The Future of the Central City

A Review of the Draft Central City Plan for Christchurch


August 2011


On 16 August 2011, the draft Central City Plan was released by the Christchurch City Council for public consultation. The Plan is a novel and ambitious document that provides a blueprint for the redevelopment of the central city.

Spread across two volumes and several hundred pages, the amount of work that has gone into the Plan in such a short period of time is evident. This article does not attempt to summarise all the detail in the Plan. Rather it comments on some key themes and contentious issues, what makes this Plan different, how the Plan may affect you, and the strategies required to influence the final outcome.

What are the key themes and contentious issues?

There are five key themes which are identified in the Plan, which can be summarised as follows:

  • Green city – more open green spaces and streetscapes, along with new "Build Green" requirements for sustainable buildings.

  • Stronger built identity – changes to ensure that new buildings are low rise and meet minimum urban design standards.

  • Compact CBD – a smaller central city core with a focus on small scale retail and surrounded by different zones for complementary activities.

  • Live, work, play and learn – a focus on bringing residents back into the central city through incentives, new facilities and reduced regulation.

  • Accessible city – changes to movement networks to reduce vehicle traffic through the city and encourage walking, cycling and public transport.

Within the above themes, there are some changes that are already proving contentious. The most obvious of these is building height, where questions are being raised as to whether the city will be able to attract the necessary investment with such restrictions in place. In combination with comprehensive urban design controls that are proposed, it is undeniable that the flexibility for property owners is significantly reduced.   

Another important issue are the controls on retail distribution throughout the city. The Plan proposes maximum and minimum floor areas in different locations to try and encourage particular types of retail activity. However there is some concern that this may lead to unintended outcomes, such as limiting important anchor stores that attract a large amount of foot traffic to the central city.

The Plan also sets out an ambitious list of projects that are intended to revitalise the central city, including light rail, a metropolitan sport facility and a new central library. Whilst the potential of some of these projects is exciting, the biggest challenge will be finding the necessary funding to turn them into reality, with the Plan already being referred to as a "wish list" by central government.

How is this Plan different?

A typical district or city plan under the RMA is focused on limiting activities through regulation. Whilst it may include policies seeking to encourage certain activities, the real bite comes through the rules that restrict how a particular property may be used.

The Central City Plan is somewhat different. Although it still contains its fair share of rules, this is not the only method it uses to try and achieve its vision. It also contains the following key components that make it unique:

  • Incentives – a range of non-regulatory financial incentives intended to:

    • Encourage business and residents to return to the central city by addressing some of the practical challenges faced; and

    • Promote and enable those activities that are consistent with the overall vision for the central city.

  • Investments – a significant number of new projects and improvements throughout the central city, with funding to come from local government, central government and private investment.  

Often these types of measures are included in Annual Plans and Long Term Council Community Plans ("LTCCPs") prepared under the Local Government Act rather than an RMA plan. The Central City Plan is somewhat of a hybrid between the two, as it attempts to provide a comprehensive and co-ordinated solution to realise its vision.

Once the Central City Plan is operative, almost all other plans (including Annual Plans and LTCCPs) must be consistent with it. As such, any spending and incentives forecast in the Plan are likely to become a reality. The Plan therefore provides the opportunity to secure significant individual and collective benefits, rather than simply minimising restrictions.  

How does it affect you?

Most people in Canterbury will have an interest in what happens to the central city at a personal level. However, the impact on individuals will vary greatly depending on the extent and nature of their interests.

For many, the Plan will represent an exciting opportunity to rebuild our city better than before and to provide a place that future generations will be proud of. For others there may be a mismatch between this vision and the reality on the ground, particularly for property owners and businesses still dealing with the very real challenges of demolition, insurance, funding and ongoing uncertainty.

If you have an interest in a particular property in the central city, a site specific assessment is required to determine how it may affect you, including the following key questions, among others:

  • What zone is the property in?

  • What building heights and design controls apply?

  • Are there any limits on the types of activity that can occur – e.g. retail?

  • What incentives are available?

It is also important to recognise that although the Plan will be the dominant document governing central city development, it does not stand alone. Many property owners will have resource consents and/or existing use rights that remain valid (albeit for a limited period of time), which may remove the need to comply with certain aspects of the Plan. A clear understanding of these issues is required to provide a complete picture of the viable future uses for a particular site.

The Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery (Gerry Brownlee) does have the power to cancel resource consents and existing use rights for the purpose of earthquake recovery. However, these powers have not been exercised to date and are likely to only be exercised with caution given the significant implications they could have on individual rights and property values.

How can you influence the outcome?

The Plan is currently open for submission until 16 September 2011, following which a public hearing will take place in early October. It is important to recognise that this is not a typical submission and hearing process and new strategies will be required in order to influence outcomes.

Unlike a typical city or district plan, this document will not be assessed against the provisions of the RMA and subject to the usual tests. Rather it will be considered under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act 2011, which contains very little guidance about what the Plan should contain. 

In this context, there is little value in arguing whether the Plan meets the purpose of the RMA or raising any technical legal points.  In order to influence the final content of the Plan, we consider that it will be necessary to demonstrate that any changes or new ideas being promoted meet the following general criteria:

  • Are consistent with the broad vision for the central city set out in the Plan (or if not, explain why the vision is flawed);

  • Are consistent with the general direction of the public feedback on which the Plan is based;

  • Have widespread support from multiple parties (including representative bodies if possible); and

  • Will achieve a better overall outcome and enable a "focused, timely and expedited recovery" of the central city.

Hearing time will be limited, with currently only four days being set aside. It is therefore critical that submissions are comprehensive and that any subsequent hearing presentation is focused, persuasive and easily understood, including a clear statement of the outcome sought.  There are no appeal rights following the Council decision, so the current process is the last meaningful chance to comment on the content of the Plan. 

Overall, the draft Central City Plan is a bold document that will reshape the central city through a combination of investment, incentives and regulation. The submission process provides a critical opportunity to have your say about the good and the bad in order to influence the final outcome.

If you have any questions about how the plan may affect you or need any assistance with a submission, please let us know as we are willing and available to help.

Disclaimer: This is a brief summary for information purposes only and is not legal advice.


Posted on Tuesday 23rd August, 2011 at 08:58 am