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5. Discussion

Across New Zealand, urban design assessment takes many forms, but two main types of urban design panels are:

  • an independent panel of external experts (including technical advisory groups)
  • an in-house panel of external experts who function as a ‘design clinic’.

Assessment by in-house staff and specifically commissioned external peer review are also key assessment mechanisms.

5.1 Do external expert panels work?

External expert panels have only been established in metropolitan centres. This reflects development pressure, staffing levels, the availability of expertise and the greater degree of urban design weight given by district plans.

In general terms, it seems that the panels of external experts that are currently operating in New Zealand are having a positive effect on built outcomes, either by improving the standard of design or by being able to eliminate poorly designed proposals from further consideration. The panels have also improved the quality of applications subsequently received, and have raised the profile and importance of urban design issues in the development community.

The following positive comments were offered by respondents about the benefits of a panel.

  • The differing viewpoints and areas of expertise of panel members helps keep the discussion balanced.
  • Acceptance of the panel’s reporting is good, because many developers see the panel’s reporting as an assessment by a ‘jury of peers’ rather than engaging in a two-way conversation with the council.
  • Separation from the council’s in-house assessment is beneficial, and the impartiality of a panel improves the quality of the outcomes.
  • The degree of scrutiny a project can receive at an early stage is beneficial.
  • Better-resolved designs are lodged as consents save time and money, for both applicants and councils.

Of the above points, the most often-mentioned benefit was the role of a panel in providing an impartial view and removing the often tense ‘conversation’ between developers and councils.

The use of panels does have its limitations, though, and feedback from surveyed recipients included the following comments.

  • The limits imposed by non-regulatory processes and outcomes must be recognised.
  • District plans often offer insufficient backup to give urban design recommendations satisfactory weight in the decision-making process.
  • In the case of a controlled activity, there is no opportunity to decline a consent even if the design outcomes are considered unsatisfactory.
  • Urban design assessment is qualitative, but it sometimes gets over-ridden by quantitative considerations (eg, traffic counts, parking space numbers or wind speeds) at the point of decision making.
  • Having a large pool of panellists available means there can be issues with inconsistency of advice if the panel composition changes.
  • It is sometimes difficult for panellists to keep to matters of urban design and not stray into architectural critique or areas of personal taste.
  • There are sometimes difficulties of distance and cost to convene the panel.
  • Given a small pool of available panellists, it can sometimes be difficult to convene a panel due to conflicts of interest.

The most often-mentioned drawback was the purely ‘advisory’ status of a panel’s advice or recommendations, and the lack of weight this can have when it comes to making a decision on a resource consent.

5.2 Are panels right for everyone?

In scoping the Resource Management Phase 2 reforms, urban design panels are being investigated because they are seen as tools that are available for implementing urban development but that are not used to their full potential. 10

Any legislative changes to the status of urban design panels would be a challenging prospect due to the great variety of local authorities nationwide. The variety extends across every facet of council operation, including the land area, population, budget, skill set of staff, sophistication of district plans, and fundamental resource management issues faced by each individual local authority. It would be difficult – and of questionable wisdom – to try to impose a ‘one size fits all’ mechanism to this variety.

This study shows that many local authorities already use the assessment approach that suits them best and takes into account operational and practical limitations. In practice, a ‘best fit’ approach for local authorities, using a mix of approaches depending on the scope and significance of applications and the resources available to them, would seem to be the best way to go.

5.3 Best practice for operating a panel

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) documents How to Do Design Review and Design Review: Principles and Practice are useful references in terms of setting up and operating a panel. Although CABE operates at a national level in the UK, their guidance on the successful operation of a panel is generic and would be relevant for the New Zealand context. 11How to Do Design Review also lists ‘Ten tips for success’, as follows.

