Process of Preparing and Implementing a Structure Plan

There is no one set way to develop a structure plan. The process used will depend on the scale and complexity of the area, the issues to be managed, the anticipated level of stakeholder and public interest, and the purpose for which the structure plan is to be used. That said, most structure planning exercises incorporate the following phases or components:

1. Scoping and project planning

The decision to prepare a structure plan may be the result of development pressures in a particular geographical area, or identified through a wider urban growth study that has selected a particular area for development or redevelopment.

It is important that reasons, objectives and outcomes sought for the structure plan are clearly established before embarking on the structure planning exercise. These are key components which should form part of the scoping exercise.

The scoping and project planning phase of structure planning should include the following considerations:

  • Defining the area of the structure plan: the area may be determined by such things as property boundaries, topographical constraints and stormwater catchment areas, or may be determined by being the only land available.
  • An initial review of existing information on the area: this should be carried out to scope the suitability of land being considered for development or redevelopment, to identify areas of special value or significance within the area, and to provide early warning of actual or potential issues that need to be avoided or investigated.
  • Constraints identification and analysis: the structure plan areas should be assessed for any constraints that may limit development in particular areas or make areas more suitable for particularly uses (e.g. land subject to flooding, waahi tapu or other culturally significant sites). These constraints can then inform the more detailed structure plan design stage.
  • The overall outcomes desired of the structure plan: these should align with national policy directions, regional policy statements and plans, community outcome statements in LTPs, district plan strategies, iwi management plans, local authority policy guidelines (e.g. reserve strategies), and regional land transport strategies, as appropriate. Desired outcomes will often be broader than the directives in RMA policy statements and plans and include wider social and community benefits.
  • Development and implementation timeframes: timelines for structure plan development should allow adequate time for consultation, studies to be completed, development of the plans and associated statutory processes under the RMA or LGA. Indicative timeframes for implementation will need to take into account development pressures, lead-in times for infrastructure provision, and anticipated up-take of development opportunities. This should be directly inform the development of the 30 year infrastructure strategies required under the LGA and the sequencing and costs of future infrastructure provision.
  • Identification of key stakeholders: it is important to identify all the key stakeholders that should be involved in the development of the structure plan and those that will help or are required to implement the structure plan. This will generally include tangata whenua, developers, public agencies responsible for the provision of infrastructure, community groups etc. There should also be opportunities for wider community input into the structure plan at an appropriate stage of its development.
  • The method of implementation: the principal means (statutory, non-statutory or both) to implement the structure plan needs to be made as early as possible because it influences the type of information that will need to be obtained, communication and consultation requirements, timeframes, and the types of agreements that may need to be negotiated with stakeholders.
  • The resources required for the structure planning process and implementation: the source, timing and level of funding required for the structure plan needs to be carefully considered, along with the skills and expertise that are available or that need to be brought in. The true costs of developing a structure plan are easy to underestimate and the time associated with all process steps, and to address unexpected issues or appeals to the outcomes, need to be factored in.
  • Risk assessment: an assessment of the risks to the successful development and implementation of a structure plan needs to be made including legal, political, and financial risks, and how these may be managed. Such risks may include fragmentation of land in the interim which may impact on later implementation of the plan. Incentives or regulatory mechanisms to support implementation of the structure plans may need to be considered prior to structure planning commencing.

2. Community and stakeholder consultation

Consultation with key stakeholders and the community affected is an important component of the structure plan development process. The number and type of stakeholders identified and consulted with for a structure plan will depend on the scale and characteristics of the area and the issues to be managed. When it comes to generating, evaluating and refining the design of the structure plan, consultation could be iterative. Note that consulting with tangata whenua is a particularly important consideration in the structure plan process as outlined in more detail in section 3 – Engagement with Tangata Whenua.

To assist with consultation, it is good practice to develop an overall consultation plan for all groups including key stakeholders, tangata whenua and the wider community. This helps to identify all stakeholder and ensure that consultation and communications are managed in an integrated and co-ordinated way. This can also help to provide certainty to stakeholders about the opportunities to input into the structure plan process and the how the various consultation processes will be integrated into the final output. It is important that the communication or consultation plan recognises the potential for land ownership to change during the course of the structure planning exercise and any subsequent RMA plan changes.

