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Medium density changes- what are they?

Many of you will have heard mention of proposed changes to what’s permitted in medium density areas. With so many other changes planned or underway at the moment, it can confusing about what’s happening and when. This is our first blog in a series about what’s commonly referred to as the “medium density changes” or “3 by 3 changes”. They’re intended as a useful guide for architects, designers and developers, but please do undertake your own research as things are changing quickly in this space!

What’s happening?

The Enabling Housing Supply Act requires some Councils to change their planning documents to increase development potential. In summary, it seeks to enable medium density housing of up to three-storeys across most of Auckland’s urban suburbs without needing a resource consent, including terrace housing and low-rise apartments. Up to three houses per site could be established without needing resource consent. The Standards, such as yard setbacks, maximum height and height in relation to boundary will also change. These are called the Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS).

Together these amendments will not only change the density of houses, but their form. It will create a significant shift from what exists today in many areas.

Who does it apply to?

The greatest change will be in “Tier 1” Council areas. These are Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch and the more recent addition of Rotorua. In these areas, the new provisions will relate to all urban environments except :

  • large lot residential zones and settlement zones,

  • areas predominantly urban in character that the 2018 census recorded as having a resident population of less than 5,000, unless a local authority intends the area to become part of an urban environment, or

  • offshore islands.

What’s the process?

We receive enquiries from a number of people who think that these rules are already in force- they’re not. There is a process that we’re part way through in relation to these rules having legal effect. Now (early April 2022), the Act has been passed and Auckland Council is drafting related changes to the Auckland Unitary Plan (AUP). Plan Changes are required to be notified by 20 August 2022, and people can make submissions. The medium density rules will have immediate legal effect.

An Independent Hearings Panel (IHP) process will be utilised, as occurred with the actual Auckland Unitary Plan. The IHP will consider all submissions and make recommendations to Auckland Council on changes to the Auckland Unitary Plan. Auckland Council will then determine if they will accept or reject the IHP recommendations. If Council rejects an IHP recommendation, the Minister for the Environment will make the final decision. The Ministry of Housing & Urban Development expects that the related plan changes will be operative by August 2023. You can find out more about timing here.

Other changes

In addition to the medium density changes, the August 2022 plan changes will also give effect to parts of the National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS(UD)) by introducing new rules related to the city centre, metropolitan centres and other specific areas. In Auckland, metropolitan centres are Newmarket, Manukau, New Lynn, Sylvia Park, Botany, Papakura, Takapuna, Henderson, Albany and Westgate. These changes will enable buildings of six storeys or more within walkable distances of rapid transit stops, the city centre or the 10 large metropolitan centres.

The Council has determined that a “walkable distance” is a 15-minute walk (approximately 1,200 metres) from the edge of the city centre and a 10-minute walk (approximately 800 metres) from the edge of the metropolitan centres and around train stations and rapid busway stops, such as the Northern Busway.

August will see a lot of changes to the Auckland Unitary Plan! You can find out more information about AUP plan changes here.

A word of caution

On the face of it, these medium density changes may seem like a great change if you’re a developer. However, the legislation does enable Council to alter these new provisions if “qualifying factors” are present. At this stage there isn’t certainty about what “qualifying factors” will apply to specific sites, that could reduce the development potential. These “qualifying factors” could include matters of cultural, historic, or ecological significance or avoiding development in areas with natural hazards for example.

These changes also don’t address infrastructure- there will be more than a few areas where there simply isn’t the capacity in existing infrastructure to service increased development. This will be due to a mixture of historical under investment and also that this increased scale of development could not have been envisaged in some areas, and infrastructure was not designed for it. For example, areas that are currently zoned Single House in the AUP are currently only expected to contain one dwelling- an unexpected “upzone” to enable three dwellings is not likely to be something that was planned for when infrastructure was designed and established. The Enabling Housing Supply Act doesn’t address this issue and it will likely create headaches for developers and Council alike.

These factors will affect how much development can actually take place on a site and will vary from site to site and area to area.

Where to from here?

Auckland Council will be seeking feedback on some of the proposed changes from 19 April 2022. This will provide greater clarity on the likely changes and how they affect your site. Keep in mind through that this is not the actual plan change/s- Auckland Council must publicly notify changes to the Auckland Unitary Plan by 20 August 2022.

Hannah Thomson is Director of Planning Plusand has over 20 years of resource management experience working in both local government and the private sector. This includes five years at Rodney District Council in roles including Senior Planner and Team Leader. Hannah has a wide range of experience including commercial, rural, residential and coastal development and subdivision on small to large scales and appearances at both Council and Environment Court as an expert witness for mediation and hearings. Hannah has assisted Councils with policy development and has also assisted private individuals with submissions to Council.

​Hannah holds the qualifications of BSc (Environmental Science) and Master of Applied Science (Environmental Management), is a Member (Int) of the New Zealand Planning Institute and Secretary of the New Zealand Planning Institute Auckland Branch Committee. Hannah is also a member of the Resource Management Law Association.


As with all our blogs this information is preliminary in nature only and we have used our best endeavors 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.

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