Over the next week we’re going to try and focus a lot on the Unitary Plan – as the May 31st deadline for closing of submissions looms closer and closer. Given that the NZ Herald seems to have gone off the deep end in its complete misunderstanding of the planning system, while the Council doesn’t seem particularly effective at getting the message across, perhaps this focus can be constructive in looking at what’s worth supporting in the Unitary Plan and what should be amended to make the plan better. This posts picks up on a number of key points that we plan on making in our submission on the Unitary Plan: points that might be worth reiterating in your submission.
It is important to start by repeating that there are many good reasons to support the intent of the Draft Unitary Plan- the core purpose of it. In many ways the Unitary Plan will make perhaps the most important contribution to the Auckland Plan’s vision of making Auckland the world’s most liveable city – in the way it seeks to manage the tricky balance between making development easier (to ease affordability problems) but at the same time ensuring that development is good quality, in the right places and supported by necessary infrastructure. Critically, the Unitary Plan has taken the opportunity to not only bring together existing District and Regional Plans around Auckland, but also at the same time provide for a transformational shift in the future shape of Auckland in a way that supports the development strategy of the Auckland Plan. This bold approach is to be encouraged and must be maintained.
Key parts of the Unitary Plan we support include:
- Provision for ‘upzoning’ of land in a number of strategically important locations around Auckland. In particular, there appears to be good alignment between the zoning structure of the Unitary Plan and Auckland’s existing and future public transport network.
- The Unitary Plan includes robust assessment criteria to ensure that intensification is of a good quality. In particular the criteria relating to ensuring carparking does not dominate the streetscape are utterly essential in creating quality centres.
- The removal of minimum parking requirements in a number of zones gives effect to Directive 10.6 of the Auckland Plan and reflects growing international evidence that minimum parking requirements are perhaps the most critical planning rule that shapes urban form and transport outcomes.
- The removal of density controls in the Terraced Housing and Apartment Building zone, and the Mixed Use zone. Density controls undermine the ability to provide affordable housing by encouraging very large houses so developers can maximise their profit. Density often also has little to do with environmental outcomes as a single very large house can have greater effects than two or three much smaller houses.
Of course there are also a number of parts of the Unitary Plan that need improving. We’ll try to look at a number of these in detail over the next week but generally they are:
- In some locations it appears as though obvious opportunities for enabling intensification have been missed or the zoning is just illogical. We’ll try to pull together a reasonably comprehensive list of these but it’s worth scanning through the zoning maps to see whether anything “sticks out”. There’s a weird block of light industrial zoned land in the middle of Grafton, which seemingly obviously should be Mixed Use, for example.
- The urban land supply section of the Plan’s Regional Policy Statement needs to give clearer guidance in ensuring greenfield land is planned for appropriately and only released if absolutely required. There should also not be any ability to extend the rural urban boundary. While this might be overridden by the Auckland Housing Accord in the short term, in the longer term there’s likely to be a big risk of “hodge podge” sprawl randomly proposed in various parts of the new greenfield areas.
- There should be some variation in the future development potential of Metropolitan Centres based on their particular characteristics rather than blanket rules across all of these key centres.
- There should be the ability for some areas zoned Mixed Use to develop to a greater extent where the effects on surrounding communities would be minor and there is particularly good public transport access. Great North Road between Grey Lynn and town is a great example of this.
- The parking rules should be re-looked at quite extensively, including the removal of minimum parking requirements completely (particularly in the Mixed Housing zone).
- The Mixed Housing zone and Terraced Housing and Apartment Building (THAB) zone appear to be trying to do the job of three zones, with three-level fee-simple terraced housing (a typology with much potential in Auckland) being ‘squeezed out’. A third zone, specifically aimed at providing for that typology, is suggested. We’ll talk about this in more detail in a day or two.
Perhaps the one further thing yesterday’s Herald article highlighted is the need for the Unitary Plan to be clearer about what it does want and what it doesn’t want. It does seem weird that building anything in the THAB zone (which we obviously want to happen) requires the same level of consent as breaching a height limit (which we probably don’t want to happen 95% of the time).
Please add your suggestions for improvements, with reasons why in the comments and we’ll aim to generate a good crowd sourced submission.
The Auckland Plan’s development strategy highlighted 10 metropolitan centres across Auckland: Albany (emerging), Takapuna, Westgate (emerging), Henderson, New Lynn, Newmarket, Sylvia Park (emerging), Botany (emerging), Manukau and Papakura. They’re shown on the Auckland Plan map below:
The Unitary Plan’s job is to give effect to the Auckland Plan, so each centre has effectively become a “zone” – with rules applied to those centres. If we look at New Lynn, for example, we can see that it’s actually just the “core” part of the centre (the pink/purple striped area) which is given that zone – the same thing is repeated across all the metropolitan centres:While in places like New Lynn the 18 storey height limit seems pretty appropriate, and it’s a sensible limit as development of around that height is currently proposed, I think it’s a valid question as to whether this somewhat arbitrary number makes sense across each and every one of the ten metropolitan centres.
For example, in Takapuna and Newmarket 18 levels seems potentially a bit too limiting – both are places where you could have market demand for higher, where in some selected locations higher buildings might be appropriate and are also very well developed centres in terms of the existing amenities available. At the other end of the scale, in places like Papakura, Botany or Westgate, 18 levels seems light-years away from what’s likely to occur in these areas for quite a long time and would be extremely different to what’s in those locations at the moment.
Furthermore, I think it’s also questionable whether the entire centre should have the same height limit. If we look at somewhere like Takapuna, there’s part of the Metropolitan Centre zone which is pretty close to the beach – where it might be desirable to have a lower height limit and avoid the buildings shading the beach in the afternoon sun, but then areas further to the west where higher limits than 18 levels would be appropriate:What seems to potentially be behind a bit of the angst over the Unitary Plan at the moment is a feeling that it’s a little bit too “one size fits all” in its approach – not quite nuanced enough to take into consideration the often subtle variations across different parts of Auckland. Of course there are advantages that come out of a greater level of simplicity and uniformity in terms of making the planning documents easier to understand, plus a more consistent planning framework across Auckland is one of the key drivers behind the Unitary Plan replacing the myriad of old plans.
But overall it does seem that perhaps this drive for simplicity has perhaps gone a bit too far. Takapuna and Newmarket do seem fundamentally different to Botany or Papakura – and perhaps always will be. Similarly, some bits of the Metropolitan Centres seem like they’re likely to be suitable for greater levels of intensity than other parts. A more nuanced approach doesn’t necessarily mean winding back on the proposed zoning of the Unitary Plan – it might well mean greater levels of intensity are possible in places like Newmarket and the western parts of Takapuna, to balance out lower levels elsewhere. Because ultimately I don’t think all Metropolitan Centres are created equal in terms of their suitability for growth, just as not all areas within each centre is equally suitable.
