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14 Oct 2015

The process for the Unitary Plan aims to deliver better plans that lead to good planning outcomes, including more timely plans. It is based on the standard Resource Management Act process for reviewing and changing plans, but with a number of changes made by the Local Government (Auckland Transitional Provisions) Act 2010.

The main differences at the hearings stage are the introduction of an Independent Hearings Panel (rather than Council appointed commissioners) and the use of pre-hearing meetings, expert conferences and mediation to try and resolve issues before the hearing. The overall goals are to achieve better solutions and for less time to be required for formal hearings.

The Panel is a statutory body set up by the Local Government (Auckland Transitional Provisions) Act 2010. Its members have been appointed by the Minister for the Environment and the Minister of Conservation. It is independent of Auckland Council and any other arm of government. Auckland Council is however responsible for funding the Panel and providing staff to support the Panel.

Because the process is new, the Panel has prepared some detailed procedural directions that set out how the various processes will run.

Auckland Unitary Plan - testing the strength of the planning framework

With the Unitary Plan's Auckland-wide rules, zone and overlay hearings almost at a close, a number of cracks have been exposed in the structure of the Plan.

A key objective of the Unitary Plan was to create a simple planning framework that would be accessible for the everyday user.  A supposedly clear hierarchy has been put in place:

•       The zone and Auckland-wide rules are intended to provide a platform.  The Auckland-wide rules apply to the use and development of land (eg earthworks, contaminated land, transport) regardless of the zone in which they occur.  The zone manages the use and development of land where similar uses and activities are anticipated (eg Heavy Industry zone, Healthcare Facility zone).

•       The precinct mechanism sits over top of the zone and provides for local differences (eg Port precinct, Cornwall Park precinct).  The provisions can be more restrictive or more enabling than the underlying zone rules.

•       The overlays manage the protection and enhancement of values associated with an area or resource (eg historic heritage, volcanic viewshafts).  The overlays generally apply more restrictive controls and do not follow zone or precinct boundaries.


While in theory the above structure seems unambiguous, in practice several issues have been identified. 

The Panel has indicated at various times through this process that it too is unhappy with the somewhat complicated structure of the Unitary Plan.  In its interim guidance on Topic 004 (General Provisions) the Panel noted that it considered Rule G2.1 complex, and that the relationship between the various mechanisms was not always consistent.

More recently, the Panel has made the following comments to submitters at the hearing on Topics 051-054 (Business zones):

•       Is the two layer approach (ie zone and precinct) necessary where the underlying zone for a site has no utility?

•       In cases where a precinct makes only minor changes to the zone provisions, it might be better for the zone provisions to include a site-specific rule, rather than create a whole precinct.

•       One of the objectives of the Unitary Plan was to reduce the number of zones in Auckland.  However, with the plethora of precincts, this objective was being overridden.

•       Site-specific zoning may be appropriate in some cases.

•       The overarching aim is for there to be clarity for users of the Unitary Plan and the current zone/precinct proposal is too complicated.

Under the Local Government (Auckland Transitional Provisions) Act 2010, the Panel, in forming its recommendations, is not limited to making recommendations only within the scope of submissions and may make any other recommendations it sees fit.  In light of these recent comments, it is possible that submitters could be seeing a very different Unitary Plan to the one that was notified.  


Unitary Plan Update - law change expected to speed up the process

There have been a number of recent developments in respect of the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan, including an indication of possible legislative refinements to enable the Hearings Panel to speed up the hearing process and achieve its statutory deadline. 

Hon Dr Nick Smith and Mayor Len Brown recently announced that a Bill will be introduced to give the Unitary Plan Hearings Panel greater flexibility in order to achieve its statutory deadline. 

Changes including reducing the Panel's quorum; confirming that concurrent sessions can be held; allowing recommendations to be made in stages; and allowing the appointment of additional Panel members.  Although the Bill has not yet been introduced, it is expected to be passed before the end of the year.


Latest interim guidance released

On 7 September, following hearings on Topic 076 - Major Recreation Facility Zone and Precincts, the Hearings Panel released its latest Interim Guidance.  During the hearing both submitters and Auckland Council indicated that it would be useful for the Panel to provide guidance on a select number of outstanding issues between the parties to facilitate post-hearing discussions.  In response, the Panel has issued guidance to enable submitters and the Council to further consider the proposed provisions and advance any further changes to the provisions to give effect to the matters in the guidance before the hearing is formally closed.

The Interim Guidance indicates support for:

•       listing the primary activities provided by the facility operators unless there is good reason not to;

•       reframing complementary activities as an inclusive list of "activities compatible with" the primary activities, to cater for non-listed activities;

•       the proposed three-tiered assessment framework for noise levels;

•       precinct-specific noise, lighting and transport management controls;

•       interface control areas as recommended by each operator, unless there is good reason to move from those recommendations; and

•       building height and height to boundary limits at a suitable level to enable primary activities on each site.

The Panel has also established a timeframe for the progress towards resolution of the outstanding matters as follows:

•       submitters to undertake direct discussions with Council by 14 October 2015;

•       Council to provide the Panel with a summary of agreements reached, a list of outstanding issues, and mediation track change versions of the precinct provisions by 16 October 2015;

•       the Panel will appoint a mediator and mediation will be held between 2 and 13 November 2015 (if required);

•       the outcome of the mediation will be reported to the Panel by the mediator;

•       closing statements are to be provided to the Panel by 20 November 2015; and

•       upon receipt of the mediation outcome and closing statements, the Panel will consider whether any further hearing time is necessary or desirable and parties will be informed accordingly.

The Interim Guidance provides strong support for outcomes that will achieve operational flexibility for Auckland's various major recreation facilities, including Auckland Zoo, MOTAT, and the sports stadia, over the life of the Unitary Plan.  In particular, the Guidance indicates support for an approach that recognises the unique characteristics of the limited number of major recreation facilities (17 precincts in total across Auckland) and their significance in providing for the recreational needs of a growing population. 

The guidance in its totality suggests that major recreational facilities, like other social infrastructure including hospitals, schools and tertiary institutions, require a plan framework that responds to both their unique functional requirements and their important role in providing for Auckland's social and economic well-being.  In turn those considerations justify a careful review of the level of control on potential effects sought to be imposed by the Council.

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