Planners have a lot to talk about

Planners are in the spotlight as councils grapple with changes including climate change, rapid urban growth and water quality problems, all of which will be discussed at the New Zealand Planning Institute’s annual conference in Napier in April.

NZPI senior policy advisor Joel Cayford says also on the agenda are hot topics such as future food security, driverless cars and Māori involvement in freshwater planning. Other issues include big data, robots, drones, autonomous vehicles and 3D printing.

NZPI chair Karyn Sinclair says the most pressing issue would have to be water quality.

While the list of potential frustrations planners now have to deal with is getting longer, Sinclair doubts the job is getting harder.

“We have a much better base of information on how things work, the inter-relationships between people, roads, infrastructure, and the effects on the natural environment,” she says. “Planners have a positive co-dependency with ecologists, scientists, hydrologists. We maintain these links and take into account what the community is saying to reflect on policy for the future.

“Our understanding has leap-frogged.”

Computer modelling to record change has helped take the guess work away, and methods of recording information are much more sophisticated.

Sinclair says the level of public consultation is one thing that has dramatically improved. Ironically, that is one big reason for the system being seen as far too time-consuming.

“There is preparation ... hearings ... public consultation ... public participation has really improved. There’s a real effort to engage with the community on the resources they value.”

White Noise

A recent RNZ investigation found that when it comes to consultation in Auckland, older, wealthier Pākehā people have the loudest voice – but Sinclair says in spite of that, Auckland Council is doing well in reaching out to communities in ways that won’t show up in the statistics. Last year the council won an NZPI award for consulting on regeneration plans in Manurewa, Takanini and Papakura. “Their engagement techniques have improved,” says Sinclair. The council used local events such as markets to establish a presence and get locals involved.

“People are much more engaged with what’s going on – the Unitary Plan in Auckland got record numbers of submissions.”

'Nothing’s being done about it'

For the constant groaners who complain that “nothing’s being done” about anything, Sinclair advises a look around central Auckland. “You just have to look at how it’s changed in the last 20 years,” she says. “Fort Lane, Wynyard Quarter … people don’t necessarily clock the changes. It’s evolving into a much better city but you just don’t notice it. There are people planning for our future but you just don’t see it.”

Is that frustrating? “It is what it is.”

“Planners are just part of the system but they get the blame for delays. But (as well as community engagement) there is a lot of lead-in and lag time involved, and a three-year council and government political cycle. Three years is actually a short time to achieve anything.”

Climate change

When today’s bach is tomorrow’s foreshore, planners are looking at ways of dealing with climate change that take into account the concerns of those holiday home owners. “It’s finding that balance between climate change and the desire of people to have beach access,” she says. For now we have to look at not putting roads and sewer lines on the waterfront. Installing a coastal buffer will mean walking to the sea.

“I think we are going to have to step up and start to take on quite a lot of concerns people are expressing.

“The Government probably does need to figure out what its response is going to be. No one wants to be involved, because it’s going to cost a lot of money. At some stage there’s going to have to be a government-led conversation about coastal treatment, including such issues as compensation. It needs to be sorted out. But I suspect (money) is why we are not getting into the nitty-gritty of it.

“The issue needs a national response so we know everyone is treated equally.

“There are no national guidelines on it and it should be at the forefront of our minds – pretty soon. The problem is not going to reduce in size.”

Sinclair says one example of the issues that need to be sorted out is the planting of the billion trees ... “the science of where they’re planted is important so there aren’t unforeseen consequences in the event of storms".

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