I’m a proud Aucklander.
My job often takes me overseas. I’m actually writing this from Brisbane. And often when I fly back to Auckland I find a small tear forming in the corner of my eye. I’m happy not just because I get to see colleagues, friends, family, and Baby Kuku (see below). I just generally love being home in Auckland.
I also find that every time I get back to Auckland something new is happening. I stumble across new cafes, new stores, new buildings etc. Houses on my street are being renovated and painted and generally tidied up. Even if the city is not perfect, it feels like things are heading in a positive direction. It just feels good.
Recently, however, the NZ Herald has started to run a number of very negative articles about the Unitary Plan (UP). In this recent post Matt outlined a number of ways in which these articles have tended to misrepresent information about the UP in an attempt to create “bad news” stories. This concerns me.
For all its talk of “multi-storey” development, the Herald has not – as far as I know – provided any examples of what 4-6 storey buildings look like overseas. Let me assist. The photo below, for example, shows a 6 storey building (including the attic) in Amsterdam. As Maurice put it “be ye not afraid.”
Now I accept that the UP is not perfect.
But the trade-offs involved are complex. Auckland is growing (nice problem to have), development needs to happen somewhere, less development in one area means more development somewhere else, different development patterns have different implications for infrastructure costs, and so on.
Raising height limits, for example, reduces the need for greenfields sprawl, and vice versa. The UP tries to find a balance between these types of issues.
From what I can tell the Herald is having none of it. This latest article by Bernard Orsman spends a lot of time taking things to a whole new level of uninformed emotive negativity. The views of a local resident and landowner, for example, are paraphrased as follows (emphasis added):
Statements like this provide little comfort … they confirm her worst suspicions that the council is paying lip-service and acting like the Government of Cyprus to steal property rights for a bankrupt agenda.
Even when you ignore the bizarre connection to Cyprus, this comment is simply illogical.
Let’s get this clear: Raising height limits enhances property rights, because it enables landowners to develop their properties more intensively. Repeat after me: “Raising height limits enhances my property rights“. To claim that the UP proposes to “steal” property rights is, in this context, completely illogical.
What’s more frustrating than the comment itself, however, was that the journalist does not subject it to any critical examination. There was no reflection on the tension between the resident’s property rights and the rights of her neighbours, nor how they might be resolved in a manner that was fair and efficient for the city.
Hypocrisy underscores much of the emotional rhetoric. The local residents, for example, felt:
“We are the landowners. We are supposed to have ownership of that land, but we have this group of people who have come to Mt Eden and made sweeping changes …”
At this point I had to laugh. Was the journalist not tempted to point out that all the UP does is enable development rather than require it. So if all the landowners don’t want to develop their land then that’s fine. If some of them do, then they can – up to four storeys. Sweeping? Hardly.
I guess it’s just easier to encourage NIMBYs to squeal like entitled little piggies. Not good enough, in my opinion. But then the article finishes with what struck me as truly awful journalism:
Hate speech is coming to a street near you – if you live in a quiet piece of suburbia, like Poronui St in Mt Eden, and object to your neighbourhood being rezoned for apartments and infill housing. In a sign that the council is losing the battle to persuade middle-class suburban Auckland to adapt to a new way of life, it has appointed 28-year-old councillor Michael Goudie to counter more conservative views.
Not only that, but wise heads like deputy-mayor Penny Hulse are turning a blind eye while Goudie promotes an anonymous blog article, We Hate Nimbys (Not In My Back Yard) that labels a “sea of grey hair” opposing a new planning rulebook “selfish, arrogant, narrow -minded and parochial people” who should “just hurry up and die”.
In one fell swoop the article seems to be implying:
- If you object to the re-zoning proposed in the UP, then you will be subjected to hate speech.
- That the Auckland Council is, first, trying to persuade people to adapt to “new way of life” and, second, that they are losing that battle.
- Councillor Michael Goudie has been appointed by Auckland Council to promote the UP. But Goudie, sanctions hate speech and is tacitly endorsed/supported by Penny Hulse.
Weasel words like this are a red-flag for me, and they are often used by extremists like the Tea Party movement in the U.S. As Michael Higgins notes in this entertaining and impassioned debate with a Tea Party advocate, the general strategy is to ”get a large crowd, whip them up, and try and discover what is their greater fear. Work on that and feed it right back and you get a frenzy” (1:05).
The greatest fear held by some of Auckland’s residents seems to be multi-storey development, and the Herald is now dutifully whipping this fear up into a frenzy.
Now I appreciate that the Herald needs to sell newspapers, and the negativity they push may achieve that end. I also understand readers of the Herald tend to be older and more conservative, which in turn is likely to be reflected in the types of articles that are pursued by Herald’s editors and journalists.
Basically, I understand that the Herald has a commercial prerogative to reflect the views of their readers.
Nonetheless, I think the Herald’s coverage of the Unitary Plan has now crossed some sort of ethical line. Their negative and imbalanced reporting on the UP is certainly not what a responsible newspaper would do, nor is it – I suspect – what decent Aucklanders want.
Most decent Aucklanders would, I think, recognise the UP is too important to be exploited for political or commercial gain. To do so would be akin to crapping in your own backyard – because your actions will, in the long run, harm the community around you (that you rely on for your business).
By not providing more balanced reporting on the Unitary Plan I think the Herald is betraying the future of our city. Emotive words perhaps, but that’s nonetheless how I feel.
At the end of the debate, Higgins suggests his Tea Party opponent should “be proud to be a decent American, rather than be just a wanker whipping up fear” (4:12). I’d like to send a similar message to the Herald.
Be proud to be decent Aucklanders, rather than just wankers whipping up fear.
“Movement and place”: A simple concept that underpins many of the debates on this blog.
For those who have not heard of the “movement and place” concept before, let me briefly re-cap. “Movement” describes how cities need to accommodate flows of people and products. “Place”, on the other hand, describes how cities need to provide locations in which socio-economic activity can thrive.
In my mind, “movement and place” describe extreme ends of a mobility/accessibility spectrum, between which there are many nuanced variations. Train stations, for example, are “places” that facilitate “movement”, as is on-street car-parking. There is of course a need to distinguish between the functions of public and private “places”. Notwithstanding all these nuances, I think “movement and place” is a useful concept because it highlights a key trade-off that emerges within almost every urban transport planning project: How can we enable movement while sustaining place?
Finding an optimal balance is rarely easy. The first reason is that movement and place are often competing for the same physical space. Think of bus lanes on Symonds Street. The second issue is that movement itself tends to generate negative effects, such as noise and air pollution, which undermine the quality of a place. Again, think of Symonds Street.
