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MDRS and Special Character Areas- can they mix?

Updated: Feb 20

Many of you will have heard of the proposed medium density changes introduced by the central government. These changes are often referred to as the “3x3 changes”, “medium density changes” or “MDRS”, and will impact the development in main urban areas (called Tier 1 Councils). As discussed in our last blog (here), a local council can modify or reduce the building height and density requirement where “qualifying matters” have been identified. Of note, Auckland Council has indicated it will seek to include “Special Character Areas” as one of these qualifying matters. This blog will focus on Auckland Council’s draft response to this qualifying matter, as set out in the consultation documents released in April 2022. Its important to highlight that the information released in April 2022 is for consultation purposes and is not the formal plan change and has no legal effect.

What is special character?

The Auckland Unitary Plan (Operative in Part) (AUP(OP)) identifies special character areas as an overlay. Many of these areas have been the subject of similar protections in older district/ city plans, and the Unitary Plan largely “rolls” these over. These areas are older, established areas with special architectural or other built character values, which have collective importance, relevance and interest to a specific area or to the Auckland region. The current Auckland Unitary Plan contains specific height, yard setback, paved area, fence and density requirements, along with requirements for resource consent for specific building works, additions and alterations, to protect these values. The Special Character Area overlay is different to specific sites or buildings that are individually scheduled for heritage reasons.

The MDRS changes sought by central government could see the Special Character Area overlay development controls and protections lost, unless a “qualifying matter” is present.

What is a “qualifying matter”?

Central government’s reforms allow Councils to modify or reduce the building height or densities in some areas where “qualifying matters” are present. You can find out more about “qualifying matters” in our blog here. In urban areas, this is essentially the only way that Council can restrict the MDRS provisions, such as three dwellings per site up to three stories in height. Qualifying matters relate to a matter of national importance, such as natural hazards or ecologically significant areas.

Special Character Areas as a qualifying matter

Auckland Council has indicated that it will seek to include “special character areas” as a qualifying matter in the August 2022 plan changes. The legislation requires that a high level of justification be provided in relation to qualifying matters and as a result of this Council officers have individually assessed 21,000 residential properties and 1,700 commercial properties that are currently within the special character area overlay in the Auckland Unitary Plan. Due to Covid related lockdowns in 2021, some of this has had to be via Google Streetview, GIS etc. Each property was assessed for its value using criteria used in the Unitary Plan, and given an overall score from 1-6, with scores of 5 and 6 considered to be a property that strongly contributed to the special character values of an area.

The areas identified in the consultation documents as being subject to Special Character Area as a qualifying were identified by:

  • In walkable catchments around larger centres and rapid transit stops: Areas where 75% or more of individual properties strongly contribute to the special character values of the area (being properties with a score of 5 or 6).

  • Outside of walkable catchments: Areas where 66% or more of individual properties strongly contribute to the special character values of the area (being properties with a score of 5 or 6).

As a result of the council’s proposed approach, more development is proposed to be enabled within walkable catchments, which is consistent with what the National Policy Statement on Urban Development seeks. Approximately 75% of the properties within the existing residential Special Character Areas Overlay in the Auckland Unitary Plan are identified as being affected by this qualifying matter in the consultation documents.

For business special character areas, the areas identified as proposed to be affected by the Special Character Area qualifying matter are:

  • Balmoral Shopping Centre, Devonport, Eden Valley, Grey Lynn, Helensville, Howick, Kingsland, Lower Hinemoa Street, Mount Eden Village, Newmarket, Onehunga, Otahuhu, Parnell, Ponsonby Road, Sandringham, West Lynn and Upper Symonds Street.

These changes will still see the loss of protections in some areas, areas which communities and Council have identified as having a special character worthy of protection, in some cases for over 30 years. This is a reflection of the high thresholds that central government have set for qualifying matters to be imposed, and the clear push from central government to enable more development.

Heritage changes

As part of Auckland Council’s site by site investigations, some sites and areas have been identified as having historic heritage value, and the Council has indicated its likely protections on these properties or areas will be proposed via a plan change (likely also in August). This will be different to the Special Character Area qualifying matter.

Impacts on development

The MDRS changes could make significant changes to many developments and properties in the older suburbs across Auckland, including those where a special character area overlay or similar has been present for many years. Whilst council has released indicative maps which show where the qualifying matters may apply, these maps have been released as part of the Council’s consultation process and have not been finalised. Until the formal Unitary Plan plan changes are notified in August 2022, the current Unitary Plan standards still apply and development within the Special Character Areas Overlay is likely to require resource consent. We suggest you discuss your specific proposal with your planner.

Need more advice?

Planning PlusTM can assist you with any resource consent process including providing initial planning and feasibility advice. You can contact us on or (09) 427 9966. We also have a number of other blogs on our website that can help you with your resource consent journey-


As with all our blogs this information is preliminary in nature only and we have used our best endeavours to ensure it is correct at the time of writing. It is not intended to substitute for your own investigations or obtaining specific advice on your proposal from professionals. Planning Plus LtdTM is not liable in any way for any errors or omissions.

© Planning Plus Ltd 2024

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