Opinion: Is 2023 the year planning reform moves from discussion to action?

Bevan Houlbrooke, Central Regional Committee Member and Director at CKL NZ Ltd, shares his views on changes to the national and local planning framework.

Despite the apparent economic slowdown, it’s a busy old time in the planning world. In fact, during my twenty years in the industry I have not known a period that promises (or has already delivered) so much change to our planning regulations. I do feel for my planning colleagues working at local government – at times it must feel like they are drinking from a fire hydrant.

While there has been a great deal of public interest in the Three Waters Reform Programme, the reform to the equally as important Resource Management Act (RMA) has not exactly captured the attention of the average Kiwi. The RMA is set to be replaced by the Natural and Built Environment Act (NBA), the Spatial Planning Act (SPA) and the Climate Adaptation Act (CAA). The NBA and SPA are currently before select committee hearings, with the Labour Government racing against the clock to take advantage of a parliamentary majority to enact the reforms before the October election. The timeframe for the CAA is less certain, although the recent storm events do highlight the need for a thoughtfully considered framework moving forward.

Meanwhile, the drums of discontent are beating increasingly harder about the NBA and SPA, with some industry heavyweights saying the reforms are too complex and do not go far enough to ‘make the boat go faster,’ so to speak. National has come out swinging saying that if elected, they will likely scrap the long-awaited changes. What this does mean is that no matter the outcome of the election in October, we are facing a period of significant change.

Other new regulations which have come into play in recent years include the National Planning Standards which provide national consistency for plans and policy statements, as well as several new National Policy Statements (NPS) and Environmental Standards (NES). These include the well-intended NPS and NES on Freshwater which have caused no end of headaches for greenfield developers, who have found themselves dealing with rather blunt regulations in respect to natural wetlands. The more recent NPS on Highly Productive Land is also well-intended but is causing some challenges in terms of its implementation, particularly in the Property Council’s Central Region where high-class soils are widespread, competing in importance with the real growth pressures requiring more housing.

The Enabling Housing Supply amendments to the RMA have also been a point of much discussion in the industry. These amendments require growth cities including Hamilton, Tauranga and Rotorua to increase housing supply and allow a wider variety of homes to be built. Permissive provisions are included for what is now colloquially known as ‘three-by-three’ developments; three houses on a site up to three storeys high. These provisions will change the fabric of our residential suburbs moving forward, but whether they move the dial in terms of housing supply and affordability will not be seen for some years.

In the Waikato, the Hamilton City, Waikato District and Waipa District Councils have all notified plan changes to give effect to the Government’s intensification directions and joint opening hearings got underway in February. These councils have leaned heavily on wide-spread qualifying matters for why these new intensification provisions should not apply carte blanche. In reality, because of the qualifying matters it is likely to be late 2023 or early 2024 before the new intensification provisions will result in any real changes on the ground here.

In Hamilton there is also growing concern about the capacity of the wastewater network to accommodate the projected growth in some areas of the city. Just last week Hamilton City Council announced they are reviewing their Connections Policy. For new developments in a high-risk area that do not yet have resource consent or building consent, these applications will be processed in a normal way, but the council provides no guarantee that a service connection will be approved. Developers will no doubt be concerned about the risk, uncertainty, and potential delays associated with the new connections process.

In the Bay of Plenty, Tauranga City, Western Bay District and Rotorua District Councils appear to have been more enthusiastic about embracing the Government’s directive for intensification. Outside of a much more refined range of qualifying matters, the new provisions have largely taken legal effect. This means that there is immediately greater opportunity for constructing housing without the need to apply for a land use consent on many residential zoned sites in these districts. However, subdivision still requires a resource consent.

So yes, there has indeed been and will continue to be a lot of change to our planning regulations. To quote the late German scientist Georg Lichtenberg: “I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.”

Bevan Houlbrooke

Director, CKL NZ Ltd

Bevan is a planner with 20 years experience in both the local government and the private sector in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. He is a full member of the New Zealand Planning Institute (MNZPI) and is qualified with a Bachelor of Science (Resource & Environmental Planning) and a Master of Planning Practice.

He is widely recognised as a leading planning professional in the Waikato and is active within the industry through his involvement with the NZ Property Council and as a guest lecturer at the University of Waikato.

Bevan has extensive experience in providing planning advice on the feasibility of development and has specialist knowledge in the preparation of land use and subdivision consent applications. His experience also includes policy submissions, and he has appeared as an expert witness at local authority and Environment Court hearings.

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