27 Jul 2016

Govt cautiously positive on Auckland Unitary Plan

10:47 pm on 27 July 2016

Auckland Council will be given "clear air" to make a decision on the new version of the Auckland Unitary Plan, Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith says.

Nick Smith addresses media following the Auckland Council's announcement to extend high-density housing in the city.

Housing Minister Nick Smith speaks to reporters after the release of the revised version of the Auckland Unitary Plan. Photo: RNZ / Belinda McCammon

Dr Smith said the new version of the plan released today was encouraging, and appeared to meet many of the housing objectives for Auckland.

But he would not be drawn on the details, which he said would take time for both ministers and government agencies to understand in full detail.

Read the new version of the plan for Auckland's development in full here.

"By nature this is a very complex document, and while I've spent this morning with officials working through the thousands of pages of documentation, it is early days and both myself, other ministers and government agencies will need time to comprehend the full detail," he said.

The government had confidence that Auckland mayor Len Brown and the council understood how important the new plan was to Auckland's future, and would be giving the council clear air to make a considered decision, he said.

Mr Smith said yesterday the plan could be the key to changing the bad planning and regulations that were to blame for Auckland's housing problem.

The document released today was rewritten by a government-appointed independent hearings panel, which heard thousands of submissions.

It provides for 422,000 new dwellings over the next 24 years, to be achieved by shrinking some of the areas currently zoned for single homes.

At the same time, it has recommended nearly 60 percent of Auckland be zoned for higher density housing, which is two or three storeys high.

Partial protection of neighbourhoods with homes built before 1944 has been removed, as have requirements for a proportion of new development to be affordable.

The Auckland Council described the level of density in the panel's recommendations as higher than the council had proposed, but lower than that sought in submissions by Housing New Zealand.

The panel's recommendation to zone immediately for all of the 422,000 additional dwellings needed over the coming 24 years followed research into the "real world" likelihood of different zonings actually leading to homes being built.

The capacity in the panel's recommendations is almost double the 213,000 dwellings likely to have been built in the original version of the plan drawn up by the council in 2013.

Other politicians weigh in

Prime Minister John Key said the released recommendations looked reasonable.

He told media in Christchurch he did not want to comment in too much depth at this stage, as he wanted to give the council the opportunity to make it work.

However, the Labour Party was not happy about the panel removing the requirement for developments of more than 15 dwellings to contain 10 percent affordable houses.

Party leader Andrew Little said it only made it harder for first home-buyers.

"The day they get to own their first home is just going to get put further off. And in fact they may never ever get there.

"I think what people need to see is a commitment to more affordable housing, that's what Labour's committed too. I just thought the Unitary Plan was an opportunity for the independent hearing panel and Auckland city councillors to commit to the same thing," Mr Little said.

The panel had done the bare minimum to help Auckland deliver the number of houses it needed, he said.

The Green Party said it was broadly supportive of the unitary plan's recommendations, but party co-leader Metiria Turei said there were some concerns, especially around protection for significant Māori sites.

"The plan advocates the removal of a list of cultural sites currently and as I understand it, removal of the principals of the Treaty of Waitangi," she said.

"I want to take more advice from the iwi and hapū up there about that, but it is critical that Auckland City identifies and protects those sites.

"The Unitary Plan isn't a silver bullet. Auckland's success will hinge on the government stepping up and doing its bit by modernising building standards, investing in public transport, stopping property speculators, and building more houses," Ms Turei said.

Auckland mayoral candidates Phil Goff, Mark Thomas and Vic Crone at their first debate, a business breakfast.

Mayoral candidates Phil Goff, Mark Thomas and Vic Crone unsurprisingly had differing views on the new version of the plan. Photo: RNZ / Todd Niall

Auckland's mayoral candidates' view

Mayoral candidate Phil Goff said that while the new proposal might come as a shock to some Aucklanders, it was what the city needed.

"The city has to go both up and out. I think what it's provided for, with 422,000 new dwellings, is to make sure that the supply land and therefore the houses that can be built will at least match and hopefully exceed demand.

"And what it really has to do is try to ensure that by matching demand and supply we can stop the crazy spiralling upwards of property prices."

Mr Goff said dealing with Auckland's growth had to be balanced against those characteristics that made Auckland unique.

