David Gibbs on Auckland’s Unitary Plan: what happens next?

The Government has appointed an Independent Hearing Panel to review the submissions on the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan. The Chair of the Panel is the recently appointed District Court and Environment Court judge David Kirkpatrick, widely regarded in development circles as “the right man for the job”. That’s not surprising given his extensive experience: formerly a partner at law firm Simpson Grierson, more recently Judge Kirkpatrick was a Barrister working on resource management cases for both developers and development opponents.

Judge Kirkpatrick has proposed an innovative approach to the hearings process, which is driven by submitters and experts. The process begins with pre-hearings and there are two strands to this activity: expert conferencing and mediation. Notably, the Panel can direct Council and submitters to attend specific sessions.

Expert conferencing will allow people to speak their minds in a confidential setting, without prejudice – in my experience, common sense generally prevails. Mediation will try to tease out disagreements and will be run along similar lines to Environment Court mediation.

This comprehensive pre-hearing process means that, by the time the actual hearings start, some agreement will have been reached and any disagreements, if not resolved, will at least be very clear. The aim, of course, is to narrow the issues before hearings get underway in 2015.

The hearings process itself will be overseen by eight Panel members – a quorum of three is required so it will be possible to run two sessions in parallel. Large-scale issues, however, will be debated by the whole Panel.

Probable timeframe:

  • Late May: Auckland Council notifies its summary of submissions and decisions requested by submitters, and calls for further submissions
  • June/July: Opportunity for further submissions for or against the decisions requested
    Late 2014 onwards: Preparation of Council officer reports addressing submissions, expert conferencing and other pre-hearing processes
  • 2015/2016: Hearings commence
  • 2017: Unitary Plan expected to come into effect

The Panel must deliver its recommendations on submissions by July 23rd 2016, unless the Minister for the Environment agrees to an extension of the deadline, which could be as long as a year.

Keep an eye out for the launch of the Independent Hearing Panel’s new website, www.aupihp.govt.nz, which will serve as a repository for all information associated with the hearings process from pre-hearing meeting, mediation and hearing intelligence to submissions, reports, transcripts and timelines.

Notwithstanding this positive progress, overall timeframes remain a challenge and relies on well-considered, succinct submissions. Now that the Panel has been appointed and the next steps in the process have been laid out, only time will tell if the eventual implementation deadline of 2017 can be achieved.

Judge Kirkpatrick’s presentation can be found here.