The governments new housing minister, Nick Smith has hit headlines this morning saying that he is going to smash Auckland’s Metropolitan Urban Limit (MUL) in a bid to make housing more affordable. But the more you look into his statements, the more it appears that he has arrived at his position purely based on ideology rather than facts.
New Housing Minister Nick Smith is vowing to break the “stranglehold” of Auckland Council’s policy of containing urban sprawl – a policy he says is “killing the dreams of Aucklanders” by driving up house prices.
In his first major interview on how he plans to tackle the housing affordability issue handed to him in January’s Cabinet reshuffle, he said his focus would be on opening up land supply because land prices were the biggest factor putting home ownership out of reach of many Aucklanders.
“There’s no question in my mind that we have to break through the stranglehold that the existing legal metropolitan urban limit has on land supply,” he said.
But Auckland Mayor Len Brown hit back last night, saying Dr Smith was advocating a flawed Los Angeles model of “suburban sprawl and unbridled land availability”.
“I’m pretty disappointed in the minister’s positioning, and I am disappointed because it reflects a philosophy or view of city development, and particularly development of our city, that goes back to the forties and fifties,” he said.
Nick is using some fairly emotive language here and what’s more, it seems to ignore the work that has been going on about this issue. For starters by being so focused on only one aspect of the issue, land supply, he seems to be ignoring all of the other factors that go into the price of housing. He also seems to ignore another key factor in mix, demand. The reality is that Auckland’s population is growing, and growing faster than the rest of the country combined, more people flooding into the city is always going to put more pressure on house prices.
And on that subject, these days more and more people are wanting to live in the suburbs closer to the city, the very places where we can’t create more land, not flung out to the outskirts of town. This is especially the case for young people who don’t share the utopian vision of the house in the suburbs that our parents, or even grandparents were sold on in the post war years. The article continues:
“When we are looking at growth in Auckland of 2 per cent a year, we are going to need sections at the rate of 12,000 a year,” he said. “The metropolitan urban limit is a stranglehold on land that is killing the dreams of Aucklanders wanting to own their home and we have to work with the council to find the tools to increase that land supply and bring section prices back.”
He said the council’s plan to contain 60 to 70 per cent of new housing within the current built-up area would fail due to “community angst over intensification” and economic reality that squeezing two houses on to one existing quarter-acre section could knock $200,000 off the value of the existing house.
First of all, we don’t need 12,000 sections a year, we need need 12,000 dwellings, the two are not the same thing. He is also kidding himself if he thinks that we are building quarter acre sections. In fact it would be interesting to find out when the last subdivision was built that contained quarter acre sections. A quarter acre is ~1000 sq meters yet most recent housing developments tend to have sections less than half that size. In fact many of the houses going in at Hobsonville are on sections of less than 300 sq meters. So If you look at the current development patterns, we have already moved away from the quarter acre paradise that people claim when opposing intensification. Speaking of which, any GIS wizards out there able to work out just what the average section size is in Auckland?
Further his comments about infill housing miss some key details. Yes the value of the existing section will drop but overall both pieces of land will have a higher value. Also he seems to be suggesting that someone who owns a quarter acre of land isn’t capable of making a decision on whether they want to subdivide their land and along with the trade off’s that entails. After all no one is proposing that the council is going to go in and force people to split their land up. I also don’t agree with the suggestion that there will be a lot of community angst, yes there will be some in specific cases but by in large, most of the intensification that will occur over the next 30 years will be medium density developments, that is town houses, terraced houses and low rise apartments.
But Mr Brown said Aucklanders had already agreed on the city’s “compact footprint” through developing the first Auckland Plan, and Dr Smith should stop debating it.
He said the plan was based on “a model that is developing truly internationally competitive cities with strong economic bases to them and that give rise to outstanding transport operations within a more compact framework”.
“Have a look at Melbourne,” he said. “Have a look at Hong Kong. Have a look at London. All of those cities, by and large, are operating off what is regarded as best practice.”
As Len says in this bit, there has already been plenty of debate around housing and by in large, I think that most of the community do agree that Auckland should get denser. When I attended a discussion group about the Unitary Plan late last year, I was quite surprised by the discussion around this topic and how much everyone, of all ages and backgrounds agreed with the direction we are heading. This leads me to believe that the majority of those complaining about increased density are very much a vocal minority.
I do have to disagree with Len’s example cities though, Melbourne is more sprawling, with a lower population density than we have. Hong Kong is the complete opposite and not exactly the example we are planning to follow either. What we need is somewhere in between. I also think we need to be talking more about the advantages of having higher densities in Auckland, particularly the additional amenities that it enables, like having more local shops, cafes, dairies or better parks etc.
Both Nick Smith a Len Brown were also on Radio New Zealand this morning talking about this topic.
or Listen here.
Nick brings up another issue that needs to be addressed. The Unitary Plan which gets released for discussion next week proposes to remove the MUL and open up more land. Yet recent announcements from the government will likely prevent those changes from coming into effect for a number of years. Something also picked up by reporter Todd Niall in this report:
Or listen here.
Overall it seems to me that that Nick Smith has come into this debate with a massive agenda focused solely on removing the urban limit rather than looking at the whole picture. He appears to be planning on using his powers of government to get enact his ideological agenda. As Steve C said this morning “it’s interesting how the democratic process imposed on local government, i.e. consult, consult, consult, differs from the deomocratic process for central government, i.e. we’re elected and we’ll do what we want”