Auckland Unitary Plan could have serious consequences for nature across New Zealand

Forest & Bird is delighted that Auckland Council has rejected the panel’s recommendation to allow up to 575 new houses on Crater Hill maunga – an Outstanding Natural Feature and the best preserved tuff volcano in Auckland.

It is also looking less likely that a controversial recommendation to rezone 130ha for housing next to the Okura Estuary will proceed, with councillors voting to place the decision on hold pending further information. Housing development has already impacted on the Okura Estuary, which has very high ecological values, and another housing development could have catastrophic impacts on the estuary.

However Forest & Bird is alarmed that areas of significant ecological value which are identified as having strategic and economic importance could receive little protection in the Auckland Unitary Plan.

Forest & Bird’s lawyers have been scrutinising the 7000 pages of the Auckland Unitary Plan recommendations to check the implications for the protection and restoration of New Zealand’s wildlife and wild places.

Auckland’s councillors are considering a recommendation that areas of significant ecological value that are also identified as suitable for quarrying or having other ‘strategic and economic aims’ should not be identified as significant. They would therefore receive little protection under the plan.

According to Forest & Bird Solicitor Sally Gepp, this is an alarming signal, particularly as the council’s officers have not rejected this proposal.

“This approach is legally unsound, and also sends a clear signal that the panel and council are prioritising development over the protection of nationally important areas of Auckland’s natural environment,” Sally Gepp said.

“By doing so, the council will be setting a precedent that, if followed by other councils, could have huge ramifications for nature across New Zealand.

“If this becomes accepted on August 19th – and it is looking like it will – this is certainly an area we’ll consider pursuing in the courts.”

In a similar vein, important areas of habitat in coastal and marine areas do not qualify as “significant”, and therefore receive little protection, if they are “human-modified”. This could exclude almost every site, such as estuaries modified by sediment and marine habitats modified by fishing and shipping.

A 16-page internal report by Forest & Bird’s lawyers has come up with some wins for nature and it is encouraging to see some of the council officers’ rejections.

One encouraging signal from the council officers’ review relates to proposed rulings around subdivision rights.

“The proposed subdivision rules say developers can subdivide below the usual size limits, if they give protection to areas of bush or wetlands.

“However, the panel has reduced the amount of native habitat that needs protecting and increased the amount of subdivisible land that developers get in exchange – which is a lose-lose for nature.

“Thankfully, council officers are recommending that the council rejects this change, so we hope this is taken on board.”

Forest & Bird is pleased to see that council staff are also standing firm about the need for a separate programme for the control of kauri dieback disease.

Although the council’s decision is not due until 19 August, councillors are voting now on the Panel’s recommendations.

The decision by councillors to reject a recommendation from the panel to delete objectives and policies that seek to focus growth within the existing metropolitan area is welcome.

The council has also moved on from its initial views during the hearings around mangrove removal. They now accept the panel’s recommendation that on the whole any mangrove removal should require consent – which means that adverse impacts on coastal erosion, natural character and habitat for threatened species such as banded rail can be avoided.

But the council’s chief executive Stephen Town has been asked to report back to the council after October’s local body elections on operational measures to help communities remove mangroves.

“This focus on aiding mangrove removal is unwarranted, and undermines the plan’s recognition of the value of mangroves.” Sally Gepp said. “The council must be impartial in the implementation of its plan, rather than taking sides on an issue like this and trying to enable mangrove removal by a side wind.”

Forest & Bird’s lawyers have spent nearly 2000 hours over the last three years representing nature in the Auckland Unitary Plan process. They worked collaboratively with Environmental Defence Society (EDS) to ensure there was always support for Auckland’s native biodiversity in important policy areas.