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2. Analysis of responses

2.1 ‘Yes’ responses: We operate a panel

Ten local authorities responded ‘yes’ to operating a panel (or panels) of some description. Panels are in operation in the locations shown in table 2.

Table 2: Locations operating urban design panels
Location Number of panels Panel type
Auckland City 3 Independent panel of external experts for consent review

Technical advisory groups for the Wynyard Quarter (for buildings) and the Urban Design Waterfront Review (for public spaces)
Christchurch City 2 Independent panel of external experts for Christchurch

Independent panel of council and external experts and lay people for Akaroa (former Banks Peninsula District area)
Hamilton City 1 In-house review by external experts
Hastings City 1 In-house review by external experts
Horowhenua District 1 Independent panel of external experts to assess developer covenants
Manukau City 1 Independent panel of external experts
Nelson City / Tasman District 1 Independent panel of external experts
Queenstown–Lakes District 2 Independent panel of external experts (one for Queenstown and one for Wanaka)
Waitakere City 1 Independent panel of external experts
Wellington City Council 1 Technical advisory group for Wellington Waterfront

The detailed questionnaire responses from these local authorities are attached as Appendix 1.

The results of the survey show that there is a range of panel types operating nationwide. A number of local authorities also have in-house urban design staff who undertake assessments or commission independent expert advice from external sources on an as-needed basis. The purpose of this study is to examine situations where formal groups of experts are called together on a regular or semi-regular basis, for the purpose of specific urban design assessment of projects.

The panel types in operation

It is useful to consider the different types of panels operating around New Zealand. These generally fall into four categories.

Independent panel of external experts

Panels of external professionals are operated by Auckland City, Manukau City, Waitakere City, Queenstown–Lakes District, Christchurch City, and Nelson City and Tasman District (joint panel). All but one of these panels are made up of paid external experts from a range of professional fields, including urban designers. The only exception is the panel in Akaroa, which has always been a mix of professionals and lay people, and includes council staff. However, the lay members of the panel are considered to have good knowledge of local issues and are therefore considered to be ‘expert’ in issues specific to Akaroa, despite not having formal design-related qualifications.

In-house panel of external experts

Hamilton City and Hastings District Councils both operate an in-house panel of external experts. These function as a ‘design clinic’, in that proceedings are not open to either the public or the applicants. Discussions take place behind closed doors, with external experts and relevant council staff present. The role of the panel is to provide additional expert urban design advice, particularly for large or significant projects, and to boost in-house assessment capabilities.

For several years Wellington City Council also operated an in-house clinic comprising a weekly meeting of urban design staff, with an external expert adding extra rigour to discussions. This has recently been discontinued following a restructure.

Technical advisory groups

There are several technical advisory groups (TAGs) operating around the country. Wellington Waterfront TAG has been in operation since 1999 to provide specific urban design advice on development proposals on Wellington’s waterfront. This small panel of about five urban design-related experts appointed by the Wellington City Council and Wellington Waterfront Ltd provides a high level of rigour and consistency to the assessment of high-profile resource consents in a specific area covered by the Wellington Waterfront Framework.

Two TAGs have recently been established in Auckland, both also in relation to waterfront development. The Wynyard Quarter TAG (for buildings) and the Urban Design Waterfront Review TAG (for public spaces) function in much the same way as the Wellington Waterfront TAG by providing an additional degree of urban design scrutiny for a specific area.

Developer covenants

A panel giving effect to developer covenants operates in Horowhenua District. Following the granting of several subdivisions in the district, conditions were volunteered by the applicant that placed covenants on the titles, requiring new buildings to be approved by a design panel. The design panel consists of the development company members and their elected design advisors. Guidelines for the subdivision have been developed by the developer to assist potential home owners and the design panel.

The panel does not have any formal status with the Council, but the guidelines aim to achieve a higher quality of design than is currently required by the district plan alone. A new building may therefore be able to meet the district plan requirements but may not get approval from the design panel. As the subdivision moves beyond the initial phase of development, the panel will also include residents of the development.

