Framework in place for new central city

22 Nov 12

Much has been written in the past few weeks about the challenges facing the central city rebuild. But what of the opportunities that the new plan and the new environment provide?

There are certainly some complexities surrounding the large acquisition process required of the Crown, but it is also true that lawyers, valuers and land owners have been dealing with matters of this nature for many years. Every highway or motorway throughout New Zealand has required the acquisition of land – sometimes in controversial circumstances.

Although there are some areas of difference, the process to be adopted within the CBD is essentially the same as that which has been used for some years now under the Public Works Act. As such there is a large body of case law that informs the way in which land is valued and acquisitions resolved.

We are also well served in Canterbury by a pool of well experienced and expert valuers. Importantly, the Crown has indicated its preference to avoid use of the acquisition powers and simply negotiate standard agreements for sale and purchase.

Lawyers and agents are very familiar with commercial land sales and are well versed in negotiating and agreeing the terms and conditions of such agreements. Many of these deals will likely be no different. Although this is a large acquisition process, it is not so unique it justifies as much hand wringing and angst as some professionals might have you believe. The complexities can and will be resolved like they have been in many similar situations in the past.

Resolution allows us to consider the opportunities. There are few cities in New Zealand (if any) where the plan provisions for the CBD have been comprehensively reduced to a mere 12 pages or where the only consent you will likely need will be for urban design and even that will be processed and decided upon within five working days.

In areas immediately adjacent to the core CBD it is likely that for most activities no resource consent will be required at all and landowners will be able to progress immediately to gain building consents.  This is an advantage in terms of time and cost not available to competing cities in either New Zealand or Australia where consenting delays measuring in the years are not uncommon.

While many New Zealand cities are now gearing up to review their city plans in an endeavour to move towards a more simplified approach, Christchurch already has a new plan in place – operative and open for business. This planning framework provides advantages in terms of speed and ease of consenting giving a very clear direction to landowners as to what does and what does not fit within the CBD as it rebuilds.

City plans are often criticised (in my view correctly) for being unclear as to whether a consent will be granted in any particular case. Activities are often categorised as ‘discretionary’ meaning the council can take a wide range of effects into account and can ultimately decide (often after input from the public) whether an activity can go ahead. Embarking on that process with little certainty as to whether consent will ultimately be obtained can be costly and time consuming – often preventing landowners from taking the chance.

The new Christchurch CBD plan provides much greater certainty of outcome than plans in other parts of the country – allowing land owners to have a clear understanding at the start of the process as to how it will likely pan out. These are planning advantages to be embraced. Although plan reviews can be long and drawn out affairs, other cities will soon catch up, producing plans with similar streamlined provisions.

Although we would never have wished for the events which have happened to catalyse these changes, we now need to grasp the opportunities that events have given us.

The other planning advantage we have is the existence of the Recovery Plan itself. Decisions on consents must be ‘not inconsistent’ with the Recovery Plan meaning that plan has weight in its own right not simply because it directs changes to the City Plan. The Recovery Plan can be seen as a guide to development. It provides a very clear statement to landowners as to what is desired in particular parts of the CBD – complete with illustrations!

Other cities do not have the benefit of statutory vision documents of this nature. Importantly, with a clear plan in place landowners can have confidence not only about what they can do, but also about what their neighbours can do.

Although the CBD Plan has been developed by CERA, Christchurch City Council has also made changes to try and improve the planning experience within the city. The One Stop Shop has been developed which is set up to provide those applying for consents with all of the services they require in one location. Changes have been made to building consent processing times to ensure these are moving more quickly than they have previously.

Obviously challenges remain. There are issues with insurance and uncertainty about what might ultimately happen to population and demographics. But amongst the challenges there lies some real opportunity and advantages that are waiting to be grasped.

The planning environment is more certain than it has ever been and significantly more ‘development friendly’ than competing cities. Timeframes for the issuing of both resource and building consents have been slashed and the government and the council are committed to the development of community assets within the CBD.

It has been a tough few years but the scene is now set for the rebuild of a new and exciting city. It’s time to grasp the opportunities.