Grant McLachlan - New Zealand Herald - Column
Council officials make mockery of Unitary Plan
There is little point having an Auckland Unitary Plan if council planners ignore it. The process to compile the plan has taken years and the last appeals are being worked through. Communities, public and private interests have all fine-tuned a plan to meet the foreseeable needs of a growing city sustainably.
The problem is council planners are making decisions that bear little resemblance to the plan's intentions and then obstructing any challenge to those decisions. People are pushing boundaries and the council isn't pushing back. Rules are meant to be an upper limit. Many think that, just because there is a rule, they are meant to test it.
Simple planning rules like fence height, boundary set-backs, height-to-boundary, site coverage, and protected trees are not being complied with and the council is indifferent to it. These simple rules set the baseline for the amenity of an area, which ensures compatibility between neighbouring activities.
We have planning rules to minimise nuisance. Nuisance is a legal term where everyone has a duty to avoid causing a substantial and unreasonable interference with another's enjoyment of their land.
The Resource Management Act was meant to avoid, remedy, or mitigate nuisance through simple regulation and semi-formal processes. Instead, the Auckland Council is facilitating nuisance and daring aggrieved parties to pursue their nuisance claims through a complicated High Court judicial review.
Auckland Council officials do "measure up" the "fight" in aggrieved parties. They stonewall little old ladies but cower to bigwigs.
To justify decisions, planners use the term "less than minor" flippantly. If a permitted site coverage is 35 per cent, apparently a 53 per cent site coverage causes "less than minor" adverse effects. A house height that casts a shadow 4m further than is permitted across a neighbour's outdoor living area is also a "less than minor" adverse effect.
Under the law, assessing the adverse effects as "less than minor" also justifies the decision not to notify an application and bypass the Unitary Plan to approve non-complying activities. Effectively, the council has decided how a proposal will affect neighbours without asking them or allowing them a right to object.
Once a poor decision has been made, others will try to push the boundaries further. Setting a precedent, the "less than minor" scale creeps further from the plan's intentions.
To prevent a repeat of poor decisions, many try to defend the "integrity" of the plan. Based on how the planners are applying the plan, the plan has no integrity. There is little consistency, clarity, or transparency in how it is complied with. You won't need to travel far to see the plan in action. Rows of new houses crammed into sites, obstructing sun and views. Carpark and tall fences replace mature trees.
Some developers and hearings commissioners have tried to set a higher amenity standard. Many new properties have covenants and consent notices attached to certificates of title requiring a certain style of house, fence, frontage, driveway, and coverage to achieve a cohesive community.
Instead, council officials often ignore these standards when processing planning and building consents.
The neo-liberal intentions of the RMA have turned into neo-fascism. Neo-liberals who defend their property rights often fail to recognise their duty to avoid affecting the rights of others. Councils then bully aggrieved parties on their behalf.
The consistent flow of stories in this publication about ludicrous planning decisions indicates the Auckland Council's planning department has reached a stage where intervention is necessary. Heads need to roll.
The Minister for the Environment has powers to investigate the performance of the Auckland Council. David Parker can even sack officials and appoint a commissioner.
There is precedent. In 2009, the minister investigated the under-performing Environment Canterbury and Far North District Council. The following year, Environment Canterbury's councillors were sacked and replaced with commissioners.
A ministerial investigation must have the right people to direct change. The last thing Auckland needs is a sock-puppet gesturing that everything is fine when obviously it isn't.