  1. Provide sufficient resources. Doing design review well is not cheap. Adequate financial and staff support is essential to ensure an effective and professional operation and sufficient space.
  2. Sort out the logistics. Good administrative support is required to coordinate the review and allow for easy presentation of material. The room provided should allow for a presentation the panel can see and hear clearly in order to gain a thorough understanding of a scheme.
  3. Write good reports. Writing up the panel meetings is an important skill. High-calibre advice from panel members will be wasted if advice is not communicated clearly and effectively afterwards.
  4. Allow independence. A panel should be independent, free to say what it thinks, and not obliged to modify its views to suit someone else’s policies. It is there to advise, not to decide or instruct. It should speak as it finds and let others decide how to act on the advice.
  5. Get the timing right. Panels must review schemes at the right stage. This means seeing projects sooner rather than later, when designs are still being developed and designers can take on board suggestions readily. This would mean urban design panels undertaking design review at a pre-application stage.
  6. Ensure good panel membership. Panel members should be experts with a diverse range of backgrounds, skills and expertise.
  7. Appoint an able chair. The panel chair must be skilled at chairing meetings, as well as respected in their field: they must have people skills as well as professional skills.
  8. Explain the purpose of advice. Be clear about who the advice is for and what they are expected to do about it.
  9. Give praise as well as criticism. Advice should be positive about good aspects as well as critical of flaws.
  10. Stay public. Local residents, groups and the press are likely to be interested in the panel’s views. The scrutineers should be prepared to be scrutinised, so the panel should be as public in their views as they can.

Taking the findings of this report into consideration, the following could be added to the list of best practice considerations.

  1. The terms of reference need to be publicly available. This ensures the transparent operation of a panel and allows for more effective review.
  2. Panels need to be monitored and reviewed. The frequency of review and monitoring should be outlined in the terms of reference. This is necessary to ensure a panel is operating efficiently and effectively, and that its ongoing operation is justified.
  3. Advice provided by a panel needs to be written. Verbal advice is more informal but lacks the certainty of written recommendations.
  4. Links need to be made back to district plan improvement. The most effective tool in securing good urban design outcomes is the provision of statutory requirements in a district plan. Panel recommendations will only have weight if they are appropriately supported by related provisions in the district plan. Panel recommendations should be regularly examined by those responsible for policy formulation to determine whether changes could be made to the statutory tools to encourage better urban design outcomes.
  5. Participation of applicants is voluntary but should be strongly encouraged. The benefits of good urban design should be highlighted to all potential applicants.

5.4 The role of pre-application advice

Most councils either using a panel or undertaking urban design assessment are aware of the benefits of urban design advice being given at an early stage of a development proposal. Most panels prefer to operate at the pre-application stage, although participation at this stage is usually at the discretion of the applicant.

This study found that many developers also understand the benefits of gaining pre-application advice and direction, particularly on major projects. The ability to gain independent advice is valued by developers, particularly when a situation of conflict exists with council’s in-house staff, or additional guidance is sought. However, it can be a challenge to get developers to front up to the panel early enough in the development process if participation is voluntary (as experienced in Auckland, particularly at the outset of the panel’s operation). Experience in Auckland and Queenstown demonstrates that it takes some time after a panel is established before it is appreciated as adding value rather than just another layer of bureaucracy.

Several respondents noted the increased challenge for panels when applicants appeared before them for the first time with fully developed drawings at the application stage. Applicants are usually much more resistant to accommodating changes at this stage, as significant investment (of both time and money) has usually been made to get a proposal to the stage of making a formal application. However, participation in pre-application meetings is not compulsory, and this will continue to mean that panels will encounter some applicants with fully developed proposals and a general level of unwillingness to accommodate design changes.

There was a range of responses to the provision of pre-application advice when a panel was not used. Some local authorities charge for it in various ways, others do not. Some councils provide written advice at pre-application meetings, and some provide verbal advice. The advice given is almost always on a ‘without prejudice’ basis, and while this was often found to be beneficial, if issues are missed this can cause problems for applicants later on. The benefit of panel involvement at the pre-application stage is that applicants are given a formal written report, and projects are given a very detailed level of scrutiny at an early stage.

An example of a relatively formal pre-application process is that found in Wellington City Council, which operates a system of pre-application meetings whereby potential applicants are offered two hours of officer time without charge at the pre-application stage (further pre-application meetings are able to be held, but these incur a charge). A Council urban designer can attend these meetings if there are urban design concerns. Wellington City Council does not operate a panel, so the aim of these meetings is to try to improve the quality of urban design aspects of applications and reduce potential delays and costs during the formal consent process.