Monday, 3 June 2013

Diversity on the Unitary is no bad thing

Originally posted at The Daily Blog.

I’ve been largely keeping silent on the big local government issue of the moment – the draft Unitary Plan – because as an elected local board member (Puketapapa Reprezent) I have had a crack at giving feedback, get another go in the next two months, and have been focused more on getting constituents’ thoughts than promulgating my own. I’ve shared quite a few different perspectives on the Unitary Plan on my social media platforms, had dozens of conversations with locals about it, and participated with my listening ears on at several forums. I’m very very interested to see the feedback from my community, and others, as it starts to be collated and released over the coming months.

On Thursday I was on Citizen A, with Simon Prast and of course the bombastic host Mr Bradbury, and one of the topics we traversed was the draft Unitary Plan, in particular how Auckland Council has dealt with the media tumult. And that’s what it really has turned into – a confusion, a disorder, a tussle over information and public opinion based on that information. Russell Brown has given an excellent dissection of some of the troublesome stuff that has been doing the rounds, in this case via an elected local board member (over the border from me in Albert-Eden). Scott Yorke has penned a fine satirical take, which is not quite but almost the kind of things I have heard from some.

A council staff member with a planning background who has been at some of the public meetings told me of seeing people in tears absolutely convinced that the Council, their council, the one they elect, would be literally bulldozing their house. She told me of a woman at a large gathering who had clearly been trying to get the guts up to ask a question but was intimidated by the setting and aggro, who finally got her hand up and acknowledged who proceeded to query when her home would be demolished.

People have clearly got the wrong end of the stick.

Any Unitary Plan (or District Plan), Auckland’s or Rotorua’s or wherever’s, lays out rules about what can be done with land by that land’s owner. Not what Council can do with land someone else owns – those are Designations or Notices or Requirement and follow a different process*, e.g. what is happening for the route for the Central Rail Link currently. It tells you what you can and can’t do with your land and it tells your neighbour what they can and can’t do with their land. That’s it.

It has alarmed me to see elected members helping people to get that wrong end of the stick quite firmly in their grip, and to encourage them to beat others with it. I have unfortunately heard an elected member telling someone in our community they could have an 8 storey building next to them, when in fact only a very small area of my board area was proposed to be 8 storeys (and the board and community are advocating to bring it down to 6; a town centre that is currently largely quarry) a long way away from where this person lives. This stuff is irresponsible, and annoyingly much of it seems to be partisan. Democracy relies on a certain honesty of information to work, and a disservice has been done by some to local democracy as well as the draft Unitary Plan process itself.
To give yet another example, two Governing body members (Councilllors) currently opposing very strongly the draft Unitary Plan on the basis that it will massively increase intensification, moved and seconded a motion in 2012, which was passed, to support intensification. I’d like to know where their road to Damascus was and get Steven Joyce to walk along it.

Don’t get me wrong the draft Unitary Plan needs changes; there are mistakes, there are controversial bits that need further community discussion, and the zones need further examination too. Which is why it’s great that there has been this pre-notification submission process; one that was not required by the legislation, which has been open for eleven weeks before submissions closed on Friday, and which has seen amount of engagement unprecedented in Auckland history before the formal submissions even start. It’s a planning document. How many people have had a say on any other planning documents ever? Yet everyone is talking about this one; that has to be a triumph in and of itself.

I agree with Russell Brown who pointed out that Auckland Council has been playing catch-up on the information the whole way through, and I think it’s probably safe to say that won’t happen next time around. My sense is that the large level of interest, and the misleading approach taken by some, just was not anticipated by the team working on the draft, who are mostly planners and thus indulge in a fair bit of planner talk and thinking in the way they operate every day. I suspect they thought that the main audience for this first round would be planners and developers, and so much of the early comms was focused on that market, and assumed a certain knowledge of planner talk. That inadvertently created a vacuum, and nature abhors a vacuum. What filled it wasn’t always the best quality or even vaguely accurate. Some of the tools Council created have been great, but not always timely and there was an overemphasis on online information that made many feel alienated from the start. Despite those challenges over 10,000 people have given their views, and I’ll remind you again this is before the actual real draft comes out later in the year and before the formal submission process. Wow!

Diverse feedback is surely one of the aims of a process like this. We should be neither surprised nor concerned if the summaries of the feedback shows a wide range of views. Sadly for those who have made genuine submissions based on misinformation much of what they have said will probably miss the mark and get discarded, because it won’t address the actual provisions of the draft Unitary Plan. I hope when those people realise their voices haven’t been heard they blame those actually at fault.

* Yes, these can be included in the Unitary Plan, and likely will be when the final Unitary Plan is adopted, but changes that make Designations or Notices of Requirement have statutory processes and so on, and the land owner must be properly notified (not just a public notice in the Herald). They cannot be a sneaky surprise.

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