Amicus Curiae: Divide and Conquer – The Problems with Auckland’s Proposed Unitary Plan

Communications Co-Manager, Eugenia Woo

A few days ago, there was a revision of Auckland’s Unitary Plan by an independent hearings panel. Their consensus was that Auckland as a city, needs to become denser. While it was expected that the panel would endorse an increase in density, there were other recommendations made that took the public by surprise.

Auckland was always headed in the direction of greater density. It has been accepted as inevitable because of the city’s growth. However, the revised plan has doubled the number of dwellings proposed in the original Unitary Plan – the housing market will have a projected excess of 22,000 homes should this recommendation be followed. Furthermore, the revised plan has no regulations on the sustainability of new dwellings, and it has removed the requirement that a certain amount of new housing be affordable. Policy analyst Alan Johnson, Co-convenor of the Child Poverty Action Group, was concerned that the removal of that requirement would lead to a proliferation of poor-quality houses in low income areas. Others are worried that getting rid of those provisions will similarly lead to the alienation of working families looking to purchase a home. Community Housing Aotearoa is holding on to the hope that Auckland Council will reinsert those provisions, and have described the panel’s revisions as a “missed opportunity for affordable housing”.

The original Unitary Plan had capped development within urban areas at under 40%. However, the revised plan increases that to 64%, and also increases the amount of land available for development by 30% (this land is no longer protected from change via private plan changes). This might be a good thing; the revised plan seems to support a network of public transport systems, which should make commuting within Auckland more convenient and feasible. At the same time, this proposal for increased urbanisation comes hand in hand with the removal of general heritage protections for all houses built before 1944. With these protections thrown to the wind and the fact that 60% of the city is to be zoned for higher-density housing, it may well be inevitable that old architecture will become as scarce as the barriers to their demolition in the face of a more futuristic landscape.

Questions about the the housing market aside, there have been allegations of racism and blatant disregard for the rights of Māori raised by a number of Māori MPs. These arrive in the wake of the deletion of Treaty Principles from the Unitary Plan after revision, and the removal of considerations regarding tino rangatiratanga. While Historic Heritage Places retain limited protection, Cultural Assessment Impacts for Māori sites have been done away with. Greens co-leader Metiria Turei stated that the Unitary Plan’s failure to identify and protect sites of Māori significance was very concerning. The MP for Tamaki Makarau, Peeni Henare, was similarly worried, and was firm that while future-proofing the Unitary Plan was important, it should not be done at the cost of Mana Whenua rights. The requirement that property owners have to contact Mana Whenua if they want to develop within 50 metres of sites has also been removed in the revised plan. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg for the Independent Māori Statutory Board (IMSB).

There was a debate between councillors to have the Unitary Plan moved to the Council’s Governing Body. This would mean that the IMSB would no longer have any say in what goes into the plan, or what gets removed from it. Dick Quax, Cameron Brewer, and Mike Lee relied on statistics courtesy of Democracy Action to insinuate that the IMSB is compromised and should be excluded from here on out because it was involved in the hearings on the Unitary Plan. Currently, members of the IMSB only sit on committees and not the full council, so they already have a diminished influential capacity. Quax was adamant that it would “defy democracy” to have the IMSB members sitting in judgement of the Unitary Plan because they were unelected and not accountable. It has been difficult for Māori to be recognised within the legislation when Auckland was created, and Henare is worried that this move will set them even further back. The concern is that disregarding the input of the IMSB will effectively be ignoring the Māori perspective, which should be untenable when it comes to a matter this important. Luckily, there was vocal opposition from Alf Filipaina and Arthur Anae, councillors of Samoan heritage, to the IMSB being excluded, and the move to send the plan to the Governing Body was eventually unsuccessful.

The committee will be deliberating the Unitary Plan and its revisions before the Governing Body finally signs off on it, and there have been concerns raised by MPs, councillors, and the public about whether the revised plan is truly the best iteration of the future-proofing suggested by the government. From the raft of issues ranging from questions over an appropriate level of density to the attempt to run roughshod over Māori representation, the road to the final sign-off is shaping up to be a very contested one indeed.

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