Why Auckland’s draft unitary plan is daft

SUBMISSION ON DRAFT UNITARY PLAN

– By Peter Verschaffelt.

Before making what will unfortunately be a highly critical evaluation of the inappropriately called Unitary Plan for Auckland I think it important that I outline my credentials and experience in the hope that, however slim, there may be decision-makers with the ability to step back and have another look at what they are doing.

I say inappropriate because it is not a plan which will unite the people of the city but further entrench already deep divides between the haves and the have nots which must be clearly evident to anyone not wearing blinkers.

Firstly, I believe the fundamental premises on which the Plan is based are wrong and that it is not just a matter of ‘tutuing’ with the detail as this review intends.

So in the hope that even at this late stage I may be taken seriously: my credentials.

University studies in the social sciences, and in particular sociology has led to a life-long interest in how communities function which has been reflected in the careers paths I have chosen. Paths which have direct applicability to this submission and the manner in which I believe Auckland should move forward.

Many years for example spent as a business and political journalist, including working at senior levels for the New Zealand Herald, Radio New Zealand, Television New Zealand and Iwi radio stations has given me a firm understanding of how economies work as well as the consequences of good and bad social policy decision-making.

Such experience was invaluable when I spent four years as Auckland City’s Communication Manager and as such was part of the Council’s planning team when decisions at the base of the Unitary Plan were being made. I was also a member of the small project team which built the $205 million Britomart railway station.

From there I spent a similar period as part of Housing New Zealand’s Assets Team which undertook nearly a billion dollars worth of multi-million dollar housing projects in Auckland as well as major infill housing across much of the city. I was responsible for community liaison and in particular explaining and gaining community support for the projects, necessary for the gaining of consents under the Resource Management Act, a piece of legislation I had considerable familiarity with having previously spent four years setting up and heading the Coromandel Peninsula anti-mining group Watchdog. This group’s successful activities actually led to a shift in planning procedure in this country away from legislative decree to a consultative and consensus approach. I have also worked as a consultant to the Ministry of Maori Affairs (Te Puni Kokori) on Papa Kaianga housing projects and communication issues.

Today I am a pensioner living in a Housing New Zealand village previously owned by Auckland City, which is currently under threat from redevelopment. During much of my working life in the city I have been a commuter, both into the city from Torbay and at another time I made the daily rush hour grind between the inner city and Manukau. Today I am a cyclist,  a regular user of public transport (both buses and rail), and spend at least an hour every day walking around city streets and reserves with my dog.

So the perspective I bring to this analysis is not just theoretical, as I suspect many of the submitters will essentially be presenting however well meaning, but highly practical based on wide and varied personal experience. As such I would hope it is listened to because I believe with the Unitary Plan we are heading in an irreversible direction which will have huge negative consequences for the city and its people for generations however idealistic and well-meaning its proponents are, which is something I don’t doubt.

And yes there are some good points in the plan such as its, I believe genuine, endeavour to protect heritage but even such noble aims must be weighed against the overall direction which I believe will create both a physical and social ‘abomination’ which I do not believe is too strong a word.

Let me explain.

INTENT OF THE UNITARY PLAN

As said the whole intent is wrong. It is predicated on the belief that creating a Metropolis on this isthmus is a wise idea. That creating another essentially Asian mega city here is a sound idea and that the planner’s job is to ensure this happens in an ordered and well organised manner rather than as piecemeal hotch-potch.

The projections in population growth which underlie the Unitary Plan are testimony to this and cannot be denied for there is no way they would be realised within the times frames suggested without major immigration. It is first and foremost this underlying premise that this is a good idea that needs to be challenged. Having worked as a teacher of English to Asians, mainly Chinese and Korean, for some years I believe that as far as immigrants go they are excellent, being generally law abiding and of fine character so I would not want my objection to creating another Asian city here to be seen as in any way racially motivated. It is not. But realistically Asia is the only place the projected volumes will come from.

If the planners believe that such a population influx is inevitable and not something we the citizens of Auckland can stop even if we wanted to, a contention with which I actually disagree, then they must say so upfront and I challenge them to do so. A matter I will address further in the second part of this submission.