Commencing consultation early in the process is important, and can help with:

  • obtaining stakeholder buy-in to the process;
  • gauging community and stakeholder levels of acceptance to broad concepts (such as the overall level of development) being proposed;
  • fulfilling statutory duties under the RMA, LGA and Land Transport Management Act;
  • incorporating and working through stakeholder concerns and aspirations while there is flexibility in the process to do so;
  • identifying constraints and opportunities.

Remember to consult with both external and internal stakeholders. This may include:

  • stormwater, wastewater and roading engineer
  • parks and reserves staff
  • community facilities managers
  • those who will be responsible for budgeting and finance in the planning and implementation phases of the structure plan
  • property developers;
  • landowners and occupiers of the area affected by the structure plan;
  • landowners adjoining the area being structure planned
  • those working the area affected by the structure plan
  • the New Zealand Transport Agency
  • public agencies responsible for social/community infrastructure (Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health and other health service providers etc.)
  • infrastructure providers and any other requiring authorities
  • cross-boundary stakeholders (eg, other councils, Department of Conservation)
  • community groups with an interest in the area affected.

Network utility providers operate under legislative requirements and constraints which will differ from those of councils or developers. Early consultation regarding network utilities is important because the ability and timing of infrastructure provision can be critical in determining options for how the structure-planned area is to be managed and development staged.

During the course of consultation, it is important to be clear about the objectives and outcomes at all stages so that all stakeholders and the community have a clear understanding of this. During consultation, it is also important to reiterate that not all points of views and preferences may be able to be satisfied and these can differ between different groups. Appointing internal council leaders in the form of senior councillors and management team representatives and engaging community leaders who endorse the process can assist with achieving buy-in to the structure plan process.

The utilisation of existing forums and means of communication can assist with the consultation process with the wider community. Open days, public workshops, focus groups and other interactive forms of consultation allow for open, detailed and interactive discussion consistent with recognised principles of good consultation. Facilitation of consultation exercises can also be a good approach to encourage open discussions and help to increase community buy-in. Once consultation has been undertaken, issues to be resolved, opportunities, and information gaps that need to filled to progress issues further should be identified and documented. Potential solutions to address these issues can then be developed and discussed further with those consulted earlier to ensure these solutions will be effective and supported.

The rigour and formality of the consultation exercise will be influenced by whether the structure plan is to be implemented through non-statutory or statutory means. A well-defined consultation process similar to Schedule 1 of the RMA and section 82 of the LGA should be followed even for a non-statutory structure plan, so that the plan can be given some weight in any subsequent RMA consent processes. This may require structured submission and hearing processes for a draft structure plan, prior to its adoption.

3. Engagement with Tangata Whenua

Engagement of tangata whenua in the preparation of structure plans provides a significant opportunity for the recognition and provision of the relationship of Māori with their ancestral land, water, sites, wāhi tapu and other taonga, in the development of regions, cities and towns. It may also enable kaitiakitanga by tangata whenua.

As with all RMA planning processes, the identification of tangata whenua interests and provision for their involvement is an important consideration in structure planning. The recognition of, and provision for Māori values in structure planning may take many forms. This could include the identification and appropriate protection of places and areas
of significance to tangata whenua. These areas may include (but are not limited to) historic reserves, wāhi tapu, wāhi tūpuna, mahinga kai, urupā, forests, mountains and rivers. The development of specific policy, guidance, conditions and/or management mechanisms for these areas can help ensure that these resources are either protected, and/or enhanced through future development. Such provisions can also help ensure that any impact particular values have on future development of land are taken into account in infrastructure planning and funding. Tangata whenua may also seek ways to facilitate the development of Māori land and other resources.

The Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014 contains specific provisions to recognise Māori heritage, including wāhi tapu, wāhi tūpuna and wāhi tapu areas. The structure planning process needs to ensure these provisions are complied with. Further, as all pre-1900 archaeological sites, such as those associated with pā, kāinga and urupā, are regulated under the Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Act 2014, it will be important that these are identified early in the structure planning process.