In this post I wanted to try and provide some historical perspective on “movement and place”. I have been pondering for a while now whether the optimal balance between movement and place is shifting over time and, if so, what the implications of such a shift might be. And when I say “over time” I don’t mean in the last few years. I’m actually talking about experiences of the last hundred years, as examined through the life of my grandmother.
Violet Donovan was born in West Ham, London in 1920 (shown below). Post-WWI Europe was not a particularly happy place, so her family soon migrated from to the U.S. They promptly settled in the booming industrial town of Buffalo. As a child Violet went to sleep listening to the echoes of gun shots resonating across Lake Erie, where the U.S. Navy was engaged in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent bootleggers from spiriting moonshine into the U.S.
They were hard times.
Like many “poor” children my grandmother was sent to summer camp. While there Violet befriended another young girl called Alice. Years later my grandmother discovered that Alice’s father had ended up in jail after he was caught stealing bread to feed his family. She also discovered that at the time social welfare assistance was not extended to the immediate families of criminals and that Alice had died of starvation.
As an adult Violet would later pen this poem about Alice, which was titled “Inside”:
You never met Alice, – I wish you had,
She is a very good friend of mine,
One I have known for a long, long time,
Her skin is black, and mine is white
And yet, I think we look alike
Inside, if you know what I mean.
You never met Alice, – I wish you had,
I called her Lily, – it sounded right,
She called me ‘Tiny’, – I wasn’t quite,
Each read the other like a book
Saw ourselves as we thought we’d look
Inside, if you know what I mean.
You’ll never meet Alice, – that’s too bad,
Alice went away, – she had to go
A ‘Lily’ doesn’t last long, you know
Now, it isn’t that she hides,
But rather that she always bides,
Inside, if you know what I mean.
Eventually the lingering Great Depression caused Violet’s father James – my great grandfather – to lose his job. With limited few opportunities in the U.S., Violet’s family promptly decided to migrate again, this time to New Zealand, where James had landed a job at the Devonport Naval Base. Violet celebrated her 16th birthday on the voyage to New Zealand.
Violet’s family arrived in Wellington after sunset and promptly boarded an overnight train bound for Auckland. Then, upon arriving in Auckland, the entire family finally boarded the ferry to Devonport (like the one shown below) – just as the sun was rising over Rangitoto. Apparently the spring sunlight lit the waters of the Waitemata in sparkling hues of blue that Violet would never forget, even as she grew old.
After the industrial drudgery of Buffalo and London Auckland must have seemed like a verdant oasis. Not that life in Auckland was necessarily easy: Violet would later raise three children on her own, at a time when women were paid approximately half a man’s wage for the same job. At one point she was working three jobs, seven days a week, just to get by. She never had sufficient time or money to learn to drive, let alone buy a vehicle; Violet depended on public transport her entire life.
I suspect that few people today, myself including, can fully comprehend the degree to which my grandmother relied on public transport. For example, as a keen carpenter Violet would transport lengths of timber home from the hardware store by laying them down the aisle of the bus. And when in the 1980s Auckland’s bus services were cut in response to declining demand, the bus stop closest to Violet’s unit was no longer served. She immediately went out and purchased some roller skates, which she used to skate to the bus stop that was now closest to her hours.
Yes that’s correct – at the grand old age of 60 my grandmother invented “roll and ride” (R&R).
Violet so loved Auckland that – once settled here – she rarely left, except perhaps for the occasional day trip to Waiheke or Waiuku to visit her increasingly spoilt and precocious grandchildren.
I think Violet’s life is remarkable not just for what she endured; indeed hardship was not uncommon to the generation born immediately after WWI. The causes of socio-economic troubles were many and varied, such as the global influenza epidemic, the Great Depression, WWII, and finally the Cold War, among a number of other trials and tribulations. Instead I think Violet’s life is remarkable because of the historical perspective it provides on the relative importance of movement and place. The reasons why people really need to be able to move and what they do when they eventually find somewhere that they life.
International travel was a life-raft that enabled Violet’s family to escape first from the U.K. to the U.S. and then again from the U.S. to N.Z. It was the ability to travel that enabled Violet’s family to access a better life in N.Z. While the waves of international migration that dominated our early European history have gradually receded, we are now in the grip of other, more local, migratory trends – such as rural to urban drift. Here the role of push and pull factors, plus transport’s enabling function, seems to be very much the same as it was in Violet’s day. Transport enables people to access opportunities that don’t exist where they currently live.
We now live, however, in a vastly different global environment. From what I can tell much of the world has got its act together. New Zealand, in general, and Auckland, in particular, no longer has the inherent competitive advantages we once had as an affluent safe-haven in a war-ravaged and uncertain world. Global competition for labour is more intense, while the real costs of long-distance travel have declined – making it easy for people to come here, but also making it easier for people to leave – both locals and immigrants – when they don’t find what they are looking for.
I think this post is already long enough so I’m now going to just say what I think, even if I’m the first to admit that the supporting arguments are not fully formed: I think New Zealand’s urban areas need to place a greater emphasis on place. I can understand New Zealand’s historical emphasis on movement, because there were a lot of people moving around. But the benefits of movement seem to be diminishing by the day, whereas the benefits of place, insofar as it provides us with a competitive advantage in the great global competition for skilled talent, seems to be increasing.
New Zealand truly needs, but doesn’t yet have, cities and towns in which people can live, work, and play – all without the need to travel very far. We need to start making places that provide joy and intrigue to our urban areas.
I want to wrap up by listing a few final questions for you good people to chew over:
- As New Zealand’s cities and towns become more settled, would you not expect the relative importance of “place” to increase?
- If so are similar trends emerging in countries overseas? Is there evidence to suggest countries with similar histories, such as Australia, are experiencing a similar shift, i.e. away from movement and towards place?
- If there has been an increased emphasis on place, what are the different ways in which it surfaces ? For example, are we now more willing to pay for quality public spaces?
- Does an increased emphasis on place need to be reflected in our political institutions and governance arrangements? Should we consider:
- Develop a new place-based agency, e.g. the “New Zealand Place-making Agency” (NZPA) to sit within the MfE as a counter-balance to movement-based agencies, such as the MoT and NZTA? Or
- Delegate the place-making function to local councils, albeit empowered with a new mandate to reinvigorate “life between buildings”?
These are the sorts of (complex) questions that arise when one takes a historical perspective on “movement and place”; I’d appreciate your help in answering them!
*** This post is dedicated to the loving memory of Violet Donovan. May your words, cheekiness, and spirit live on. ***
It’d be fair to say that there’s quite a bit of unease around parts of Auckland at the level of change the draft Unitary Plan appears to allow. In particular it seems as though the raising of height limits in town centres seems to terrify people of a certain age (just check out the grey hair at many of these public meetings- how many of these objectors will actually be around to be outraged when anything is actually built?) However, quite a lot of the opposition also seems to result from people just not wanting change in their area – an example is the Devonport article linked to above.