Also having worked at Nga Whare Waatea in the South Auckland suburb of Mangere, and lived nearby in recent years, I have a strong appreciation of the huge cultural benefits the Pacific Islands community has brought with immigration, but we should not in any way underestimate the difficulties and personal alienation, and sense of anomie, experienced by many of these immigrants and their offspring.

And whatever one’s view on this let us be under no misapprehension that the predicted population influx in the Unitary Plan could come from anywhere but Asia – if it indeed matters where they come from.

Because as the Rod Stewart song of the 1960’s said “People are people whatever they have for breakfast” and that’s the problem – not their ethnicity nor origin. It’s simply the sheer volumes of additional people projected and the impact they will inevitably have that has the planners struggling to find space to accommodate them, and the only space they can realistically go with their blinkered thinking, is upwards.

Overwhelmingly people already resident in highrise community after community across Auckland don’t want that, however much the Unitary Plan advocates tell them they do and ‘how nice it’s going to be’ and that it can be done with some degree of finesse.

Yes, there will be some demand for intensive inner city living particularly from essentially childless young people. And yes, immigrants from Asia may feel comfortable with it, but however attractively it’s painted, with images and impressions from places  where it works, the great majority of Aucklanders don’t want it. Any argument that attempts to suggest non-objection to the Unitary Plan indicates happiness with it is plainly deceitful. I suggest the silent majority like myself to this point, purely believe their objection would be a waste of time and this is not tantamount to acceptance.

SO WHO ARE THE WINNERS AND LOSERS?

Unquestionably there will be existing landowners who stand to gain, some substantially, particularly those in areas designated for high rise development. However to realise the gain from the increase in the value of their property, which could be far less if a future government introduces a Capital Gains Tax on private property, they will need to sell. And if they wish to buy again in the city any capital gain they’ve made will be neutralized.

The developers and the builders also stand to make good profits as will associated services from the bankers and financiers, architects, planners etc. to the lawyers who will be rubbing their hands at the potential conveyancing fees.

The providers of materials and goods and services not only during construction but of ongoing infra-structure will also be supporting major growth. Particularly those such as supermarkets, liquor outlets and other retail services who have existing operations providing goods and services in areas being targeted for growth.

Likewise the City Council itself will be looking towards increased rates revenue.

And jobs will be created not only during construction but in the ongoing provision of goods and services to the greater population, but to what extent this pool of labour, particularly during the construction phase will be drawn from the New Zealand workforce and to what extent it will be indentured is debatable. There is a body of evidence that shows Asian people for example will trade with fellow Asians. And if the Christchurch model where one company, in that case Fletchers, is given a lead role in letting contracts and hiring of labour it’s likely that, as is happening in Christchurch, much of the labour force will come in from overseas countries where pay rates here allow them to earn more than they’d be making back home but less than New Zealanders require to make relocation for work viable. Many Aucklanders employed will on the whole have to travel considerable distances to work and face considerably higher rentals where they do live as the population influx pushes letting costs up, again the Christchurch example.

The Government too stands to gain from a greater population base, not just in terms of income tax but from GST also.

Some would even argue that one of the reasons New Zealand has fared relatively poorly in terms of Gross Domestic Product growth over many years is our small population which does not allow economics of scale, making costs higher here, so that in a way everyone in New Zealand would benefit. However this is a hotly debated contention among economists with the infrastructural costs of providing for the increased population offsetting the gains.

That’s the upside of a Plan designed to facilitate a rapid population escalation.

I contend the downside makes the desirability of such growth highly questionable, if not down-right stupid.

Firstly for every existing land-owner who realises a capital gain there is likely to be a number of others, particularly those neighbouring areas of considerable intensification who will simply face major rate increases.

And while lawyers, as well as contemplating a conveyancing bonanza, will be looking gleefully at resource consent processing including planning litigation for both sides, there will be citizens who have little alternative but to participate in the costly objection process.

Then of course the demand for goods and services through the process of supply and demand will be inflationary, pushing up prices not only for those living in Auckland but throughout the country. Successive Reserve Bank Governors have identified escalating Auckland house prices as the reason for higher interest rates and the whole economy can expect the negative dampening that would inevitably accompany Auckland growth.