One of his opponents, Mark Thomas, said the revised Unitary Plan was taking too hard a line.

"I think the plan will disappoint many Aucklanders who were looking for a balanced plan for growth. We know we need more housing, but there were other aspects to the development of Auckland that needed to be reflected - character protection and also rural living."

He said the council itself had caused many of the problems.

"We haven't spent enough money on the transport and other infrastructure, and we're too slow at processing consents."

Victoria Crone said the panel had done a good job at balancing the range of complex issues that needed to be addressed in a city growth plan.

"It gives us a starting point and a view of how we can develop, I think we do need to take the time to actually understand where the intensification is happening."

There was more detail in the plan to be digested before its full implications could be understood, she said.

"I think they have done a good job of balancing the incredibly complex demands over a 30-year period in one document."

Concern for infrastructure, heritage, homeowners

Jeremy Treadwell from the University of Auckland's school of architecture and planning told The Panel with Jim Mora that although the upward growth was positive, the plan's timing was not.

"They've got the fear of central government hanging over them to make a decision, and my goodness me could the timing be worse with elections coming up in October," he said.

"You've got all these councillors who are going to be desperate to protect their own patch and look after the people that come to them every day complaining about having a high-rise building coming up next door to them, but then there's that fear that if they don't do enough central government is going to come and take those powers from them."

He said the idea of the Auckland supercity had been to bring in cohesion, so planning and infrastructure around the city's growth could all happen together.

"But the danger that we've got at the moment is when these investors go in and they get this plot of land and they put the high-rise apartment in an area that might not have sufficient schooling in that area, or even just little things like where are the rubbish bins going to go, or off-street parking."

The following two images show extra housing capacity, as enabled by the 2013 version, compared to the new recommendations released today:

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Photo: Supplied

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Photo: Supplied

Panmure Residents Association president Keith Sharpe, meanwhile, said he was absolutely shocked and disappointed.

"People who have their homes, have their life savings invested in their homes, are now going to feel incredibly uncertain about what the future holds.

"There's this assumption that the baby boomers are sitting pretty and anyone with a house must have some kind of property portfolio behind it.

"I really do feel sorry for people that are struggling to get into the market because I think the prices that are spreading throughout New Zealand are outrageous, they're getting ridiculous.

"I've seen the value of my own property increase dramatically over the past few years way beyond what I regard to be its true value, but I do not believe people who own their own home are to blame for this."

He said he thought land banking and high turnover in properties was what was locking young people out of the market.

Sally Hughes of the Character Coalition, which represents "heritage, historical and special interest groups and residents' associations" and was a strong opponent of the earlier model of the plan, said the new version was worse than the original.

"Oh, we're very disappointed. This plan we hoped would deliver a good combination of intensification and protection of heritage but I'm afraid it's all gone one way.

She said the removal of the pre-1944 overlay, combined with massive upzoning of most of Auckland, meant heritage and character "no longer have any protection really".

"None of the members of the Character Coalition are against intensification, everybody knows Auckland has to grow - but we don't believe it's an either/or, we don't believe that you have to sacrifice heritage and character in order to get good intensification.

"We just wanted communities to have a bit of a say in where the intensification went. We didn't want it to be left to the market - which is what this plan now allows."

'It's an everything recommendation - it's up and out'

Public transport advocate Patrick Kelly, who gave the plan a score of 7.5 out of 10, said the panel had taken a realistic approach.

Mr Kelly, from Transport Blog, said the plan had focused on a realistic supply of houses with regulations allowing them to be in places where there could be a market response.

He said that was more important than the sensibilities of some already well-housed people.

"There's a thousand hectares of currently rural land in our future urban zone, so I wouldn't say it's just an 'up' recommendation at all," he said.

"It's an everything recommendation - it's up and out."

Although there were disappointments in the plan from a public transport perspective, it was moving towards what he would like to see, Mr Kelly said.

The Salvation Army also strongly backed the plan's main recommendations, saying it must be supported so low-income Aucklanders could live in better housing.

A spokesperson said the plan gave those struggling in the current market a chance of attaining homes.

However, the organisation warned against self-interest, saying Auckland needed an approach that considered the whole city and all citizens regardless of income.

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