But looking just at what’s in the Unitary Plan only tells half the story in terms of upzoning. The other critical component is to understand what the existing plans provide for and how the Unitary Plan might be different to what’s currently allowed. To get a better understanding of how existing plans provide capacity for growth, the Council undertook what’s called the Capacity for Growth Study, a fairly complex computer modelling process to assess – in quite a bit of detail – the number of additional dwellings that could be accommodated under existing planning rules in the following ways:
- Development of currently vacant land inside the existing urban area
- Infill opportunities (i.e. adding further dwellings while keeping the existing dwellings on the site)
- Redevelopment of residential land (involving the removal of the existing dwelling)
- Residential opportunities on business land (in those zones which allow or encourage residential activity)
- Development opportunities in rural residential areas
- Development of greenfield land
The results report emphasises that the purpose of the project is not to analyse the likelihood of redevelopment occurring, but rather to give us an idea of what development potential exists in different parts of Auckland if sites were to be developed to their potential. The study also assumes that development will comply with the development controls (like height, driveway widths etc.) and only the lowest level of resource consent for an activity is used (i.e. densities that are permitted activities or whatever the easiest consent to get is if nothing is permitted).
The results highlight that a huge amount of development potential exists across Auckland under existing planning controls, in a wide variety of different ways:
The report notes that you can’t simply add these all up to get a final result as some capacity is mutually exclusive from other capacity (i.e. you can either infill or redevelop a site but you can’t get the additional capacity from both), but it’s clear that existing planning documents do contain a pretty large amount of capacity, although not quite the full 400,000 additional dwellings Auckland will need over the next 30 years. Though remember this doesn’t include any of the additional greenfield land or any of the capacity the Unitary Plan potentially allows.
A map of where the additional capacity is located is included below:Looking at this map you can start to see one of the most important tasks of the Unitary Plan is not necessarily to provide a whole lot more capacity, but rather to provide capacity in places where it’s more likely to be taken up and – from a transport perspective – has good access to public transport. For example, there seems to be a huge amount of existing capacity in the former Waitakere City Council area – even though much of that area has relatively poor public transport access. There’s also quite a lot of existing development capacity around Howick, another area with pretty poor transport access.
The extent of this existing capacity is really highlighted when you look at the numbers and break them down by Local Board:
As I said earlier, while much of this potential capacity is unlikely to ever be utilised (for example on Great Barrier Island or the unlikely subdivision of large residential sites with swimming pools in Remuera), I think most people will be fairly surprised to see the extent to which their areas could intensify under the existing planning rules.
While a similar modelling exercise has not yet been done for the Unitary Plan – and may take some time as I suspect the goal is to focus on analysing what’s in the notified version of the Plan, there has been a comparison undertaken between the existing capacity and the level of growth for each Local Board area that the Auckland Plan envisaged as being required to reach the “70/40″ target (with a 10% wriggle room for more or less intensification). This comparison highlights some fascinating results:
You can see that in 10 out of the 21 Local Boards (Great Barrier, Henderson-Massey, Hibiscus and Bays, Howick, Kaipatiki, Manurewa, Otara-Papatoetoe, Waiheke, Waitakere Ranges and Whau) the amount of existing “redevelopment capacity” is actually greater than the area’s share of the planned growth in the Auckland Plan. In other words, if we ignore the need to “overzone” (required as not all places will ever redevelop) then in almost half of the local board areas we don’t actually need the Unitary Plan to provide additional capacity.
What’s critical to note is that these areas tend to be places with comparatively lower public transport access or areas where the market demand for intensification is likely to be relatively less. The places where existing capacity isn’t enough are the areas with good public transport access, inner areas where there’s likely to be market demand for more intensive dwelling types – oh, and the two rural local boards where the Auckland Plan proposes a stupidly high amount of sprawl. But let’s set those aside for now.
The key takeaway point of this study, in my opinion, is that the key job for the Unitary Plan is more around ensuring the right areas are upzoned, rather than ensuring all areas become upzoned to allow more development. In many parts of Auckland the existing plans provide a surprisingly high amount of capacity – and perhaps the need for the Unitary Plan to change things very much in these areas is minimal. However, it is clear that current plans often seem to have additional spare capacity in the wrong places and therefore it is critically important for the Unitary Plan to be successful in upzoning areas within Local Boards such as Albert-Eden, Devonport-Takapuna and Maungakiekie-Tamaki: inner areas with good public transport access and a likely strong market for intensification.
The point is that many of these place are less likely to see that much increased intensity because of a lack of demand in these areas, including new much further out new sprawl-burbs.
In other words, we shouldn’t care too much about raising height limits in Howick Village but we should make damn sure they’re raised in Morningside and Onehunga.
There is a further issue that needs a lot more analysis too; how much will the sweeping do-not-touch-anything-pre-1944 Heritage Overlay actually trump the up-zoning in practice in these very areas; the older places like Onehunga and Morningside?
Of late we’ve seen a number of rather animated discussions on the topic of “NIMBYs” (not-in-my-back-yard), such as:
- Milford - where people objected to a proposed plan change for higher density apartments and townhouses on the grounds that it was “out of character”.
- Ponsonby - where locals objected to a new building because of its height (two-storeys), under-provision of car-parking, high floor/area ratio, and modern architectural style.
- Te Atatu - where some locals have opposed the development of a bus station because of “the types of people bus shelters might attract” (like me!).
- Onehunga - where locals have objected to a three-storey development on the grounds of parking provision and appearance.
- Northcote Point – where locals are opposing the development of a walkway/cycleway over the harbour bridge.
Lest we forget Orakei Point: Where the following development got caught in a maelstrom of NIMBY outrage (source):
As you can see from these images, the proposed development at Orakei Point would have been something of a focal point for conspicuous consumption, and therefore quite out of character with the rest of Orakei. Not. Anyway, partly as a result of NIMBY grandstanding, the Orakei Point development has not yet got off the ground – approximately 6 years after it was first proposed. And that means Orakei – and perhaps more importantly Auckland – now has ~400 fewer homes than we might have had otherwise. That in turn means that house prices will be that much higher.
But experiences such as those listed above finally seem to be prompting a public backlash, with the “Eye on Auckland” blog launching what I thought was a humorous – if indiscriminate – assault on Auckland’s NIMBYs. You can read the two blog posts here and here. The author’s disdain for NIMBYs is evident in almost every sentence; here’s just a taste:
Let me start by telling you about a conversation I had with a woman a few days ago. Immediately upon meeting me she presumed that I am a follower of her cult and starts off with a rhetorical question “who wants to live in a high-rise” I replied with a resounding I do. She looked at me as if I had three heads.
