Planning system too adversarial, slow and risk averse – Productivity Commission

Planning system is inherently contested and difficult trade-offs sometimes have to be made

Planning in New Zealand is adversarial and skewed by the views of well-resourced and mobilised groups, rather than the majority.

A Productivity Commission draft report on Urban Planning says the system is inherently contested and difficult trade-offs sometimes have to be made and any future system should be less regimented and have more consultation.

The report says the government needs to set stronger boundaries around planning, and councils need to allow people greater scope to decide how to best use their land while the natural environment is protected.

However, 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.”

“The lack of government guidance has led to decisions that suit local interests but which have negative impacts, such as rising land and housing prices,” the report says.

The report has been published just days after Auckland Council agreed to a new Unitary Plan allowing massive intensification and some expansion of the city. The plan is to be published today.

Commission chairman Murray Sherwin says the commission has no intention of adding another layer of complexity to what is already a complex and often conflicted system, although excessive regulation is stifling development and the planning system is slow and risk-averse.

“There is no simple fix – it’s not just a case of changing legislation. Effective urban planning is about the right mix of legislation, people with the right skills and strong relationships,” Mr Sherwin says.

Planning rules
“Urban planning helps to maximise the benefits of cities, by providing essential infrastructure and community facilities and managing conflicts between property owners, yet too often the connection between planning rules and the wellbeing of communities is weak or difficult to justify.”

Mr Sherwin says the supply of infrastructure and zoned land is failing to keep pace with demand in the country’s fast-growing cities.

At the same time, councils have been dealing with a lack of clarity on priorities and a lack of guidance about where national interests lie.

The commission says the planning system should allow urban land to be used for different purposes at different stages, provide enough land and infrastructure to meet demand, ensure people can move easily through cities, and protect the natural environment.

"A future system should recognise that the natural and built environments require different regulatory approaches," the report 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.

“We believe that any future planning system should be less regimented and have more targeted consultation requirements,” Mr Sherwin says.

The system should include processes for addressing conflicts between neighbours. The commission has recommended the establishment of a permanent Independent Hearings Panel to help councils ensure their plans meet legislative requirements.

It proposes local councils should be given more tools to raise capital to build new infrastructure and recommends all urban areas should have spatial plans, to protect vital infrastructure corridors that are required to allow growth.
“What we need is a responsive system that aims to deal with competing demands for resources, competing citizen interests and values, Mr Sherwin says.

The draft report suggests how to achieve this,” Mr Sherwin says.

Recommendations:
.         make a distinction between the built and natural environment with clear objectives for each;

·         favour development in urban areas, subject to clear limits;

·         develop a Government Policy Statement on environmental sustainability to provide the boundaries within which urban development can occur;

·         provide narrower access to appeals and tighter notification requirements;

·         make spatial plans a mandatory component of the planning hierarchy;

·         establish a permanent Independent Hearings Panel to consider and review new plans, plan variations and private plan changes across the country;

·         include more responsive rezoning through the use of predetermined price triggers to signal when land markets are out of balance and rezoning is needed; and

·         make greater use of targeted rates and volumetric charges to fund infrastructure investment and maintenance.

The commission is inviting submissions on its draft report Better urban planning by October 3.

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