Then there’s the cost of the infrastructure itself to sustain the increased population. This won’t be small – a highlight being the cost of providing roading expansion to facilitate traffic flows which are already clogging the city and which will not be noticeably eased through the provision of such developments as the Avondale Tunnels.  A second harbour crossing, rail extension north and the east-west motorway link would gain major urgency with the development proposed within the Unitary Plan and this would be hugely costly: the infrastructure being needed before the people. This will inevitably mean greater indebtedness. Indebtedness, already at high levels threatening the city’s credit rating, and for which Aucklanders would carry a double blow both as Auckland ratepayers and New Zealand tax-payers.  And I haven’t even taken into account the cost of increased public transport which I will be addressing shortly when I discuss the debacle which is the proposed inner city rail loop.

And then there’s the cost of water and sewerage reticulation which is a biggie and which I believe actually will make the Unitary Plan development unfeasible.

In fact, I would go as far as saying that if the ‘powers that be’ at both the political and administrative level don’t urgently come clean on this, and continue to push forward at considerable cost with promotion of the Unitary Plan, they are in danger of individually and collectively being liable for professional negligence in not informing the public. I do wonder to what extent they are indeed right now attempting to indemnify themselves against liability and I personally give them warning that I will ensure this submission is raised in any future attempt to claim lack of knowledge and culpability as a defence.

Let me explain.

When I worked at Auckland City, the leaky building horror raised its ugly head and the city managers had to admit behind closed doors, if not publicly, that they were grossly under-insured for the potential liability looming, estimated to be in the region of billions of dollars.  The Managers from the Works Department said the Leaky Building catastrophe was nothing compared with the hidden nightmare on the horizon as far as water and sewerage reticulation was concerned.

The problem was that much of the City had rapidly expanded across farmland with little heed being given to how water and sewerage was integrated, with there being little information of exactly where pipes were laid. Subdivisions were allowed, across the whole area, with water and sewerage systems that had little or no capacity for additional users such as in-fill housing. The problem became even worse as the City expended ever outwards with new subdivisions simply hooking into already overloaded existing systems. The same was true even more so for the other municipalities amalgamated in the Super City.  On top of this is the problem that much of the underground piping system is at the end or near the end of its “use by” date, but being under-ground and out of the public eye, expenditure in this area has been ignored by successive local body governors in all the councils now amalgamated into the Super City, compared to high visibility expenditure areas where votes could be won.

In fact the whole water and sewerage reticulation system had been grossly neglected and even with the shifting of the problem to Watercare Services, at arm’s length from the politicians, the problem has not been solved; rather shifted and shelved. A figure on just how much water is being lost between reservoir and end-user would be highly interesting. I have heard that it is as much as 30 percent and I challenge the authorities to give the true figure which they must surely know; it being the difference between the amount of water which leaves source, surely recorded, and the quantity they charge consumers for.

When I then went and worked for Housing New Zealand, the largest property developer in Auckland, the problem became abundantly clear to me. Having the job of liaising with neighbours affected by our developments, I came across a number of cases where the waste-water systems did not have the capacity to cope with the additional load and those downstream found our waste bubbling up in their yard. This was in situations where the council had approved our developments, obviously believing the system could handle the extra dwellings. To my knowledge, the cases were only ever dealt with on an ad hoc basis, with new piping etc installed, rather than being appreciated as the far more widespread problem that it obviously is. A problem which will potentially reach catastrophic proportions with the level of intensified housing envisaged under the Unitary Plan. Nowhere do I see any evidence that the necessary investigation and analysis has been done to show that the waste-water sewerage will be able to facilitate the planned growth without massive additional capital expenditure which will be a further imposition on ratepayers.

On many sites, otherwise suitable for intensive housing development, we could not go ahead because the drainage systems simply would not be able to cope with the increased  load. This is going to be a major headache which has not been adequately factored in to the Unitary Plan’s expansion proposals. It certainly has not been adequately factored into any cost-benefit analysis that I’ve seen, with the planners and Watercare Services miles and billions of dollars apart in costing.