Fumbling around for words she ignorantly and arrogantly stated that much of Auckland will turn into a slum. I calmly told her that I live in a high density development which has won awards both locally and internationally – it couldn’t be further from a slum. Again she just stared at me, aghast and surprised, trying to fire up both of her brain cells. I also reminded her that many single dwelling suburbs are bigger slums than any apartment building that I have seen.
I asked her where she lives and she told me that she lives on an amazing lifestyle block. I should have guessed. I responded by telling her that best she starts worrying because the likes of Dick Quax, Cameron Brewer, Jan O’Connor, Grant Killon, Amy Adams and Nick Smith will soon be arriving on her land with huge bulldozers to make way for endless rows of affordable housing while singing hi-ho, hi-ho it’s off to work we go.
The look on her face was classic. Not once had she thought of that possibility. This is something that the crusty and rusty brigade will not be telling their blind mice. Instead they feed them morsels of lies, chunks of exaggeration and pellets filled with poisonous nightmares. The nimby’s happily consume it – ignorant and totally detached from reality.
The strange thing is that the [Unitary] plan actually puts in massive protections for single dwelling sites. No longer will you be able to build an apartment building down a small cul de sac. Rather they will be confined to town centres. The plan will formalise and control a situation that is already happening.
Personally, I also struggle with NIMBYs blatantly self-centered objections to developments in their community.
I’m astounded that NIMBYs are so happy to flip the “veil of ignorance” concept on its head, and instead assume that everyone else is as selfish as them. When you challenge their views on a particular development they often retort by saying “I’m sure you would not want to live next to THAT kind of development now would you?” To which my answer quite often is “yes I would actually”. It’s also ironic when NIMBYs’ self-centered positions lead them to take hypocritical stances. In Orakei, for example, you had a group of NIMBYs living in large detached dwellings miles from anything, who subsequently drove their cars everywhere, who then had the gall to turn around and oppose a medium-density, mixed-use development adjacent to a train station – on the grounds it will generate “too much traffic”. Oh dear, hypocritical much?
My second issue with NIMBY sentiment is related to – but nonetheless distinct from – the first issue. That is, NIMBYs rarely – if ever – seem to consider what would happen if the constraints on development that they seek were to be extended universally over the rest of Auckland. Consider the example of St Heliers, which is discussed in the “Eye on Auckland” post. Here, people seem to be objecting to a proposed multi-storey development on the grounds St Heliers is “special”. But hang on a flame-grilled marzipan minute: Is not every community in Auckland special? At least for the people that live there? And does that mean we should we constrain development in every community that considers itself special? Exactly how does one define “special”? Unfortunately NIMBYs aren’t very keen to look into the “special” wormhole they have created.
Every community that quarantines itself from further development is effectively causing more intensive development to happen somewhere else (NB: As an aside the same applies to the metropolitan urban limit, but that’s a discussion for another day). Put another way, constraints on development proposed by NIMBYs would, if generalised across the rest of Auckland, mean that the demand for new development was inevitably funneled into ever fewer locations. These places would, in turn, need to be developed to much higher density than they would have to in a situation where development was shared more evenly across Auckland’s communities. As an aside, that’s one of the benefits of Auckland Council’s online “Shape Auckland Housing Simulator“. Go on NIMBYs have a play.
Now having said all this, I’ve started to think that perhaps I need to modify my NIMBY engagement strategy to be less belligerent. After all, some NIMBYs do have a genuine attachment to their community – even if I consider their definition of community to be too narrow to encompass a functional socio-economic unit. To highlight the difference: Whereas NIMBYs usually define their community in terms of their suburb, I will define my community as the city. Right now, I define my community not as Grafton, but Auckland – the latter is the city where I work, live, and play.
I then sat back and considered what factors might explain the differences between how we define community? I’m sure some of it is personal, rather than logical – as much as our own egos tries to convince us that all our positions are premised on the latter. For example, in my life (thus far) I have lived in Waiuku, Northcote, Newmarket, City Centre, Parnell, and Grafton. This diversity of abodes would probably lead me to appreciate more of the city than most. Perhaps some of my attitude is also attributable to my age and preferences: In that I’d much prefer to be out and about scouring the Waitakere Ranges than sitting at home in my undies sipping cups of tea .
Either way, I think it’s important critics of NIMBYs, such as myself, are first honest with ourselves about why we define our community more broadly than those they are criticising. I think there’s good reasons to define a community as being more broadly than a suburb, especially in a world where communications are making it increasingly easy to develop and maintain connections across distance . Nonetheless we owe it to ourselves and the targets of our criticism to be able to articulate the reasons why we prefer a broader definition of community.
For me personally, my definition of community starts with an appreciation of the following points:
- Suburbs do not exist in socio-economic isolation. They are part of a much larger economic unit called “Auckland”, which means they are, for example, part of a larger housing/job market.
- Auckland is growing and changing. Inexorable population growth and demographic trends mean Auckland needs to accommodate a larger and older population with smaller average household size.
- These trends will gradually transform/re-shape Auckland’s urban form. In particular, we will likely need to greatly expand the number of compact houses located in proximity to town centres/facilities/amenities.
- It’s better for everyone if more communities help to accommodate this transformation. The more we spread the growth/load across existing town centres, the less any individual centre will need to develop.
So rather than simply hating on NIMBYs, I think a better approach is to try to redefine their concept of “community”.
This could be by explaining the points I have outlined above, or alternatively you could ask them where their friends and family live, where they work and shop, or which regional parks they like to visit. As they talk, you could then draw dots and lines on a map in front of them. In doing so, you may help them to develop at least a visual appreciation that their community goes a wee bit further than the suburb in which they live. Make sure you emphasise that less development in St Heliers, for example, will mean more development in Orakei, and that their Dentist in Orakei would probably prefer if St Heliers picked up it’s fair share of the growth, and vice versa.
Easier said than done perhaps, but nevertheless worth a shot. If you asked me what we have got to lose then I would respond “the city’s future”; yes I think the battle with NIMBYs is – in the long run – that important. That’s why I’d like to finish this post by praising (Deputy Mayor) Penny Hulse for taking on the NIMBYs in St Heliers when she said ““You can’t put a bell jar over the top of St Heliers and have no change.” Thank goodness for Ms Hulse’s strong political leadership on this issue; let’s have some more of that.
Ding ding let the battles begin.
There has been a great deal of emphasis on the zones where higher buildings will be allowed in the media coverage of the Unitary Plan. Especially giving voice to those who see this as unwelcome. Yet the plan isn’t by any means only about Auckland ‘growing up’, it also includes the quite substantial expansion of the current city limits. So I thought it might be useful to have a look at this side of the plan, particularly in order to try to get a sense of the likely character of the future city. Will Auckland still be a place where people with the attitudes of the man in the cartoon below will still be able to fit?
