Monday, July 25, 2016

Silk Purse Planning: Can Auckland’s Unitary Plan Be Remade?

The Next Step on the Auckland Planning Path
The Independent Hearings Panel has presented its recommendations for the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (PAUP) to Auckland Council.  We now await their public release and the response of the Council to the recommended changes.

The Panel faced a huge challenge[1] in trying to ground the PAUP.  An obvious problem it has had to deal with is the erroneous estimate of Auckland’s capacity to absorb around 70% of predicted growth within the proposed urban boundary, a fundamental starting point for the Plan.  

The question is, has the Panel managed to turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse?  And, if so, will the Council accept its recommendations?

Room to move?
One of the challenges the Panel faced was whether to focus simply on the rules, their application, and their effects; or to address the more fundamental issue of the appropriateness of the principles on which the Plan is based. From my reading of the Panel’s early communications, it could not avoid the latter.
Certainly, much of the debate about the Unitary Plan has focused on the key principles and objectives around city containment and intensification. Just like the Auckland Regional Growth Strategy (1999) from which it evolved via the Auckland Spatial Plan (2011), the PAUP is wedded to locating the majority of regional growth in the existing built-up area. 

Unlike the Regional Growth Strategy, though, the Unitary Plan had to make the near impossible leap from principle to practice.  That’s where the high rise vision fell to the ground. 
 In order to work, rule-based policies need predictability in the scale, nature, and timing of population and employment growth.  They assume conformity, compliance, and consistency of response by those they impact on.  And they assume that multiple decisions on business expansion and housing investment can be nudged to fit the web that a large number of complicated and often ambiguous rules seek to weave.  Good luck with all that.
However well the Panel has done its job, the implementation of the Plan's web of rules is bound to be source of frustration, costs, and conflict for some time to come.

Mission impossible?
The very idea of a single long term plan for a large (16,100sq km), largely rural (over 70% of the landmass) region containing a rapidly growing and diversifying urban mass is flawed. 

The challenge is compounded by the fact that it is unitary plan.  It tries to cover environmental, economic, cultural, and social policies in a single document intended to set the long term land use directions - or constraints – on Auckland’s development when we have little idea of what the future holds.  

This suggests that regardless of the quality of the Panel and its deliberations, the mission was impossible to start with.  A minimalist or at least more measured and flexible approach to Auckland’s future would have served the region better.

The real issues
Auckland faces two underlying problems that mean a comprehensive plan cannot deliver what its protagonists want by way of streamlining, clarity, and consistency of decision-making.   

First, Auckland comprises many diverse communities, each with its own needs, prospects, and possibilities.  Given an increasingly articulate, disparate, media savvy, and engaged population and galloping technical change, crafting a plan that will satisfy the many communities, cultures, and interests that comprise Auckland is well-nigh impossible. 
Becoming more authoritarian – more rule dependent – to deliver a vision based on containing the city will increase the challenge of implementing the plan, increase resistance, and lead to more unexpected outcomes.

Second, a single unitary council is simply wrong for Auckland.  Rather than streamlining processes it disempowers constituents. Promised efficiencies are not delivered.  Costs blow out.  Systems become more complicated.  Regular restructuring and internal reforms distract staff.  Various subordinate organisations – branches, divisions, council controlled organisations, even subcommittees -- take on a life of their own, pulling in different directions.  The weight of management increases, compromising the governance relationship with the board (or council), and the organisation loses its way. 

The elephant in the council chamber
Large-scale mergers don’t often work.  This one doesn’t look any different.   The Committee for Auckland in its push for a single city, the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance with its 800-page prescription, and the Minister for Local Government of the day with his can-do/will-do approach, all got it wrong. 

They apparently didn’t reflect on the recent history of the New Zealand corporate sector.  This would have shown them that as you push seemingly complementary organisations together with their different roles, markets, management practices, and cultures, they tend to become unwieldy, bureaucratic, slow moving, and ultimately unmanageable.  Our leading businesses in forestry, primary processing, food production, and development went on a merger spree in the 1970s, only to find themselves undone and asset stripped in the 1980s and 1990s. 
No matter how good a job the Independent Panel has done, a land use plan cannot remedy the flaws inherent in a large unitary council trying to be all things to all peoples.  

[1]           Bernard Hickey documents it:
"On Friday, Auckland's 'Eagle' landed in the offices of the Council and it's a moment that will prove pivotal in the future of both Auckland and the rest of the economy.  The Independent Hearings Panel on the Auckland Unitary Plan handed 1,000 of documents, plans and recommendations over to officials after five years of work, including 249 public meetings and 21,210 pieces of written feedback.
"There were 13,394 submissions from members of the public and all sorts of interested parties covering 1.494 million separate submission points over 249 days of hearings on 70 separate topics.  Submitters made 4,000 appearances and submitted over 10,000 pieces of evidence".

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