Recognition of traditional place names, historic events and customary use of resources and areas associated with the land involved in a structure plan will also be important. Again, these matters could potentially be addressed through the development of appropriate management mechanisms, or through the naming of streets, sites, facilities, and other open space where appropriate and supported. Consideration for creative expression of traditional landscape associations through the design is also important.

In the early stages of the structure plan process, dialogue is required with tangata whenua about the type and form of tangata whenua involvement which may be most appropriate. Dialogue will involve identifying key interests and issues (potentially both negative and positive) and can often be facilitated by the organisation and running of hui (meetings). Initial meetings are important and will normally involve the provision of background information, what is proposed, and the form that the future process is planned to take. Being prepared to carry out particular protocols, resourcing the meeting adequately and being open to make changes to processes is important, particularly where existing agreements about process are not in place.

Depending on the nature of the structure plan, tangata whenua involvement could include:

  • representation on a steering group or part of the leadership team that will guide the structure plan process;
  • preparation of an iwi management plan, cultural impact assessment or other reports and analysis documents;
  • examining ways to facilitate Māori development opportunities, including development of Māori land;
  • projects involving the identification of places and areas of significance; and
  • being consulted, receiving regular updates or being kept informed.

Note that some of these forms of consultation and engagement may also be appropriate for other stakeholder groups.

Because structure plans have a long duration from initial inception through investigation, policy formulation and implementation, there is value in formulating a specific agreement or joint work programme with tangata whenua that describes how engagement throughout the process will be managed. Drawing up a Memorandum of Understanding or relationship agreement may be useful as a record of key personnel, resourcing, expectations and known timeframes. They can also provide for reviews and/or evaluation processes to ensure that relevant matters and issues are known and are able to be resolved for all those involved.

Often the ability for tangata whenua to participate in structure planning processes will depend on adequate time, resources and information. Options should be explored to assist tangata whenua to participate in structure planning processes. This may involve visits to meet with tangata whenua representatives directly (e.g. on local marae), provision of funding and resources to attend meetings and provide input into the structure planning process, and support for iwi management plans and cultural impact statements.

Further information and guidance on consultation with tangata whenua can be found in the consultation with tangata whenua guidance note. Guidance on key cultural principles and issues that are relevant to structure planning can be found within the Te Aranga Cultural Landscapes Strategy, developed by Ngā Aho – the national network of Māori design and planning professionals, and the Auckland Design Manual.

4. Research and information analysis

The research and analysis phase is a core component of the structure plan process. This research and analysis should build on the work carried out in the scoping phase and may run parallel to consultation, with each helping inform the other. Research and analysis should therefore be ongoing and detailed information obtained during this phase can be used to refine the final design.

Research and analysis should include a review of all available relevant existing information on the area being structure planned. Further research and investigation may need to be undertaken where critical information gaps are identified. Depending on the issues identified, the outcomes desired and the information already available, research and investigation may need to be carried out into:

  • Existing and desired urban form: for example, the site may be within or adjacent to an urban area with an inherent set of features and links in a pattern that is to be continued. There may also be a desire to investigate how best to incorporate quality urban design principles from the New Zealand Urban Design Protocol into the area being structure planned.
  • Population growth, market viability and development pressures: these can be developed based on existing information and be used to project future population growth and the likely development demand tothen map required development densities.
  • Natural resources and environmental constraints: e.g. catchment characteristics (both upstream and downstream of the area to be structure planned), biodiversity, vegetation coverage and habitat importance, the sensitivity of receiving fresh or coastal waters, and proximity to and characteristics of the coastal environment.
  • Open space and recreational opportunities: e.g. areas of existing open space and its current use to then identify to opportunities to enhance this with new development, existing recreational activities within the structure plan area.
  • Landscape and visual amenity: particularly identification and management of significant natural areas or areas with high scenic value.
  • Natural hazards and land suitability: e.g. slope, geotechnical limitations, susceptibility to flooding and inundation, erosion, liquefaction, tsunami, the location of active earthquake faults or (where applicable) geothermal hazards.
  • Māori culture and heritage: e.g. sites, places and values of importance to tangata whenua; sites, places and values of heritage value and historical importance to the general community.
  • Infrastructure (roading and transport, stormwater management, energy supply, telecommunications, roading and transport): e.g. the existing capacity and availability of infrastructure, and the investment needed to service the area being structure planned to the level of development anticipated, and how the effects of the installation and operation of the infrastructure could be managed.

