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The NPSUD and urban intensification in Auckland

Local Government magazine talks with John Duguid, the general manager for Plans and Places at Auckland Council, about the pressures of the NPSUD that came into effect last year that requires councils to accommodate housing density in areas well served by public transport.

The former government brought in the National Policy Statement Urban Development Capacity (NPS-UDC) and the current Government replaced that last year with the National Policy Statement on Urban Development 2020 (NPSUD). How has this affected the Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan?

“The Government dropped the ‘capacity’ part from the end of the name of the NPS-UDC document and it is quite different from the one introduced by the former government.

“The previous one had a focus on ensuring that councils, particularly high growth ones like Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, Tauranga, and Hamilton, had enough capacity within their planning rules for projected population growth and employment needs – just to make sure district plan rules were enabling enough to allow for the growth of their cities and regions over time.

“So that was the old one and that was the idea of ‘capacity’, that you’ve got enough capacity in your planning rules to keep up with the growth in population and demand for housing and business land.

“The new NPSUD that came out last year goes quite a bit beyond that. It breaks councils down into three tiers and requires councils in the five high growth Tier 1 areas (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Tauranga, and Hamilton) to achieve directives by a certain date.

“We have until next August [2022] to publicly notify changes to the Auckland Unitary Plan  and we’re working on that now. We’ve been gearing up for this through workshops with our Planning Committee and 21 Local Boards here in Auckland.

“We’ve had about 10 workshops over five months to start getting our elected members familiar with what the NPSUD is. Our Planning Committee will advise on developing amendments to the Auckland Unitary Plan and publicly notify the plan change to respond to this new NPSUD.

“Then it goes through a process under the Resource Management Act of submissions and a hearing. So, we’ve got less than a year to get this work done and we aim to share some proposals with the public around March or April next year.

What parts of Auckland will be affected most with these changes?

“Where this national policy statement is really directive is within the ‘walkable catchments’ from the edges of the city centre, our 10 large metropolitan centres, such as Newmarket, Henderson, and Manukau, and around rapid transit stops.”

John explains that the term ‘within’ walkable catchments around rapid transit stops (train stations and bus stations on the Northern Busway in Auckland) is the phrase used and Tier 1 councils must enable buildings of six storeys or more in these loosely defined areas. Unless there is a very good reason, they can no longer allow for, say, four or three storeys any more in these walkable catchments. Six is the minimum.

Auckland Council, he points out, has already provided for five, and in some cases six and seven storeys around several urban centres, and much higher in its city centre and most of its larger metropolitan centres, and also allows three stories in a lot of Auckland’s suburbs that once had two-storey height restrictions prior to the 2016 Auckland Unitary Plan.

“But the default position of six storeys within these walkable catchment pushes it beyond where we have already enabled. There wouldn’t be a single place where we have enabled six storeys right to the edge of a walkable catchment.”

Defining ‘walkable’

While ‘walkable catchment’ isn’t defined in the NPSUD, councils have generally interpreted this as ‘within’ a 10-minute walk for the average person to a rapid transit stop or urban centre.

“Some can’t do that and might take longer, but we’ve gone for 10 minutes walking from metropolitan centres and rapid transit stops, and that equates to 800 metres, give or take, depending on the characteristics of the area.

“So, the biggest change is directed at these walkable catchments around train stations, the 10 metropolitan centres, and the city centre.”

Is it easier to infill existing inner-city suburbs, spread the infill across the city, or extend the urban boundaries?

“That is a tricky question. I guess the starting point is that the population of Auckland will grow regardless and with that comes the need to provide the infrastructure.

“So, whether its accommodated and concentrated in one area or dispersed, there will be pressures on infrastructure.

“From a transport point of view there is an argument that concentrating growth around the city centre, the metropolitan centres and the train stations and the Northern Busway means you invest less in transport infrastructure than allowing the population to spread out to the edges, or infill right across Auckland.

“There’s a transport argument that clearly the Government supports in this NPSUD that there will be less of a need for that kind of infrastructure if you concentrated around transport.

“And from a ‘climate change’ [mitigation] point of view it’s better to get that density around your existing transport and your existing employment hubs than dispersed around different suburbs and into the green fields.

“That’s transport infrastructure. But community infrastructure such as schools and parks, and three waters infrastructure in some areas will need to be upgraded anyway with our existing growth and zoning.

“What our Planning Committee has decided is – if there are some places where intensification would present significant infrastructure challenges then we may choose not to allow for the intensification that would otherwise be required by the NPSUD.

“The NPSUD allows for ‘qualifying matters’. If the council identifies that a ‘qualifying matter’ applies not to allow the NPSUD required intensification – be it six storeys, or whatever it might be – and if the council can provide evidence to justify allowing for a lower density of housing – whether that’s keeping the current planning rules or making some tweaks, but not going all the way to six storeys – it can modify those heights and densities.

“So, one of the qualifying matters we are proposing at this stage is significant infrastructure constraint. We will be working with Auckland Transport, Watercare, our stormwater team and community facilities to figure out if there is a case, in some places, for not enabling more intensification.

“And just because you re-zone an area doesn’t mean to say it’s going to grow up overnight. So, it’s not simply a case of looking at the current infrastructure constraints.”

Are there any lessons from overseas with urbans intensification, say from Australia?

“From an Australasian perspective my knowledge of what has happened in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, is they have a balance of intensification of urban areas and greenfields growth.

“And the NPSUD doesn’t say everything should happen in certain places – it also acknowledges that there will be growth around the city edges. Our council has currently planned for growth in the greenfield fringes of Auckland over the next 30 years, and that’s not changing through the NPSUD with just intensifying around centres and rapid transit stops . It is wider than that. So yes, some growth on the edges is planned in Auckland as it is in other Australasian cities.

“In Europe they are quite a bit tougher on greenfield growth. In some European cities you can’t buy land for development on the edge, and urbanisation is much more controlled. In fact, there are some places where growth is restricted to government/council land.

“An example I’m aware of in Denmark involved the government and council getting together to buy land, rezone it, put in the necessary infrastructure and then sell it off for development.”

“Our planning and development system is quite different here.

Will the NPSUD threaten the suburban heritage Auckland has protected for so long?

“The villa and bungalow suburbs of Auckland built prior to the Second World War are located in some of the very places we have been discussing.

“Around the city centre, around some of the inner-city train stations, and across the harbour to the southern parts of the North Shore which aren’t on the edge of rapid transit stations but they are close to the city centre.

“We call them ‘special character’ areas. They currently have a low-density zoning applied to them – two storeys and one dwelling per site.

“The NPSUD doesn’t recognise those areas specifically, but the council has identified them as a qualifying matter that may keep heights more restrictive where the character values are of high-quality. We are currently doing work that I think other councils will be interested in, and I know Wellington is doing a similar exercise and, in fact, is more advanced than we are with this one.

“We have a heritage team undertaking street-based surveys of all 25,000 or so special character properties to establish whether keeping the current zoning in place is justified.

“The NPSUD does say councils can identify any reason as a qualifying matter that may limit intensification, provided this can be clearly justified against a range of matters such as the cost of not enabling the intensification that would otherwise be provided.”

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