NPS-UD: Auckland Council's Initial Response

By Iain McManus

The National Policy Statement on Urban Development 2020 (“NPS-UD”) is arguably the most consequential statement of government policy on urban development in New Zealand’s recent history.  And it’s about to start “hitting home”.  (For an overview of the NPS-UD, you can read my earlier article here). 

Nearly a year after the NPS-UD was adopted, Auckland Council has included three items on its Planning Committee agenda for 1 July providing the first public indications of how Council is likely to respond. 

The three items address the following matters:

  1. Preliminary findings from the Council’s Housing Capacity Assessment.  Click here to read this agenda item.
  2. The extent to which the existing Regional Policy Statement (“RPS”) contributes to the development of “well-functioning urban environments” and how to define “significant development capacity” in the context of the NPS-UD requirement to be responsive to private plan changes that would supply significant development capacity.  Click here to read this agenda item.
  3. The Council’s definition of “walkable catchments” and identification of “qualifying matters” as referred to in the NPS-UD policies on intensification.  Click here to read this agenda item.  This is the item that is currently getting the most media attention.  It is also the most tangible in its potential impact on the urban form of Auckland (i.e. where and how most Aucklanders will live in the future).  

The rest of this article focuses on the last item.  However, by way of spoiler alert on the first two items:

  1. Council concludes that the Auckland Unitary Plan (“AUP”) provides sufficient capacity to meet housing demand over the short, medium and long terms but this will not necessarily translate into more affordable housing for lower to moderate income households.  Additional (as-yet unspecified) measures will be needed to ensure the latter. 
  2. Council concludes that the RPS adequately addresses the NPS-UD criteria for well-functioning urban environments except in respect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (a plan change will be required to give effect to this NPS-UD requirement).
  3. Council proposes to define “significant development capacity” in a way that seems likely to undermine the intent of the NPS-UD and preserve the practice of council resistance to proposals that depart from its own plans.  This is sure to be contentious.

As noted in my earlier article, the NPS-UD requires Auckland Council to enable increased building heights and density in specified areas, as follows:

  1. City Centre zone – provide for “as much development capacity as possible”;
  2. Metropolitan Centre zone – provide for sufficient intensity of development to reflect the demand for housing and business use and, in all cases, building heights of at least 6 storeys;
  3. Within a walkable catchment of the City Centre and Metropolitan Centre zones and existing and planned Rapid Transit Stops – provide for building heights of at least 6 storeys; and
  4. In all other locations within the urban environment – provide for intensity of development commensurate with the level of accessibility by existing or planned active or public transport or the relative demand for housing and business use.

The NPS-UD allows modification of the above requirements only to the extent necessary to accommodate a “qualifying matter”.

The Council’s definition of “walkable catchments” relates to the third requirement above while its identification of “qualifying matters” will influence the extent of up-zoning that is proposed in response to all of the above requirements.

The Council is yet to assess the implications of the fourth requirement above (“all other locations”) – this will be the subject of a future committee item in August 2021.  I will do a separate article on that requirement when Council’s response is released.

Walkable Catchments

The Council proposes to define “walkable catchments” as:

  1. Approximately 1200m from the city centre;
  2. Approximately 800m from metropolitan centres; and
  3. Approximately 800m from existing and planned Rapid Transit Stops.

The above distances will be measured by actual pedestrian routes rather than “as the crow flies” and will be moderated by a range of factors including:

  1. Topography – people will walk further on flat terrain versus steep.
  2. Street crossings – the existence or lack of crossing facilities can determine how easy and convenient it is for people to cross a road.
  3. Block sizes – small blocks sizes, with frequent side streets, enable good pedestrian permeability and are associated with longer walking distances.
  4. Land use mix – locations with a mix of uses have been found to be more attractive for walking – people will be willing to walk further in such locations.
  5. Traffic volumes – roads with higher traffic volumes are harder to cross, reducing the distance people can walk in a set time, and are less attractive to walk along reducing the distance people are prepared to walk.
  6. Location of walkable catchment in the region – the Council is indicating here that a higher level of intensification is likely to be appropriate within more central areas than in more far-flung suburban areas.

As a consequence of the above, walkable catchments will not translate to nice little circles on a map and will differ from one part of the city to the next.

Nevertheless, the impact of the above definitions will be significant, bringing substantial parts of Auckland within scope of assessment for up-zoning.

Qualifying Matters

Council has included a list of what it considers to be “qualifying matters” within the Auckland context.  This list is available here.

As noted above, where a qualifying matter applies, Council may propose a lower level of intensification than otherwise required under the NPS-UD, to the extent necessary to accommodate the qualifying matter.

It is important to note that not all of the identified qualifying matters will necessarily require a moderation of intensification potential (e.g. the presence of an aquifer does not necessarily require a reduction in building intensity).  The impact of each qualifying matter will need to be considered in the next stage of Council’s analysis.

The most controversial of the Council’s proposed qualifying matters is likely to be the inclusion of “special character” (under the NPS-UD catch-all of “any other matter that makes high density development … inappropriate in an area”). 

As Council acknowledges, of all the identified qualifying matters, special character has the greatest potential impact on the intensification proposed in response to the NPS-UD – there are approximately 30,000 properties within the special character areas identified in the AUP and most of these are within areas that the NPS-UD seeks to intensify.  Conversely, the omission of special character areas from the list of qualifying matters would allow development that would significantly compromise the special character values of those areas.

The inclusion of special character under the NPS-UD catch-all will require Council to undertake a much more expansive and detailed analysis than it has undertaken to date, including a site-specific analysis of all properties within each of the AUP special character areas. 

If Council persists with including special character as a qualifying matter, this is likely to lead to intensification being proposed in some special character areas and not others and differing degrees of intensification being allowed in different special character areas.  Recognising this, the Council proposes the following:

  1. In places where the Special Character Areas Overlay – Business applies within a ‘walkable catchment’ and the special character values are of high quality, enable building heights of up to six storeys or more in a way that will ensure special character values are retained (e.g. by introducing setback controls above three storeys).
  2. In places where the Special Character Areas Overlay – Residential applies within a ‘walkable catchment’, and the special character values are of high quality, retain the current zoning under the AUP (which in most cases is the Single House zone with a building height control of generally two storeys).
  3. As an exception to 2, where retaining the current zoning would have a significant impact on the development capacity that would otherwise be enabled under the NPS-UD, use a combination of a planning assessment and special character values assessment to rezone some properties within the overlay and enable building heights of up to six storeys or more.
  4. In places where the Special Character Areas Overlay – Residential applies within a ‘walkable catchment’, and the special character values are of medium or low quality, unless this would compromise another qualifying matter, enable building heights of up to six storeys or more.
  5. Where significant historic heritage values are identified within the Special Character Areas Overlay, develop a plan change for places or areas to be added to the AUP historic heritage schedule.

As you can see, there is still a lot of analysis to be undertaken, however, we are starting now to see how the Council is likely to approach its tasks under the NPS-UD.

Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss any of the above.

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