Malcolm Walker Metro April 2013
Below is a chart from a doc on the Council’s UP shapeauckland.co.nz site:
This chart says there are currently 20,000 sites ready to go outside the existing MUL [Metropolitan Urban Limits] and 50,000 properly rural sites plus 90,000 new ex-urban greenfields new suburban ’sprawl’ sites adding up to 160,000 sites for new low rise detached dwellings in [potentially] leafy environments proposed under the new plan.
This is to complement an identified additional capacity for some 280,000 dwellings within the existing MUL. These of course will not by any means all be apartments, it includes for example the current conversion of the Manukau golf course into new low rise suburb of detached houses by Fletcher Building.
Auckland has around 485,000 existing dwellings most of which are detached houses. What that proportion is to apartments is hard to find, the best I could do is the following from the 2006 census. This site says that in 2006 of a toatal of 437,988 there were:
approx. 311,000 = separate houses
approx. 98,500 = two or more flats/ houses, town houses/ apartments joined together
So back in 2006 there were just under a 1/4 of dwellings of a more intensive typology. But not all apartments by any means, as this grouping includes anything that isn’t a detached single dwelling, like suburban flats, townhouses, as well as partments. It will be interesting to see how this may have changed in this year’s census. This is what they say about this ratio:
The proportion of occupied dwellings that are separate houses appears to have declined slightly during that time, while the proportion of flats, townhouses and apartments appears to have increased from 21.7 per cent in 1996 to 23.9 per cent in 2006.
The bulk of these multi-unit developments have been in the CBD, with other significant higher density housing in areas in the periphery of the CBD e.g. Newmarket, Mount Eden and Grey Lynn. Other centres in the region are also seeing higher density development such as Henderson, Papakura, Takapuna, Botany, and Albany.
Looking ahead to 2041 will 1 million more people require say 300 000 more dwellings? And even if we assume the bulk of the new dwellings are of the attached typology, say 2/3, we are only looking at shifting the balance from about 24% to 38% of the total. Auckland in 2041 under the Unitary Plan as it is now will still predominantly be a place of detached houses. Especially because as observed above the attached dwellings will remain in a small number of places and, of course, because these places will be more densely occupied by definition, they will cover a much smaller area of the city than will the detached housing. Of course it is important to note that it is those that are happy to live a more urban existence that will enable Auckland to grow yet preserve whole areas of existing low density suburbia. Somewhat ironically. And only if there are some areas where greater density and higher buildings are allowed.
Of course a great deal will no doubt change over that period so whether the population does grow this fast and how people will choose to live is, of course, uncertain. But it is pretty clear that there is nothing particularly radical in the Plan in terms of restricting the future of Auckland in any one direction. If anything it just continues the recent gentle increase of ‘city-like’ habitation in Auckland. In other words Auckland is slowly morphing from having a big town nature towards having more city like characteristics, but slowly. This seems likely and natural and not unlike what has happened in Sydney and Melbourne.
My personal view is that it would be a poor outcome if all of the land identified for possible greenfields suburbs got developed in the way we have been, but it is certainly possible under this plan and it may be. Likewise I would prefer to see more intensification in selected areas, but it is clear that this is by no means certain under the plan. It will depend mostly on people’s desires, as expressed by the market.
It will be interesting to see, as this century unfolds, whether Auckland continues the international trends already observable here and best summed up in this book.
Whichever way Auckland grows, and my guess is it’ll probably be both up and out, I just hope that we do it better with more local walkable and compact centres and much better transport options than we bothered with until recently. And it does seem that on balance the Unitary Plan goes some way towards making these improvements more likely.
Now, if we could just get a much more rational approach to transport investment by central government then this plan will go a long way towards building more successful communities of all kinds in our biggest city.
The question of how many available sections there are in Auckland for development has yet again raised its head in the last couple of days, with much debate over whether there are 15,000 or 2,000 or some number in between of sections available to build houses on. This from yesterday’s NZ Herald:
Auckland has 2000 new sections ready to build houses on, says Mayor Len Brown, who last month claimed there was enough land for 15,000 homes.
As debate grows about housing and land supply in Auckland, Mr Brown is no longer claiming the city has enough new land to build 15,000 houses “right now”.
Instead, he is saying there is capacity for 15,000 homes on ready-to-go greenfield land in areas such as Flat Bush, Takanini and Hobsonville, but only 2000 sections have reached the building stage.
“The remainder require subdivision and internal servicing by private sector developers to create sections,” Mr Brown said.
Much of the debate seems to be around semantics – what constitutes ‘ready to go’ land? What is the role of Council in delivering land to that point? What is greenfield land?
Clearly there’s a process that developers go through to turn what starts out as countryside into urbanised housing. I’m not really an expert but it seems like it probably goes along these lines:
- Land is highlighted as suitable for future urban growth (i.e. placed inside the urban growth boundary). Usually this land seems to get a ‘future urban’ zone or something similar to prevent further subdivision that would make it difficult for that land to be comprehensively redeveloped in the future.
- Structure planning occurs to highlights where roads, parks, schools and other facilities should go as well as which areas should be zoned for what activities/intensities in the future.
- Rezoning occurs to enable redevelopment. Bulk infrastructure (water mains, arterial roads etc.) is provided.
- Land is subdivided down to section sizes and internal roads and pipes, electricity and phone lines are provided to each site.
- House is built and then occupied.
At some point (between steps three and four it would seem) the job of council is done. The main roads have been built, the land has been rezoned, the bulk water supply, wastewater pipes and so forth have been put in. Unless the Council is fulfilling the role of land developer, which in some cases they might well be (like Flat Bush town centre, which I think the Council owns) then it’s hard to lay too much blame at Council for not forcing developers into the final processes of subdividing and building on their land. Ironically one of the biggest greenfield developments on the go at the moment is at Hobsonville – where the government is effectively ‘the developer’. Maybe they need to tell themselves to hurry up and develop that land a bit quicker?
So it seems to me as though something is clearly going wrong between the ‘rezoning’ step and the actual land subdivision step – the difference between the 15,000 figure (which is quite a lot of capacity) and the 2,000 figure (which really isn’t that much). Some developers are sitting on land that has been rezoned and has been provided with bulk infrastructure yet for some reason they’re not subdividing it down to urban sized lots and either building the houses themselves or getting someone else to build the houses. It would be really great to get a better understanding of what’s needed in that process and what’s going wrong at the moment.
Of course Housing Minister Nick Smith’s proposal to get rid of the urban limits doesn’t do anything about resolving the issues that are clearly holding back the supply of sections in current greenfield areas. It’s way back at step one – vastly increasing the amount of land highlighted as potentially suitable for future urban development. Not too dissimilar from seems to already be happening actually.
