Council’s across New Zealand seek to control which activities can occur where, in an attempt to ensure that land owners can enjoy the use of their own land whilst avoiding impacts on their neighbours.
That’s where District Plans (referred to as Plans) and their associated zonings come in. Most Plans are now very similar in their structure with the city or district split into distinct zone types. These are usually made up of residential zones, business zones, rural zones and special zones. Within these zone sets there is usually sub-zones. An example is the residential zones which may include, for example, high intensity residential, heritage character zones and low intensity residential. Business zones may include industrial zones, commercial zones and local business zones.
Each zone has activities that are permitted without resource consent and others that require consent but are generally deemed appropriate provided that certain standards are met. There are also activities that are not anticipated in each zone and obtaining consent for these activities will generally by challenging.
For example, you could reasonably expect that a house would be permitted in the residential zones, but a factory wouldn’t be anticipated. Likewise, a factory would be permitted in an industrial business zone, but any residential activity would be strongly discouraged by the rules of the Plan.
This zoning approach tends to work well when Councils have carefully considered the activities suitable for each zone.
However, problems arise when an activity is seemingly not encouraged in the most logical zones. This is the position that most ECE centres occupy in Plans right across New Zealand.
Residential zones provide for various housing types and generally seek to keep the status quo in terms of established character and building typologies. Most residential zones will also include a reference to non-residential activities being appropriate where they are providing for social benefits, such as ECE centres.
This makes sense – ECE’s are a critical part of a healthy neighbourhood. They allow children to be cared for and educated close to home, with children from their neighbourhood and with a peer group that will likely transition through to school with them. Residential neighbourhoods are ideal for ECE’s with the environmental quality of the surrounds being the most like their home environment.
However, look a little bit further into the non-residential activity clauses and you’ll see that there is significant room for Council’s to ignore the positive benefits of ECE and only focus on potential changes to the surrounding houses.
Non-residential activities provide for the community’s social, economic and cultural well-being, while being in keeping with the scale and intensity of development anticipated by the zone so as to contribute to the amenity of the neighbourhood. – Auckland Unitary Plan
Whilst the above could be seen to be promoting ECE’s within a residential zone, we have seen a noticeable shift with Councils now placing emphasis on the second part of the statement. This results in resource consents for new ECE’s, or changes to existing centres, having to demonstrate that they are in keeping with the scale and intensity of development in the surrounding area. It can be very hard to convince a Council Planner that 30, 40 or 50 plus children on a site is in keeping with the intensity of the surrounding area.
We have seen cases where centres of less than 30 children are being publicly notified by Councils for reasons of site intensity. Even if the centre will comply with all noise standards, parking requirements and will meet all of the development control rules – some centres are still being notified to surrounding neighbours.
If the Council decides to publicly notify a consent the additional costs for an applicant can be significant. The money that goes into preparing for and attending a notified hearing would be much better spent on the physical environment of the centre. Often, upon a Council decision to notify a consent, the applicant will simply withdraw the application – either unable or unwilling to take it through a costly hearing process.
Generally, the larger the proposed centre in a residential zone, the higher the chance of a notified consent process. Many seasoned ECE owners have grown tired of fighting Councils in the residential zones and instead look elsewhere for their next location. This invariably ends up being the commercial zones.
Commercial zones contain all of the land that a city/district has identified should be used for business purposes. This ranges from small retails shops, through to offices, through to factories and distribution centres.
Within business zones, you will find that District Plan rules are far more permissive, and that Councils are far less concerned about what the neighbours might say. This makes these zone attractive for new ECE centre owners. With less consideration needed for effects on neighbouring sites, and with an easier passage through the consent process, commercial zoned land has become ever more popular for new centres.
It’s uncommon for consent applications for new centres to be notified in these zones and, with relaxed noise standards, centres can be larger and cater for more children. In fact, centres almost always have to be larger on commercial sites, given that these sites are usually bigger and a small-scale centre wouldn’t work from a financial perspective given land values.
However, commercial zones don’t always make the best environment for young children.
Whilst Councils have continued to focus on potential effects on residential neighbours instead of quality environments for children, we have seen an increase in the number of new centres in commercial zones.
As well as moving centres away from where children live, these actions have had another effect on the mix of ECE services establishing. We are seeing less and less small-scale centres establishing right across the country, whilst larger ECE organisations are continuing to establish new larger centres where a need is identified within commercial zones. This has increased the average size of new centres being opened right across the country, with the most significant changes being in the main centres where land prices are the highest and where Councils are often the most conservative.
The increased challenges of starting a centre in a residential zone have clearly impacted the choice of new centres for parents and we are seeing a decline in new centres within residential areas whilst the growth of new centres in commercial zones is still strong.
What Needs to Happen
In my opinion, it’s generally not the District Plan rules that need to change, it’s the attitude of Planners and Council decision-makers. Instead of focusing on what residential neighbours might complain about, they should be focusing on these facts about ECE:
- ECE centres make great neighbours – activity during the day and peace and quiet during the evenings and weekends;
- ECE centres are a critical part of any healthy community;
- Children playing don’t have an effect on the neighbourhood, they are part of the neighbourhood;
- ECE centres allow for parents to provide for their families health and wellbeing.
Provided that centres are sensibly designed to ensure compliance with noise standards, provide enough car parks and look visually appealing – there is no need for notification to neighbours. Doing so simply drives an activity that is part of the community away from the community that it serves.
We need Council Planners and Managers with courage and conviction to support ECE’s within our residential environments. Whilst there are many great ECE’s located within commercial zones, it is important that we don’t lose the residential ECE centre choice for children and parents.
What can you do?
If you’re thinking of establishing a new centre, or optimising your existing centre, it’s critical that you engage with a planning/consultant team that deals with the specifics of ECE development regularly. Although consenting a new centre in a residential zone can be challenging, a thorough understanding of the consent process and strategies to avoid notification will give you the highest chance of success.
If you’re worried or concerned about how Council will treat your consent application, I’m always available to share my thoughts by email.