Developer covenants exist in other parts of the country, but the formation of a panel is unusual. The usual function of design covenants is to require submission of details about specific design aspect(s) of a proposal for further approval. Matters controlled by covenants often include design and appearance aspects, such as building location height, colour, materials and landscaping. The increasing use of design covenants over quite large areas, and controlling a wide range of design aspects, may indicate that the planning system is not delivering high-quality design.

Monitoring and review

Only two councils have undertaken a formal process of review and/or monitoring. The main reason for this is that it takes some time – often a number of years – for projects to move from the design stage to actual construction. Not many panels have been operating long enough to witness the construction of projects they have provided advice on. However, the panels in Queenstown–Lakes and Auckland City have now been operating long enough and have both conducted a thorough review of panel operation and the effects on built outcomes.

Auckland City panel review

Auckland City Council’s urban design panel has been in operation for six years, and an evaluation was begun in 2007 to assess the panel’s achievements against its terms of reference. The review was first undertaken internally, with a second audit carried out by external consultants to follow up the initial findings with some specific in-depth case studies. Forty-four industry professionals were interviewed as part of the internal review. A meeting was held with council urban designers, the panel chairs and panel members. The review was completed in July 2009.

The review found that the panel was operating effectively and that there were demonstrable benefits to project outcomes in terms of improving urban design outcomes. A need for minor changes to membership and operation was identified to improve the panel process. The main procedural changes that were recommended involved the need for:

  • more site visits undertaken by the panel to ensure familiarity with the site and the proposal
  • the meeting protocol to be made clearer to all participants
  • the clarity of panel minutes to be improved
  • a consistency of approach for repeat meetings
  • amendments to the triggers for a review by the panel in light of greater internal urban design capacity (including the establishment of an internal urban design review team for council capital expenditure projects), and to avoid potential delays resulting from the high volume of applications that currently require a review
  • a regular refreshing of the panel membership to prevent the panel becoming stale, and to ensure succession planning
  • the Group Manager, Urban Design, to be appointed as an ex officio member of the Urban Design Panel.

These proposed changes came into effect after being presented to the City Development Committee in September 2009.

In tandem with this, a review of the panel’s success in influencing a better quality of development was undertaken. Ten examples of development that demonstrate improved urban design due to review by both in-house urban design officers and an external panel review are illustrated in the document Urban Design Wins around the Isthmus. 1 Recurring aspects of urban design that have been improved in these examples are:

  • a poor relationship between the building and the street
  • car parking at ground level in front of buildings
  • lack of provision for pedestrians around and into the site
  • a poor relationship with adjacent open spaces
  • poor site layout.

Some of the most visible examples of the panel’s influence are seen in the large-scale building and streetscape projects recently constructed or under construction in the central business district. The high standard of recent council streetscape upgrades (such as the Queen Street project, Lorne Street and Khartoum Place) have all benefited from review by the panel. Ongoing large-scale projects, such as Britomart, have benefited from ongoing panel review as new buildings or spaces are designed. The outcome of this review can now be seen in buildings such as the Westpac Charter Building and East Building, currently under construction in Britomart.

Queenstown–Lakes panel review

The panels in Queenstown and Wanaka (separate panels for each location, with only one common member) have also been operating for about six years. Three reviews have been undertaken of panel membership, and a number of projects that went before the panels for advice have now been built. In 2008 a report examined the impact the panels have had on the completed projects, and also what alternative processes exist to achieve the panels’ primary objective of raising the standard of urban design in the district. The report was written by a council urban designer.

Since the Council started using panels, a little over 100 projects have been reviewed in Queenstown and around 40 in Wanaka. The study revealed that the impact of the panels on built outcomes showed considerable variation. The ability of the panel to effect change was markedly reduced when projects came before a panel at an advanced stage of design, which was common in the early period of panel operation. There were several projects where the panel’s input had resulted in positive changes, and several that had not proceeded due to unsupportive panel recommendations.

The report found that the panels appeared to have had less impact in Wanaka than in Queenstown. Fewer significant projects have been completed there, and in several cases the panel’s recommendations do not appear to have been followed. However, it is worth noting that building in Wanaka town centre has a controlled activity status, which means the Council cannot decline consents on the basis of poor design.

