Hamilton planning has got out of hand

OPINION: Which of these houses is better ... according to Hamilton City Council planning rules?

One is a home I designed, with a nice front lawn and garage out of sight at the back of the house. It is warm and inviting.

The other is the Outcasts gang headquarters in Norton Road, with a gate and intimidating fence, although the razor wire was removed a few years ago.

Congratulations to the Outcasts! Why? Because their front door faces the street.

My one's door faces the driveway along the side of the house, because that is the main access. It doesn't matter that you can't even see the Outcasts' front door behind the fence, because council rules are considered in isolation, not context.

It doesn't matter that there are many other considerations for where best to locate the front door, privacy and security being high up the list. The street may be noisy (sound insulated doors are expensive), the west side gets the prevailing wind, the south side is too cold, the north side fades paint and warps timber doors, and the east side may be better as a window for nice morning sun. But, above all, how it fits the internal layout should be the main driver.  

Unfortunately, current planning rules, driven by "urban design" fantasies, are compromising good design and affecting the function of the house for the lifetime of the building. These rules were copied from the English Midlands (known for dreadful Coronation Street terraced houses) by staff recruits from that area.

A bunch of impractical rules following the latest in planning fashion were included in the last District Plan review. I had doubts, but the theory sounded convincing, and when I made a submission against them on behalf of the New Zealand Institute of Architects, then-Deputy Mayor Gordon Chesterman told me "Andrew, don't bother. Nothing's going to change."

That's not really how the consultation of the Resource Management Act is supposed to go, and I withdrew the submission. I can therefore say proper process was not followed, and the plan's adoption is legally dubious.

I joined the Waikato Property Council to get a bit more clout with an expert committee reviewing the District Plan. We got Paula Rolfe from the council seconded on to the committee so we could discuss our views. We went through a chapter per week. Each week, she left with a list of our recommendations, and the following week she returned with a list of refusals.

We formed a delegation to see Brian Croad, environmental manager at the council, in charge of the whole review. Mr Croaad explained that the rules were "catch-alls", to start a discussion where alternatives could be considered, rather than rigid laws to be enforced. In the end, common sense would determine the outcome. OK, I can see some merit, but I was worried about the time, fees, paperwork and uncertainty for my clients.

I contacted the Master Builders Federation. Most of its members are too busy trying to get stuff done to spend time keeping up with pointless bureaucracy. I focused on one particular rule – that the garage should be at the back of the house (as in my house above). Just like a front door, there are many considerations for the garage, but most sites work best at the front.

When I showed them that all the standard plans in their expensive franchises would suddenly need resource consents, they were shocked into action. They are well-connected, spend a lot of money on materials, and keep a lot of people employed. Suddenly, the council dropped that rule.

Mr Croad left the council and took common sense with him. The outcome I was worried about has come to pass. Planning rules are being enforced rigidly, paperwork has exploded, and many developers are compromising internal layouts to avoid the consent process.

It is time to change the District Plan.   
* Andrew Bydder is a spokesman for the Hamilton Residents & Ratepayers Association and an architect.


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