Rezoning Ponsonby?

I was recently invited by the Urban Development Institute of New Zealand (UDINZ) to be part of a panel discussion to take a closer look at the government’s new National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD) and how it could impact central suburbs like Ponsonby.  The event was provocatively headlined “flexible zoning in Ponsonby?”  Unsurprisingly this resulted in a number of concerned and curious residents attending.    Since the NPS-UD was first consulted on by government in 2019 it has largely so far flown under the radar even though it will have a significant impact on Auckland and other metro centres.

I was on the panel as the local Councillor but as Auckland Council is currently working on an official response to the NPS-UD I provided an update on the process and only a personal view about the likely implications.   I was joined on the panel by Chris Crow, Urban Economist PwC (who also gave a scene setting presentation), Geoff Cooper, GM Strategy, NZ Infrastructure Commission, Don Mathieson, Co-Chair, Herne Bay Residents Association and Colin Leuschke, Director, Leuschke Architects.

The Government prepared the NPS-UD as part of its Urban Growth Agenda to address New Zealand’s housing challenges.  The NPS-UD 2020 requires councils to plan for growth and ensure a well-functioning urban environment for all people, communities and future generations.  It requires Auckland Council to implement a series of prescriptive “intensification” policies relating to height and density through a plan change to the Auckland Unitary Plan by August 2022.

Many will remember the bitter battle and difficult process over the Unitary plan especially with regards to the extent of protection for heritage and special character.  The government’s directive to councils to make room for growth and to remove rules that constrain supply means that the Unitary Plan has to be revisited.    There is some alignment with the current plan (e.g. allowing more people to live closer to jobs, goods and services, providing greater housing choices), but the NPS-UD is likely to require significant changes to the Unitary Plan in some parts of Auckland.

The intensification policies the council has to implement focus on enabling greater heights and densities within “walkable catchments” of frequent transport networks and in “other locations” that are accessible to employment, goods, services, education or in high demand.  In these locations there has to be a minimum zoning of six stories unless “qualifying matters” apply such as maintaining open space for public use or heritage orders.

Approximately 30,000 properties currently sit within the current Special Characters overlay that will fall within the NPS-UD areas that have to be considered for further intensification through up-zoning. Council will need to carefully consider what locations fall within the directive and whether Special Character is a “qualifying matter”, and if so, should this apply across the board, or in some but not all areas. Council has the massive task of undertaking site-by-site surveys and analysis for every property in order to be subject to a qualifying matter.   Personally I think we have to find a way of retaining the special character of neighbourhoods that tell the story of where we have come from and are valued by all Aucklanders.  I don’t think it is a zero sum game between providing much needed housing and heritage. As Don on the panel mentioned there are plenty of compact cities around the world that have found a way to grow at the same time as protect heritage.  It is also a wider debate that what is considered heritage and the value of our landscapes is not just a European construct.

At this stage however, it is important to note that council is only at the start of a lengthy period of detailed policy, planning and public engagement work on the NPS-UD and how it needs to be applied.  Another challenge that has to be worked through is what infrastructure will be required to support the increased density and who pays for that infrastructure.   No decisions have been made yet.  Aucklanders will have opportunities to have their say.

This is just a brief summary of the NPS-UD. The UDINZ event provided the first occasion to share some initial thoughts at a very early stage.   Please refer to the Ministry for the Environment website for more details.

First published in the July Ponsonby News

Further updates

Report to the 1 July Planning Committee meeting seeking endorsement of approaches in response to several the intensification provisions in the National Policy Statement on Urban Development 2020 (item 13).

Auckland Council considers urban development policy