Over recent years, businesses and workers throughout Auckland have enjoyed strong business conditions and healthy growth in employment and wages.

Nevertheless, many are facing challenges from an unexpected front altogether: urban planning.

Thanks to spiralling land and house prices, even many skilled workers have been forced to live on the city’s fringe – some clocking up 30,000-40,000 kilometres in travel time per year just to commute to and from work. For those on modest incomes, this makes accessing the best employment opportunities difficult. For companies, it makes attracting and retaining these workers challenging.

Courtesy of congestion, meanwhile, companies face another challenge in loss of productivity. According to the boss of one IT firm, travel times to his client’s premises of up to one hour each way meant that commuting to just one client premises alone can eat up a quarter of the work day. Unpredictable traffic means travel times for sites just down the motorway of anything between 15 and 50 minutes, meanwhile, force his staff have to block out productive time ahead of their journey in order to allow for unexpectedly longer trips.

This underscores the importance of New Zealand maintaining an effective planning system which facilitates efficient functioning of cities, towns and regions.

Alas, a report prepared by the Productivity Commission found the current system to be lacking, noting that planning legislation lacked clarity and focus. Indeed, the Resource Management Act (RMA) which replaced the Town and Country Planning Act in the early 1990s focuses almost solely on the natural environment and barely caters for urban development at all.

Outside of land transport, meanwhile, the system has failed to cater for the broader national interest, leading to decisions which benefit local stakeholders but have damaging impacts more broadly such as driving up housing and land costs. Courtesy of a lack of guidance from the central government, councils and the broader community have largely been left uninformed about how to differentiate between more and less important built and natural environmental issues or about how to weigh up social or economic benefits of proposed developments against the costs of any impact which the development in question might have upon the natural environment.

The system also lacks responsiveness to cater for growth and change within cities; decision making processes to change land use rules are uncertain and slow, there is an absence of mechanisms to ensure timely release of sufficient development capacity and there is an absence of a coordinated supply of complimentary infrastructure.

Along with the bringing together of planning for both natural and urban environments under one law, the Commission’s 64 recommendations include mandating the development of regional spatial plans, greater provision for development in urban areas, more responsive rezoning, greater access to financing and funding tools such as value capture, clearer protective limits for the natural environment within which development can occur and a more flexible approach toward addressing the cumulative impacts of development upon the environment. Finance Minister Steven Joyce says the government will respond in due course.

Joel Cayford, senior policy advisor at the New Zealand Property Institute, says the current regime adopts a reactive rather than proactive approach and that the focus of the RMA revolves largely upon the avoidance of adverse impacts to the natural environment. Urban planning, he said, has largely been seen as an offshoot of protecting the environment. Courtesy of an assumption that these would be catered for via the market, scant regard has been afforded to the idea of using urban planning to promote beneficial outcomes.

As a result, he says, there is no framework in place to facilitate activities such as the redevelopment of existing land nor any mechanism through which to enable urban renewal initiatives on a scale which involves multiple sites with multiple owners. This has encouraged developers to focus upon greenfield areas and has thus precipitated greater sprawl as opposed to urban consolidation. As a result, Cayford says, Auckland has developed at very low density – with clear implications for housing supply and affordability.

On the environmental front, Cayford says a lack of consideration of cumulative impacts means the RMA is effective in dealing with individual impacts of large projects but is deficient in terms of dealing with cumulative effects from maybe 50 or 70 smaller projects, none of which have much effect on their own but which taken together can affect urban waterways or coastal marine environments.

Going forward, Cayford applauds the idea of a single statute covering both the natural and built environment. This, he said, would address the lack of attention to urban outcomes under the current Act and would deal with issues such as property rights and economic and social outcomes as well as natural environment protection under a holistic approach.

He said it is important to have spatial and resource related planning at the regional level sitting above district plans at the local level. Whilst the former would cover matters such as environmental and land use planning, the latter would encapsulate matters such as property rights, building height/setback requirements, local infrastructure and economic instruments to facilitate the type of development which was desired and encourage urban renewal and property amalgamation where appropriate.

“The Resource Management Act was all about avoiding adverse effects and it wasn’t about promoting positive outcomes,” Cayford said. “It assumed that the market would deliver all of the outcomes and that the whole purpose of the planning legislation was to prevent adverse effects to the environment and the environment was largely defined as air, water and soil.

“The system needs to be proactive and it needs to be proactive particularly in terms of urban planning. Basically, in New Zealand, we have tended to treat urban planning as a sort of an offshoot of protecting the environment against adverse effects.”

Dr Lee Beattie, director of the Master of Urban Design Programme at the University of Auckland, offers a different perspective. Whilst acknowledging that the current Act is due for updating, he said the legislation as it stands is reasonably robust and that the majority of problems were not with the legislation itself but rather the way in which the Act has been implemented.

There have been many problems with district planning, he said, along with the capacity within not just the planning profession but also within architecture and other areas to in fact deliver what the Act is trying to achieve. Auckland, for example, is the only council in New Zealand which has a spatial plan.

At a local level, Beattie says New Zealand tends not to allocate a great deal of central government money to supporting local infrastructure, meaning that funding for such assets depends upon rates, land based taxes and user charges. For places such like Mackenzie, which must cater for significant tourism pressures across an area the size of Auckland with only 4,000 ratepayers, this is problematic. Resources available to these municipalities in terms of planning expertise is also limited – a phenomenon Beattie says is not helped by the fact that guidance material originally promised by the central government at the inception of the RMA never arrived.

This, Beattie says, highlights an underlying problem in that the Act is not being supported by market-based incentives such as road pricing or any serious discussion about how infrastructure will be paid for. Even in better resourced municipalities such as Auckland, Beattie says talk about light rail links to the airport within 30 years and extensions to Auckland’s Northern Busway over the next decade are fanciful in absence of debate about how these will be funded.

“We have these discussions at the margins, we talk about all these things and we need to do all these things,” he said. “But no one actually says, ‘how do we fund it and where does the money come from?’ That’s the huge issue in the room.”

Going forward, Beattie would like to see more discussion about value capture. In addition, he says practices such as land banking could be discouraged through levying rates upon the unimproved value of land rather than the capital value of land.

In other areas, Beattie says construction costs are problematic amid a building industry with a large concentration of smaller players, whilst maintaining infrastructure in light of aging populations in some rural areas is difficult. As a growing portion of the population lives in multi-residential dwellings, he says the importance of good design should not be underestimated.

Changing planning legislation without addressing these broader issues is the wrong way to go, he says.

“I have come to the point that I agree that it’s probably time to change this piece of legislation,” Beattie said. “Planning Acts tend to run 25 years and maybe it is time to come back and look at the planning legislation itself.

“But I would argue that you could create the best urban planning act in the world, but if you don’t have the right people, skills and capacity to deliver that, you are still going to run into the same problems.”

New Zealand’s planning system has several weaknesses.

With sensible changes, improvements can be made in a number of areas.