7 Mar 2016

Auckland Council to stay silent at housing hearing

10:15 am on 7 March 2016

Auckland Council has withdrawn staff from crucial hearings on the city's future, saying its hands are tied by political revolt.

Few of the council's planning staff and expert witnesses are to appear at the Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel, which is set to begin considering future zonings tomorrow.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown, left, and council chief executive Stephen Town.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown, left, and council chief executive Stephen Town. Photo: RNZ / Todd Niall

The withdrawal follows an unprecedented defeat for council leadership 10 days ago, when councillors overthrew some higher-density housing proposals already before the panel - by a vote of 13 to 8.

In legal advice prior to the vote, councillors were told they should not withdraw any evidence and that doing so would have significant legal consequences.

The unitary plan is intended to shape the city's development over the next 30 years, and the final two months of hearings will look at housing, business and rural zonings.

The independent panel is like a court, hearing evidence from the council and thousands of submitters before proposing a final version of the plan, which the council must accept or reject by September.

Auckland Council chief executive Stephen Town wrote to councillors and the chairs of the local boards, explaining the withdrawal.

Mr Town said the only exception would be if the panel itself called council staff, or if other submitters sought to cross-examine them.

While council staff would be unable to argue in person over the housing zonings that a majority of councillors opposed, the written arguments remained before the panel and could be argued by others.

On Thursday, Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel chair Judge David Kirkpatrick told a packed hearing room that it would not be removing any evidence already before it, nor would the panel refuse to call any witnesses.

Judge David Kirkpatrick chairs the Independent Hearings Panel for the Auckland Council's Unitary Plan.

Judge David Kirkpatrick chairs the Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel. Photo: RNZ

The panel must complete the plan by July and hand it back to the council, which has until September to accept it or reject parts of it.

Rejection would spark possible appeals to the Environment Court.

The requirement for a unitary plan, and the hearing process, were set up by the government in special legislation.

Minister for the Environment Nick Smith said he was expecting it to be done on time.

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