The report found that, on the whole, the panels provide an informed and balanced professional opinion that can add considerable weight during the Council’s decision-making process, provided they are supported by provisions in the district plan. The report also examined the various options available to the Council as an alternative to the use of a panel, but no direct conclusion was drawn in relation to the panels operating in Queenstown–Lakes District.

An extensive survey was also carried out in 2008 of both the panel members and the applicants who had experienced the panel process. The feedback from panel members focused on procedural matters and was very mixed across most of the questions. Comments from the participants were also mixed. Some felt the experience was worthwhile, but there were a number of comments about how the panel focused on architectural critique and made irrelevant or commercially unviable suggestions for design modifications.

2.2 ‘No’ responses: We do not operate a panel

Forty-two local authorities, or 58 per cent, responded ‘no’ to having an urban design assessment panel or its equivalent. Of these, 37 answered the follow-up questions about why not. Twenty local authorities, or 28 per cent, did not answer any questions at all and a website search for each of these local authorities found no evidence of an urban design panel. A summary of responses from the 37 local authorities who replied to follow-up questions is provided in Appendix 2.

The determining factors for whether or not a local authority chooses to establish and operate an urban design panel appear to be:

  • the content of the district plan and whether it gives any scope for specific urban design assessment
  • the demographic characteristics of the local authority, including size, population and proportion of urban land
  • budget considerations
  • the availability of suitably qualified persons to form a panel.

Each of these is discussed below.

District plan content

Many local authorities still operate under first-generation plans, prepared up to 10 years ago. The consideration of urban design outcomes in these plans is usually limited, with the plans generally focusing on the management of natural and physical resources. Research undertaken by the Ministry for the Environment in 2009 drew attention to the status of district plans across New Zealand. 2

This research highlighted that one of the main factors underlying the variety of approaches in district plans across New Zealand is the lack of any definition of – or indeed any specific reference to – urban design in the Resource Management Act 1991. Urban design is not a matter of national importance in section 6, and not a matter that local government is required to include in a district plan under section 75. Most case law has indicated that consideration of urban design relies on the single reference to the maintenance and enhancement of amenity values in section 7. This somewhat tenuous link has survived rigorous challenge in the Environment Court, and a number of recent cases have even required councils to consider urban design matters in circumstances where there may be no specific urban design rules in a district plan.

There is considerable variation in the understanding and definition of urban design across first-generation district plans, and wide variation in the application of urban design considerations in resource consent applications. 3 Although many local authorities have now recognised the benefits of good urban design, the ability to implement this either through district plans or non‑statutory measures is further limited due to lack of capability and expertise. 4 The Urban Design Protocol, and supporting tools and resources, provides a consistent definition of urban design and is influencing a number of second-generation plans. Consistent application of urban design principles may require further changes to urban design planning, and these are being considered in phase 2 of the Resource Management Act reforms.

Demographic issues

At this stage, urban design is still seen by many – particularly in provincial and rural authorities – as an urban viewpoint, with more relevance to larger cities and towns. In particular, local authorities with larger non-urban areas seem to favour ‘landscape assessment’, as undertaken by a landscape architect. In many places, the only consideration given to urban design is in the layout of new subdivisions.

Several respondents argued that the number of applications they received was too low to justify the formation of a panel. Some respondents highlighted the rural nature of their locations as being a key determinant of the type of applications they received, stating that there was not considered to be any real need for urban design assessment or an urban design panel.

Budget constraints

Some local authorities had ruled out more in-depth consideration of urban design issues because of budget constraints. The local authorities who had investigated implementing panels on a voluntary basis found that either there was limited interest in participating on these terms, or there was insufficient local expertise to ensure rigorous assessment.

Among those local authorities operating panels of external experts, Queenstown–Lakes District Council passed the cost of the panel’s operation on to the applicant, and this was a nominal amount. The reluctance of local authorities to either bear or pass on what they see as being the quite significant costs of expert advice no doubt restricts the formation of panels in some locations.