A key part of the research phase will be the examination of the existing patterns of development both within and adjoining the subject area. This will help indicate the potential for change, key linkages and connections (for transport and infrastructure), any sensitive or high value natural areas, and the urban design quality of existing development. This analysis could take the form of an urban design analysis with expert input.

Information obtained from the research and analysis phase will often have a geographical element that can be mapped or represented graphically in some way. Maps and plans are useful tools for looking at constraints and opportunities in an integrated way (through such techniques as overlays, sieve-mapping or GIS mapping), and for communicating with interested parties.

5. Urban design

Structure plans can play an important part in achieving good urban design and promoting quality outcomes. As a starting point for promoting good urban design the New Zealand Urban Design Protocol identifies seven essential design qualities that can also act as guiding considerations in the structure planning process. These are referred to as the seven Cs: Context, Character, Choice, Connections, Creativity, Custodianship and Collaboration.

In relation to structure plans:

  • Context: the area being structure planned, and the features in it, need to be seen to be part of, and relate to, the surrounding environment, town or city.
  • Character: the form and style of development that a structure plan promotes should reflect and enhance the distinctive character and culture of the environment. However, this does not mean preserving a particular character as character is dynamic and evolving, not static.
  • Choice: structure plans should foster diversity and offer people choice of densities, development types, transport options, and land use activities.
  • Connections: structure plans need to take into account all networks and how they connect streets, railways, walking and cycling routes, services, infrastructure, and communication. Structure plans need to provide for connections to existing transport networks and provide for different transport modes to operate in an integrated manner. Good connections enhance choice, support social cohesion, make places lively and safe, and facilitate contact among people.
  • Creativity: structure plans may need to incorporate innovative and creative solutions to address problems or provide for quality outcomes, and also allow for creativity to take place in the area being planned. Creativity adds richness and diversity, and turns a functional place into a memorable place. Creativity facilitates new ways of thinking, and willingness to think through problems afresh, to experiment and rewrite rules, to harness new technology, and to visualise new futures.
  • Custodianship: in regard to structure planning and urban design, custodianship recognises the lifetime costs of buildings and infrastructure, and aims to hand on places to the next generation in as good or better condition.
  • Collaboration: structure planning requires good communication and co-ordinated actions from all decision-makers: central government, local government, professionals, transport operators, developers and users. Strong leadership, clear responsibilities and regular communication are important to maintain continuity and direction throughout what can be a long structure planning process. Urban designers can offer broad and general knowledge across a range of specialist disciplines and can act as an effective interface with the community (e.g. design charrettes) to ensure a holistic approach is taken and creative solutions reached.

These design qualities should also flow through into the contents of a structure plan. Checklist(s) within a structure plan document or to be used when developing the plan are helpful to ensure relevant qualities have been considered.

6. Generation and evaluation of alternatives

The generation of alternatives for the structure planning process can be done with or without direct community input. However, a collaborative approach involving key stakeholders, tangata whenua and the wider community (for example workshops or charrettes) to identify and evaluate alternatives is more likely to result in community buy-in and confidence in the final outcome.

The alternatives need not be developed to a highly detailed level, and could take the form of concept drawings or sketches (and an accompanying statement or explanation) until such time as they are either discarded or selected for further work or refinement.

The development of alternatives should be guided by:

  • consistency with the overall objectives and outcomes set for the structure plan area in the scoping phase
  • stakeholder goals, concerns and aspirations identified during consultation
  • the ability to overcome constraints identified through consultation and research phases
  • any relevant statutory duties, particularly those under the RMA or LGA.

