, the actual assessment will rely on reference up to the higher-level objectives and policies.
Maybe this is as good as it gets, but all sounds a little vague and open to different interpretations. Is there a better way?
Chairman, Urban Design Forum
1 August 2016