Dr Smith vowed to break the “stranglehold” of the council’s policy of containing urban sprawl – a policy he says is “killing the dreams of Aucklanders” by driving up house prices.
The minister wants to open up more land outside the existing metropolitan urban limit to peg back land prices which, he said, were the biggest factor putting home ownership out of reach of many.
Mr Brown hit back, saying Dr Smith was advocating a flawed Los Angeles model of “suburban sprawl” going back to the 1940s and 1950s.
The mayor said the new unitary plan – a draft is being released on Friday – provided for a balanced approach of intensification of existing land and releasing new land to house a further million people in Auckland over the next 30 years.
Ironically of course the government’s process for the Auckland Unitary Plan means that no new greenfield land highlighted in the Plan will actually become rezoned for development (i.e. step three) until quite a few years from now – as pointed out by Phil Twyford in parliament today and by Brian Rudman in the NZ Herald last week.
Hopefully the release of the draft Unitary Plan at the end of this week will start to shed some light on all these issues.
It’s quite easy to forget that a couple of years ago Auckland’s regional and local government structures were turned upside down.
Since then Auckland Council seem to have settled into their work with relative aplomb. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their strategic documents, such as The Auckland Plan (TAP) and the City Centre Masterplan (CCMP). Both these plans identify a number of fascinating projects that Auckland Council considers necessary to transforming Auckland into one of the world’s most-loved cities (NB: In my heart that title is currently held by Istanbul).
View of Istanbul (Katakoy) from a ferry on the Bosphorus.
Having delivered a number of strategic plans the Council must now consider how we get from where we are today to where we want to be in the future. Council itself controls land use outcomes and its thoughts on these issues will be outlined in the forthcoming draft Unitary Plan. Council also set budgets for each of their CCOs, such as Watercare and Auckland Transport, which will tend to define the rate at which they can make changes to the city.
To me this is where things get interesting: The interface between strategic outcomes, available budgets, and immediate priorities. Most of us will readily agree on the need to transform Auckland from a car-dependent, anti-pedestrian city and into a more diverse and dynamic urban environment that balances the needs of all transport modes. Where opinions are likely to diverge is on 1) the best path to get there and 2) how much money we should spend along the way.
From where I’m sitting (Brisbane, in case you’re wondering) few of the ideas advanced by the Auckland Council have caused such stark differences in opinion as their proposal to two-way Nelson and Hobson Streets. These one-way arterial roads are effectively tentacles for the octopus known as the Central Motorway Junction (CMJ). Hobson/Nelson streets allow vehicles exiting/entering the CMJ to gain rapid access to most parts of the city centre. In serving this purpose, however, they have effectively killed vast areas of the city centre. If one was trying to be level-headed and non-sensationalist about these things then you could describe them as nightmarish abominations that blight the entire western edge of the city centre, as illustrated below.
Nelson Street – from off-ramp
Hobson Street – approaching on-ramp
Both streets are obviously designed to carry shed-loads of cars. But how many cars do they actually carry? Well, if one considers Auckland Transport’s count data then the answer would be “not many if any”. For example, the graph below shows the number of vehicles using these streets in the AM, midday, and PM periods in 2005 (source data). When looking at these graphs it’s worth keeping in mind that the capacity of one vehicle lane is approximately 2,000 vehicles per hour.
The first thing to note is holy flaming wombats; both Nelson and Hobson Street appear to be vastly under-utilised. These 4-6 lane monsters are shifting only 650 vehicles per lane-hour in peak periods, i.e. less than one third of their theoretical capacity.
But on the other hand, one of the main advantages of a one-way street is that it increases intersection capacity by reducing the number of conflicting movements. The signal cycles that result are more efficient, insofar as they are simpler and shorter – with more of the available time assigned to green phases (which could possibly include pedestrians, even though this is not currently the case). So even though the street capacity is under-utilised, the one-way system may still reduce delays at intersections. Another complicating factor is that any change to these streets may impact on the CMJ and thus on the wider state highway network. So whatever happens to Nelson/Hobson must first pass muster with NZTA.
So what might we do about all this? Well, first let’s define the problem more carefully: The main problem with Nelson/Hobson Streets, from what I can tell, is that the current configuration destroys amenity and undermines surrounding land uses. Vehicles on these streets really are moving too fast and too close to the footpath. It’s a classic case of the medicine (transport capacity) killing the patient (the city centre). Therein lies the strategic issue Auckland Council wants to address.
But does a lack of amenity mean that should immediately move to two-waying those streets? Or are there more incremental steps that might address some of these issues? One incremental option that I think is worth investigating in more detail is retaining the one-way streets (for now) but changing the allocation of space within the streets, or at least key segments of the streets. This could look, for example, to develop low-speed access lanes separated from the primary through-lanes by a hard berm. The purpose of the access lanes would be just that: To provide improved access to adjacent land-uses, while reducing vehicle speeds close to the edge of the street.
Such access lanes are relatively common in European cities. For example, the image below shows Rooseveltlaan, Amsterdam. This street was just down the street from where I used to live and it provided access to the E19, which is a major highway linking much of the Netherlands, Belgium, and the north of France, i.e. it’s a pretty important arterial road.
The image below shows a cross-section of Rooseveltlaan. Starting from the right, we have the access lane running in front of the adjacent buildings. This lane is separated from the through traffic by a hard berm. In typical awesome Dutch style they have also included some gardens and trees, a good shared pedestrian/cycle lane, and a median bus/tram lane. One of the great advantages of this type of street is that it separates all of the slow-moving traffic that needs to access the adjacent properties from the faster moving through traffic. By removing this side friction the capacity of the central lanes is higher than what it would be in a situation where all the traffic was mixed together.
NB: If you are interested in transport/land use integration then you may want to have a look at this recently released NZTA research report (I was one of the authors). Page 37 onwards considers the role of street networks and a range of opportunities for better transport/land use integration.
Using Rooseveltlaan as my inspiration, I then wondered whether we could adapt these ideas to create a new cross-section for Nelson/Hobson Streets. One possible cross-section I landed on, which seemed to meet the necessary capacity while greatly increasing space for access, is summarised below (where the elements are listed from one side of the street to the other).
By way of comparison, a few quick measurements on Google Earth suggests that Nelson/Hobson Streets are about 27-30m wide. When you consider the above configuration then you start to realise how much space is currently been wasted (yes, I think it’s fair to use wasted in this context) on Nelson and Hobson Streets.
