Charles Levin: Heritage decimation coming to your neighbourhood soon

OPINION:

Courtesy of some excellent reporting from the NZ Herald, Aucklanders are waking up to the fact character houses in the inner city suburbs, having survived the Unitary Plan process, are once again under threat.

This threat originates from a National Policy Statement (NPS) issued by central government which requires the main cities in New Zealand to change their district plans to ‘enable’ further intensification.

The news of the recent decisions by the planning committee of Auckland Council highlights the fact that the Council has the ability to influence the implementation of this extra intensification, particularly in relation to areas with character houses (otherwise known as SCA).

The first and most important decision to be made by Council relates to walking catchments which are the key to the operation of the NPS. They are the distance an average inhabitant of Tamaki Makaurau will walk to a train stop, metropolitan centre or central city.

Their significance lies both in their use as a benchmark and the fact that to double the walking time is to quadruple the affected area. Crucially the size of the walking catchments is set not by the NPS but by the Council.

Wellington initially proposed a catchment of 5 minutes walking for smaller centres and a catchment of 10 minutes walking for the city centre. After hours of debate at a full council meeting Wellington opted for a 10 minute catchment for smaller centres and a 15 minute catchment for the area around the city centre because of the dire shortage of inner city accomodation.

This subject came up for decision at an Auckland Council planning committee meeting on 1 July. Unlike Wellington there seems to have been little or no debate at Council level about the size of the walking catchments.

The report provided to the planning committee (which is available online) gave the issue of size only the most cursory attention. Walking catchments of 10 and 15 minutes were approved which of course quadruples (or more) the area affected over the minimum.

The report did however give considerable attention to the SCA. In a second decision by the planning committee there is limited protection proposed for the SCA. Limited because once the walking catchments are set the Council then has to follow very strict guidelines for development set out in the NPS.

Therefore within the walking catchments there will unavoidably be a decimation of character houses, although we will be fortunate indeed to limit the loss to an average of one in ten. There will be six character related criteria for protection, and for each house to be retained five of those will have to be satisfied.

The third decision to be taken by Council relates to height. Outside the city centre the NPS only requires the Unitary Plan to allow buildings up to six stories. The relevant resolution passed by the planning committee goes beyond this by referring to ” up to six stories or more”.

Quite where the “or more” leads us is not clear at this time but again this seems to have been the subject of little debate at Council. Mr Goff is quoted as saying there won’t be any bulldozers through the SCA.

However in fact the only way in practical terms to limit the decimation of Auckland’s character houses is to have set less ambitious walking catchments. There is still a process to be followed before these are set in stone but the opportunities to limit the damage are now much more restricted than they were and the political will at Council to address the issue seems lacking.

And wait! There is more to come from the NPS. Other suburbs are also due to be rezoned in a separate intensification decision due by the planning committee next month.

Like the proverbial wolf, the NPs and Auckland Council are in the process of blowing our houses down.

– Charles Levin is a former partner of a national law firm and latterly was Chair of the Unit Titles (apartment law) Law Reform Working Group (the reforms sponsored by this group are contained in a bill currently before select committee).

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