The Planning Environment in NZ
A brief introduction to the minefield?!

The unduly restrictive conditions placed on communities by councils in the past have tended to marginalise, and hamper much innovative development. Often communities had tended to live largely outside of the law because they didn't fit into councils' rules and bylaws.

Thus, council approval has been one of the major stumbling blocks to ecological and co-operative housing and living arrangements. Fortunately things are improving a little.

Town planning law and council policy has undergone somewhat of a transformation over the last decade. The passage of the Resource Management Act 1991 sought to create a more integrated approach to environmental and planning management, than the often arbitrary and fragmented rules and structures that existed prior.

The theoretical emphasis now is on sustainable management and on environmental effects and outcomes as opposed to activities themselves. This is not to say that zoning and rules don't exist anymore, because inertia being what it is old habits die hard both at the legislative level and at the civil servant level. Nonetheless a great measure more discretion is afforded by councils toward proposed developments if such proposals can show that they are environmentally benign.

District Plans, Resource Consents
The RMA says that all uses of land must either be permitted by the relevant plan, (usually district plan) OR have a resource consent. In terms of planning, Resource consent is considered the stamp of approval by council. The RC is sought early on in the development, after the preliminary design work is done. It deals with general 'land use' (things like density, max. paved surface, building height etc) and subdivision. When approved, the construction drawings are then carried out at which time a separate process must be gone through to gain building consent, which is more to do with the building code etc.

Each council has its own district plan and administers the consent process for its area. To restate, resource consent must only be sought if the plan does not specifically allow the proposed activity. District plans describe the following broad types of activity for each 'zone' within its area:

  • Permitted Activity
  • Discretionary activity, Limited Discretionary, controlled activity
  • Non complying activity, Prohibited activity
The first requires no approval or consent. Resource consents for the last two are very unlikely unless you can make an exceptional case and are prepared to carry the burden of proof that there will be only minor effects to the environment. (Environment, does by definition, include (for now!) things like amenity, community and social effects). What this may mean in practice, is much time and money spent appealing council's decision to the Environment court, the new name for the planning tribunal.

The middle zone is where councils planning staff and councillors can exercise their considerable discretion, for better or worse. Depending on the nature of the development, the sensitivity of the environment and which of the three discretionary types it is, you may be required to obtain written permission from all neighbours and affected parties and/or have your application 'publicly notified'. This has two consequences. It gives anybody the chance to object on all manner of grounds, relevant or otherwise, and it costs more in both money and time.

In must also be said that the political climate and who you know are also factors influencing the fate of your RC.

To make matters a little more complex, any one local authority will, likely as not, have two plans in effect, one old and one new. The RMA required councils to make new plans to replace old scheme plans made under the old Town and Country Planning Act. In the meantime the old plans were empowered as the 'transitional' plan. As councils create new district plans, they first become 'proposed' district plans until they are finalised by successive rounds of consultation with the public and other stakeholders. The proposed plan is in effect but does not fully replace the old transitional plan until the proposed plan becomes 'operative'.

Where there is conflict between provisions in the two plans as is often the case, the decision is made on two premises. The first is that generally the stricter rule applies. The second is about how far the new plan is down the road to becoming operative, what the nature of submissions on those provisions are etc.

Basic approval process

  1. Submit application for RC
  2. Any further info required
  3. Any public notification in newspapers, on site and to neighbours
  4. Any submissions
  5. Any more info required
  6. Any council hearings
  7. Council Decision
  8. Right of appeal to Environment court
  9. Right of appeal to High court
A non notified RC basically goes from step 2 to step 7 which technically is supposed to happen within 20 working days, but bureaucracies being what they are count on 1-3 months. A notified application however may take 4 months to a year or even two. Not only is time money when there are finance costs of holding land, but you may be asked to redesign aspects of the project incurring extra architectural cost.

There is a bright side, and that is that many councils are faced by ageing and overloaded infrastructure and are beginning to be open to many alternative solutions such as the eco-types amongst us may advocate. Such examples are rainwater collection, on site wastewater treatment and the like. To summarise, gaining RC is the major part of council approval, and you should do what you can to make it as smooth as possible. If the design has been done and it stacks up, then you're away.

Tips to remember

  • Approach council early on. Educate them about your concept. Focus on the principal planners and councillors.
  • Read the plan along with its policies and objectives, and try to work with the city's greater goals.
  • Be patient, officials may appear completely irrational at times and getting mad at them will not help. It is a partnership--smile!
  • Where possible seek a non-notified application--your task is large enough without this hurdle.
  • Treat neighbours delicately, be open, inclusive and friendly-- find some way to get them on board.
  • Strongly consider a location on a public transport route, to begin to break the car dependence trap.

To come:

  • Building regs
  • Urban or rural?
  • Land stewardship
Author: Peter Scott WENCP 1998

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