The government’s proposed National Policy Statement on Urban Development is a typical concoction from Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford.
Its ambition that local councils “take a long-term strategic approach to the growth of their cities” is laudable. So too, is the expectation of “joining up transport, housing and infrastructure in a 30-year plan.” It all sounds realistic and achievable – in just the same way as his pre-2017 commitment and subsequent spectacular failure to build 100,000 affordable homes over a 10-year period, under the brand Kiwibuild sounded when first proposed.
The way things are panning out suggest that the Urban Development National Policy Statement could well be headed for a similar fate.
The professed aim of the policy is to direct Councils in major centres like Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown to free up planning rules to focus more on “high-quality streets, neighbourhoods and communities.”
So far, so good.
The problem arises once the detail starts to become obvious.
For example, in the draft discussion document there is a proposal to require Councils to “zone all residential and mixed areas within 1.5 km of city centres for high-density development,” with the definition of high-density meaning a minimum of 60 residential units per hectare.
The Discussion Paper also notes that there are two broad overall options to consider – a descriptive approach giving greater scope to local Councils, or a more prescriptive government-driven approach. The Discussion Paper notes ominously that the descriptive approach “may not be as effective at shifting the focus to higher density.”
Further, the draft policy statement allows for building heights of at least 6 storeys “within at least a walkable catchment of the city centre and metropolitan centres as well as existing and planned rapid transit stops.”
Given the emphasis on higher density, this provision smacks more of being a requirement than an optional extra.
The discussion document falls into the basic trap of assuming that the topography and general layout of our major population centres is all the same when palpably that is not the case.
Spatial development possibilities in largely flat cities like Christchurch or Hamilton are vastly different, from those in more constrained cities like Wellington and one size definitely will not fit all, despite the discussion document’s predilections.
Consequently, in seeking to meet the government’s requirements, Councils have been forced to look at possible outcomes that are essentially ludicrous.
The Wellington City Council, for example, has interpreted the government’s “at least six storeys” and “existing and planned rapid transit stops” requirements apply to long-established outer residential suburbs like Tawa, Linden, Johnsonville, Khandallah, Ngaio and Crofton Downs just because they are served by a commuter rail service.
Spatial Plan for Wellington
Consequently, it is proposing in the draft spatial plan for Wellington that at least six storeys residential buildings will be permitted within a five minute walking catchment from suburban railway stations in those areas, although a ten minute limit will apply in the cases of Johnsonville and Tawa. Yet these are some of Wellington’s more attractive residential suburbs and it seems absurd that their character risks destruction just because they are close to a railway line.
But the bigger question remains. The assumption underpinning the entire Urban Development National Policy Statement process is managing anticipated future population growth. Again, that is a laudable objective, but it needs to be evidence based.
The Wellington plan, for example, is predicated on projected population growth of 80,000 people over the next 30 years.
Yet, population projections prepared by the National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis at Waikato University are far less bullish, suggesting a likely population increase of only 10.7% (just over 50,000) across the entire Wellington region by 2031, with just over half that growth occurring within Wellington city, a far cry from the additional 80,000 people on whom the Council’s Spatial Development Plan is based.
What becomes clear is that the issue in Wellington at least, and probably elsewhere as well, is the much more basic one of what is a desirable and sustainable population for the area.
It is also becoming clear how that is to be housed in the future in the joined up transport and housing infrastructure focusing on the “high-quality streets, neighbourhoods and communities” that Minister Twyford waxed so eloquently about in the discussion document.
Much more work needs to be done on what New Zealand’s population will look like, and where it will need to be housed, especially in a post Covid-19 world, before beginning work on highly specific, and likely prescriptive urban planning strategies.
Rows of multi-storey apartment blocks lining suburban rail corridors are hardly part of that vision.
The sooner the Minister faces up to that reality, and makes it clear he is not encouraging that, the better. Otherwise his vaunted Urban Development Strategy will be properly doomed to follow the path of Kiwibuild before it.
Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from November 2008 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington.