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Permanent independent hearings panel proposed for all urban planning

Friday 19th August 2016

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The Productivity Commission recommends creating a permanent independent hearings panel like the one that cut through local politics to settle Auckland’s Unitary Plan, for the whole country.

The commission has published the interim report for its “Better Urban Planning” study and recommends “a permanent IHP be established to scrutinise proposed new council land use rules”.

The interim report, which is open for public submissions, is the latest in a string of policy research projects since 2009 that have helped nudge central and local government towards solutions in the planning and land use system that contribute to New Zealand’s affordable housing crisis.

It also lands just days after an IHP-led process saw Auckland Council agree to a massive expansion and intensification of the country’s largest city. Rampant population growth, an inefficient housing construction sector, and restrictive planning rules have combined to make it one of the world’s most expensive cities to buy a house in, relative to income.

The commission says that “cities evolve in unexpected and unpredictable ways” and that the current legal framework for urban development is hampering an adaptive approach, while the benefits of urban planning are often being outweighed by its downsides.

“There are limits to what planning can achieve,” the commission says in its 412-page report. “To make the best possible contribution to well-being, planning systems need to be open to growth, able to respond to unexpected change, and more respectful of the decisions made by individuals and firms.”

In some respects, the report has been overtaken by events. It recommends that central government give greater direction to local government about urban development priorities – a move already actioned through the publication earlier this year of a National Policy Statement on affordable housing.

However, the commission believes a similar “government policy statement” is needed to direct councils on environmental priorities, which it says are also poorly served by the current system.

The report suggests two objectives for urban development should be prioritised over all others. The first is ensuring enough development capacity to meet demand and “promote the mobility of people and goods to and through cities”.

The second is ensuring that “development in urban areas should fit within clear bio-physical limits to ensure the natural environment is protected.”

“A future system should recognise that the natural and built environments require different regulatory approaches,” the commission says, in a nod to the slowly emerging debate about whether the Resource Management Act should be split in the long term into an environmental and an urban planning act.

However, legislative change is not enough on its own, the commission suggests.

“A shift in planning culture to one that recognises the limits of planning is needed,” it says. “This will require greater recognition of the complex nature of cities and the limited ability of governments to predict urban outcomes at the micro level.”

It will also require less rigid forms of public consultation, rather than processes that hear “just the loudest voices”.

“Planning systems need to be open to growth, able to respond to unexpected change, and more respectful of the decisions made by individuals and firms.”

It proposes local councils should be given more tools to raise capital to build new infrastructure and recommends that all urban areas should have spatial plans, to protect vital infrastructure corridors that are required to allow growth.

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