Availability of suitably qualified professionals

Urban design has recently risen to a much greater prominence in resource management decisions, particularly in major cities. Although the actual qualifications of those providing ‘urban design advice’ was not specifically surveyed as part of this study, there appeared to be a variety of professionals involved in urban design assessment. (See Appendix 2 for an indication of this.) This was also evident in a study undertaken for the Ministry for the Environment in 2006. 5

The variety of professional qualifications of those doing urban design assessment is no doubt partly due to the lack of tertiary provision of specific urban design courses in New Zealand until relatively recently. The disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture and planning introduce some of the skills required of an urban designer, and most local authorities recognise the benefit of including such views as part of overall urban design assessment. However, urban design is broader than any of these disciplines, and the lack of professionals with formal urban design qualifications was cited as a limitation in assembling a panel in several locations.

However, a noticeable number of local authorities considered that despite having no formally qualified urban designers on staff, they have the in-house capability and skills to undertake urban design assessment as part of the usual resource consent assessment process. This may be in part due to differing interpretations of what ‘urban design’ means (as discussed in the section above on ‘Demographic issues’ and below under ‘The definition of urban design’).

2.3 Other issues

The definition of ‘urban design’

The definition of ‘urban design’ given in the New Zealand Urban Design Protocol is:

Urban design is concerned with the design of the buildings, places, spaces and networks that make up our towns and cities, and the ways people use them. It ranges in scale from a metropolitan region, city or town down to a street, public space or even a single building. Urban design is concerned not just with appearances and built form but with the environmental, economic, social and cultural consequences of design. It is an approach that draws together many different sectors and professions, and it includes both the process of decision-making as well as the outcomes of design. 6

Not all the local authorities surveyed are signatories to the Protocol. It also became apparent during this survey that the perception of the scope and definition of what ‘urban design’ involves varies widely across the country. In several places bulk and location controls were considered to be the only relevant urban design tools. In other locations objectives and policies were more specifically targeted at identified urban design outcomes, but a lot of weight was still placed on compliance with rules. Several local authorities indicated that they considered urban design assessment was only relevant for new subdivisions.

A noticeable number of respondents stated that a lack of “relevant” applications meant that urban design assessment was not often undertaken. The point raised in the section on ‘Demographic issues’ (above) was quoted frequently in these instances, with there being a general perception that urban design was for urban places only. Only relatively few respondents indicated that urban design controls might be relevant to their provincial or rural towns, despite some of these places being a reasonable size. Heritage or character preservation concerns were more likely to be mentioned in many places.

Overall, then, the perception of what urban design entails varies widely across the country, with provincial and rural authorities generally seeing it as less relevant to their resource management outcomes. There also appeared to be a lack of a coherent view about what urban design might involve. This shows that an opportunity exists to raise awareness about the scope and depth of what urban design can do, and its benefits to places of all sizes and demographics.


Several local authorities were reluctant to undertake more specific urban design assessment on the grounds that it would add another layer to decision making. Also, with the increased emphasis placed on timeliness by the recent RMA amendments, they felt it would potentially place them in a vulnerable position in terms of refunding consent fees if they could not comply with timeframes.

Timeliness is largely a function of internal processes and having good systems in place to ensure consents are assessed efficiently. However, for many local authorities, particularly those in predominantly rural locations and with a small planning department, having access to suitably qualified professional urban designers inevitably means out-sourcing work and/or paying consultants or contractors. The difficulties in finding a suitably qualified person and engaging them on a short timeframe, particularly to meet RMA deadlines, are worth noting.

External review of applications

A number of councils request external reviews of individual consents on an ‘as needed’ basis in lieu of creating a formal or regular review panel. The reasons given for undertaking application-specific review usually centred on increasing the rigour and objectiveness of an assessment, or dealing with overflow consent numbers. The advantages of this approach over forming a panel generally fall under the areas of reduced cost and reduced administrative burden to councils.

The survey revealed evidence of external peer review being used in situations where:

  • there was disagreement between the applicant and council staff on design issues
  • applications were significant in terms of size or cost
  • applications related to council capital projects
  • in-house urban design staff were occupied by other projects, or when there was an ‘overflow’ of consent numbers.

The only issue raised in relation to this approach was consistency of advice, particularly when a number of different reviewers were engaged by a local authority. Otherwise, it is a relevant and useful way for local authorities with a low number of consents requiring urban design comments to gain professional advice and recommendations.