Evaluation of the alternative to be used as the basis for the final structure plan should be guided by the goals and priorities set by the council, the community, or the developer (if the structure plan is being developed as part of a private proposal). Criteria could include how well each alternative meets the objectives of the structure plans, if it achieves stakeholder goals, the degree to which adverse environmental effects are avoided, and which alternative is the most cost-effective. Preferred alternatives also need to be tested thoroughly for viability in the market and also in terms of the overall cost, especially for the provision of key infrastructure such as roading and wastewater. The outcomes sought should not be unrealistic, but based on what is likely to be achieved.

The evaluation process could be carried out in the form of a table whereby each alternative (in table rows) is measured against the criteria (in columns) and given a score, matrix-style. Clear guidelines need to be set for allocating scoring for each criterion. Not all evaluation criteria will be of equal significance. For example, environmental considerations may be more important in a particular structure plan area than developer aspirations for residential development. The importance of stakeholder views may also vary depending on their relationship with the area and the degree to which they may be affected. In these situations, a weighting system may be employed to denote differing levels of importance. When a weighting system is used, the un-weighted evaluation should be clear so that the effects of any weighting applied in the selection/evaluation process can be identified. An example of a completed matrix assessment from the Wanaka Structure Plan, with the un-weighted evaluation shown within brackets, is presented below:



Stakeholder Goal 1


Stakeholder Goal 2


Ability to avoid environmental


Cost Effectiveness


Retention of
heritage and character


Overall Alternative Score


Importance Weighting







Alternative One


(2 X the weighting   score)


(3 X the weighting   score)


(1 X the weighting   score)


(1 X the weighting   score)


(2 X the weighting   score)


Alternative Two


(4 X the weighting   score)


(2 X the weighting score)


(3 X the weighting   score)


(3 X the weighting   score)


(1 X the weighting   score)


Alternative Three


(1 X the weighting   score)


(4 X the weighting   score)


(1 X the weighting   score)


(4 X the weighting   score)


(1 X the weighting   score)


Table 1. Wanaka Structure Plan – matrix assessment

7. Finalising the structure plan

Case law identifies that the implementation of a structure plan can have a greater weight in subsequent RMA consent processes and be more effectively implemented if a formal consultation and adoption process is followed. This could be integrated with consultation processes under the LGA for the LTP or annual plan which may be beneficial to provide efficiencies and alignment given the direct relationship between these plans, especially in relation to infrastructure provision.  

If this approach is used, the draft structure plan would typically be put through a final consultation period, including public displays and awareness raising initiatives, with opportunities to submit on the structure plan for a defined period. Submissions could then be summarised and reported on, in advance of a council hearing which enables submitters to be heard. Council decisions on submissions would then form the basis of the final structure planning document, prior to its adoption by the council.

Document format and production is an important consideration at this stage. The finalised document should follow a logical and easy to read format, and incorporate figures and plans which graphically indicate the desired outcomes and aid the plan’s interpretation.

8. Documentation of structure plan process

Documentation of structure planning processes is important so as to:

  • assist councils to fulfil duties under the RMA (such as a section 32 evaluation), the LGA, or both (for further guidance see A Guide to Section 32 or the Resource Management Act (1991)
  • serve as a record or source of information if part of the process needs to be revisited or checked or the plan is formally reviewed
  • record processes, studies and the outcome of consultation, which can provide useful background material for subsequent plan changes or resource consent applications (especially if the structure planning was undertaken as part of a private proposal which subsequently required consent or a private plan change application to be made)
  • justify public investments in infrastructure, particularly where there is significant investment concerned, as LGA decisions require additional and more thorough evaluations of social, economic and cultural dimensions (see section 76 and Schedule 10 of the LGA)
  • identify the expected environmental effects of future development and how this will be managed to provide a basis to future monitoring and migration measures
  • defending challenges, such as appeals to the Environment Court or judicial review in the High Court.