Of course the access lanes would have to re-join the primary traffic lanes at some point. The Dutch manage this in various ways, of which a common approach is to connect the access lane to the side street via a priority intersection, which is then in turn connected to the primary street via a signalised intersection, as shown below. I particularly like this image because it shows 1) how the access lanes are useful for providing access for service vehicles, such as rubbish trucks, and 2) how Amsterdam has set differentiated speed environments (in this case 30 versus 50 km/hr) between the access lanes and the through lanes. It also shows some of the general attention to detail that the Dutch bring to their streets and urban places, such as using raised pedestrian tables on side streets, which have been discussed at length in other posts.
But my key point is that before we start changing the underlying structure of the network, i.e. two-waying Nelson/Hobson Streets, maybe we should look at re-allocating space within those streets. After all, the one-way street system does provide greater intersection capacity (some of which could be reinvested in catering for pedestrians and cyclists). Also, Hobson/Nelson Streets somewhat naturally lead onto “one-way” state highway connections, i.e. on-ramps and off-ramps.
Ultimately I think Auckland Council and Auckland Transport have a tough choice:
- All-or-nothing – this option involves going straight to a two-way street. While this would provide greater amenity, it would also raise the hackles of NZTA and motorists in general. Personally, I think that if push came to shove then Auckland Transport would have their way – they are after all the relevant road-controlling authority. Perhaps most problematic is the fact that such a major change will take ages to implement and is likely to be tagged to the completion of the CRL. This in turn means the western side of the city centre would be left to rot for another decade; or
- Incremental steps – this option would seek to retain the one-way streets (for now) but commit to progressively re-allocating space within those streets so they better balance the competing need for access and mobility. The benefit of this option is that we could start immediately and hence realise some of the potential benefits earlier. It also would not hinge less on the CRL, which after all may be delayed. This is my preferred option, provided it is done in a way that supports, or at least does not compromise, the end-goal that Auckland Council has identified, i.e. two-waying these streets.
Probably time for me to step down off the soap-box so that some of you can have your (equally valuable) two-cents worth. Enjoy.
My last two posts (here and here) considered Demographia’s recently released survey of housing affordability for 2013, which concluded that housing in NZ is increasingly unaffordable.
My first post suggested Demographia’s primary findings were not supported by independent evidence, such as alternative “rent-income” and “home affordability” indicators. My second post then outlined some issues with their “median-multiple” indicator (calculated as the median house price divided by the median household income).
This post will now refine some of these criticisms, before outlining some of my own ideas on the causes of housing affordability issues in New Zealand. First I wanted to tease out some of implicit assumptions that underpin Demographia’s “median-multiple” indicator, namely:
- Median-matching: This issue was best articulated by James H: “the median-multiple indicator carries an assumption: that the income-earners at and around the median are the same group who demand the houses priced at and around the median, and that result can be extrapolated for other price-income pairings. As mentioned in the post, that excludes measurement for a large group of earners at many income levels who are in fact happy to rent for a range of reasons. Also I doubt whether median houses are often bought by median earners for a variety of reasons including life stages, geographical differences etc.”
- Independent inputs: This issue relates to the fact that the two inputs into the median-multiple indicator (house prices are income) are actually not independent of each other. Consider a situation, for example, where most of the houses in New Zealand were being bought and sold by relatively wealthy households, and that these households subsequently experienced high income growth, while incomes for the general population remained broadly unchanged. In this situation the median house price (and median-multiple indicator) would rise simply because income growth was concentrated within the same people that were purchasing properties, rather than because housing was becoming less affordable.
The second issue is quite important, because it implies that changes in income may in fact impact on house prices. The figure below illustrates the input data used by Demographia for Australia. In this graph, we find a strong positive correlation between median household income (x-axis) and median house prices (y-axis).
This suggests that locations with high incomes have more expensive housing (surprise surprise!). More specifically, it suggests that for every $1 increase in median household income there is a corresponding $5.1 increase in median house price. While that sounds like a lot, note that income is measured p.a. whereas house prices are “total.”
My final comment is on the relevance of Demographia’s indicator. i.e. the “so what” question? It seems that the parts of New Zealand with the highest median-multiple ratios, such as Auckland, are actually attracting the fastest population growth, as illustrated below. Of course, this may reflect other factors that are at play, but it does suggest that our housing affordability (at least as measured by the median-multiple indicator) is not yet significant enough to drive people away.
Thus, population growth in these places seems to be going the other direction from what Demographia would expect – we are increasingly moving to areas that they consider to be unaffordable. Based on this evidence, I’d suggest that the median-multiple indicator used by Demographia is not a good measure of housing affordability. Instead, it seems to measure:
- The degree to which income growth is invested in housing; and
- Population growth (which will tend to push up property prices but suppress income growth).
It’s not clear to me that the median-multiple indicator measures housing affordability, and nor is it clear to me that the urban containment policies pursued by local governments are binding to the degree that they have major impacts on property prices. They may be – but Demographia’s indicator does not, and cannot, tell you that.
My personal view is that the primary impact of local government regulations is not through the constraints they place on land supply (i.e. urban containment), but actually through the barriers they create to the development of more compact and affordable housing. Here’s some examples of regulations pursued by local governments in New Zealand that seem likely to restrict the supply of affordable housing:
- Minimum lot sizes – i.e. “all ye who have less money shall be forced to purchase land you don’t want.”
- Minimum apartment sizes – i.e. “all ye who have less money shall be forced to purchase living space you don’t want.”
- Minimum parking requirements – i.e. “all ye who have less money shall be forced to pay for vehicles you don’t own”.
- Maximum height limits – i.e. “all ye who chose to live like rats are consigned to perish like rats – on the street.”
- Heritage protections – i.e. “all ye who don’t have the money to renovate a villa shall live elsewhere.”
In my experience these policies are often more binding constraints than the availability of land. So my suggestion is that housing affordability has less to do with policies that favour urban containment (as Demographia and the National Party would have you believe) than they are to do with the plethora of policies that suppress more intensive and affordable housing. I’d go as far as to say that most of our policy settings have a systematic bias against the development of compact and affordable housing.
In this light, it seems that recent political announcements have missed the mark. National are deluding themselves into thinking that the release of land on the urban periphery will deliver meaningful and sustained reductions in the cost of land, and by extension housing. Labour and the Greens, meanwhile, seem intent on using government capital to build our way out of the problem – which is not only expensive but also runs the risk (at least on the surface) of building the wrong kinds of houses in the wrong places. None of these three parties seems to yet acknowledge that some of our issues with housing affordability may be the result of policies that prevent urban intensification.
So instead of writing the foreword to next year’s (deeply flawed) Demographia report, I’d suggest that Bill English – and other National cabinet Ministers – should be writing letters in support of proposals to develop apartments, town houses, and units in places like Milford and Orakei. And more importantly, they should be making submissions on aspects of the draft Unitary Plan that support and/or prevent more compact and affordable accommodation options. Onya Bill.