Documentation of the development of a structure plan does not need to be included in the structure plan itself although a summary can be helpful, especially when the provisions from the structure plan are to be integrated into a district or regional plan.

9. Post-structure plan process

9.1 Implementation

A structure plan may be implemented through regulatory and non-regulatory methods, or both.

Non-regulatory approaches offer greater flexibility and adaptability to changing needs. However, a regulatory approach may be favoured when greater certainty or stability is required (e.g. due to growth pressures, changing market conditions, fragmented land ownership, or risk that voluntary agreements may be ignored).

In implementing the structure plan, an array of tasks may need to be completed, including:

  • preparing and finalising the plans, maps and accompanying text, taking into account the means by which the plan is to be implemented
  • the final costing calculations (for infrastructure provision for example) and associated financial or development contribution calculations (if applicable);
  • preparation of a plan change and associated section 32 evaluation (if the structure plan is to be implemented through a RMA plan).

If the structure plan requires changes to be made to a RMA plan, the normal plan change process will need to be followed. For further guidance on the RMA Schedule 1 process, see the Plan Development - The Steps guidance notes.

How provisions are inserted into a RMA will depend on the structure of the existing plan. Typically provisions will either be integrated into the existing plan chapters, or contained in a separate chapter and cross referenced to other relevant provisions. It is important that the drafted provisions are clear in their intent, minimise ambiguity, and are in the same general style and format as the rest of the plan.

The completion of the structure plan and its implementation can take several years. It is therefore important to manage the timeframe expectations of stakeholders during the entire course of the process.

Remember to brief everyone who will be involved in the implementation of the structure plan, or who may be asked questions about it. For councils, this should include resource consent processing staff, policy planners, front counter and call centre customer service staff, and staff who manage infrastructure provision or asset management.

If the structure plan covers a large area which will be taken up over a lengthy time period, consider provisions that stage the development to minimise adverse effects and promote co-ordination, efficiency and continuity of service provision and utilisation (e.g. staged release of land, programming of infrastructure, larger minimum lot sizes and / or lower density controls for later stages in the interim, advanced land purchase, etc.).

Other processes and procedures that may need to be considered as part of the implementation of the structure plan include:

  • RMA designation processes for new council or other public agency infrastructure works or facilities. Where a structure plan is to be incorporated into the district plan efficiencies can be achieved by including new designation requirements in the plan change (in accordance with Clause 4 of Schedule 1)
  • Reserves Act 1977 processes (for new recreation or scenic reserves, for example);
  • covenanting of features to be protected – e.g. under the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust Act 1977, or Conservation Act 1987
  • obtaining integrated catchment consents for stormwater management and discharges to provide for development to take place up to a predicted level with appropriate standards incorporated into any relevant RMA plan
  • consultation under the LGA (where no other consultation has already been provided for
  • the production of new, or changes to existing design guidelines or engineering codes of practice necessary to achieve the desired quality of the development. Such documents also may be incorporated into the RMA plan.
  • inclusion of aspects into Annual Plans or the Long Term Plan (LTP) under the LGA for council funded projects.

9.2. Monitoring and Review

As with all plans, monitoring and review of structure plans is essential.

Structure plans should be reviewed for ongoing effectiveness when relevant RMA plans and long term plans are reviewed. Provision should be made for resourcing to undertake updates and reviews on a regular cycle, likely to be between 4 to 10 years. Reviews should monitor the staging of development and the timeframes for monitoring may be influenced by projected growth rates and/or the actual rate of uptake of development.

Review of the infrastructural detail of structure plans is more likely to occur on a shorter cycle as technological changes and other opportunities arise. Annual workshops with developers within structure plan areas to ensure there is ongoing understanding of the key issues of implementation should be undertaken ahead of any annual plan process (for example, refer to the Tauriko Business Estate / Pye’s Pa West case study). On-going facilitation with other key stakeholders should also occur to help ensure ongoing buy-in to the structure plan and coordinated implementation.

Consideration should also be given to the impact of any new policy at national and regional level which may impact on standards assumed for structure plan development. For example, new information on climatic events may lead to the need for the redesign of stormwater systems.