The problem is so bad, that until excavation for a multi-unit housing development in May Road, Mt Roskill costing near on  $100 million actually got underway, it was discovered that the area (which had been given all the resource and planning consents) was smack bang on top of the main pipeline bringing water from the Waitakeres into city reservoirs.

The reason why potentially highly desirable properties in the Favona Road area on the southern shores of the Manukau Harbour are still on septic tank and have not been given permission for housing subdivision, a seemingly sensible land use, is because although the area  is  in close proximity to the Mangere Sewerage Treatment plant, there is no sewerage capacity.

These are not isolated cases but just two I provide to highlight a major problem the Unitary Plan either deliberately or incompetently ignores.

BRITOMART AND THE CITY RAIL LOOP

Anyone who thinks that such ignorance is not likely among those behind the Unitary Plan need look no further than the $205 million Britomart – a project of which I was a member of the development team and a project that was the baby of many of the self-same planners and administrators who are hell bent on foisting the Unitary Plan on the people of Auckland.

When I joined the Britomart team there was widespread public opposition to turning the former central Post Office into the railway station: the Government didn’t support it, nor did the soon to be elected new Mayor John Banks. My role was to turn that opposition around.

After personally meeting with Prime Minister Helen Clark, Mayor John Banks when elected, and running a major public relations campaign, that opposition was in each case turned into support.

One of the key factors in gaining support for Britomart was the assurance given that it would be done in conjunction with the introduction of Light Rail in a loop from Downturn via the Hospital, Newmarket, Kyber Pass, K-Road, Ponsonby and back to Britomart.

Anyone with half a brain could see that without building Light Rail, Britomart at the end of the line would be a disaster, as became blatantly evident on the night the Rugby World Cup opened.  One can only speculate on what idiots didn’t see this coming: I suspect many of the same idiots today promoting the Unitary Plan and the Under-Ground Rail Loop.

Because once approval was gained for Britomart, including Government funding, everything went cold as far as Light rail was concerned and I have little doubt in hind-sight that it was a ruse without which Britomart would never have gone ahead and the Council would have been left with their railway hub on land they feared Ngati Whatua would hold them to rent ransom. I believe this is the real reason why the Britomart option was pushed so hard.

I further suspect that the planners knew all along that Light Rail would never have been feasible not least of all because Grafton Bridge was not structurally sound enough to support it – the eventual official reason given for dropping the Light Rail project. If they didn’t know this during the whole time they sold Britomart with Light Rail a critical component, they jolly well should have.

My suspicion that those behind the scheme knew all along is backed by an oft repeated assertion made behind closed doors that once Britomart was completed, it would tie future councils into having to commit to the Rail Loop.

But does it? Actually there are alternatives that the draft Unitary Plan does not canvas but should, which I believe will work far better than committing Auckland’s children and grand-children to paying off around $4 billion for a  3 kilometer white elephant underground  loop that cannot be justified on any other grounds than that it will “solve” the Britomart bottleneck.

Aucklanders don’t go into the CBD and have no need to. The projected numbers who will use the Loop are grossly inflated and one suspects the Key Government knows this which is why they won’t support the project, even with Mayor Len Brown bribes, until volume projections are proven. Their position cleverly gets them off the hook of outright opposing a project they can clearly see is completely unviable and no amount of “incentives” to get their commitment to the project early will work.

But mark my words, if the city leaders continue to go with the city expansion which the Unitary Plan is designed to facilitate without solving the Britomart ‘cock-up’ what promises to be a disaster on many fronts will literally be a super disaster. They know it, and that’s why they are hell-bent on the Rail Loop project they must know can have no justification, with the only ones gaining from it being the owners of CBD property, which incidentally is synonymous with the country’s richest corporations and individuals and the council itself.  And oh yes, Sky City, which seems to have extraordinary powers of persuasion over the Council, free accommodation for mayoral liaisons aside.

The Rail Loop will never go ahead, because it makes absolutely no sense, and I haven’t even spoken of the Maori Taniwha (doubters of such things before scoffing should look at the Ngawha Prison cost over-runs and the Meremere Highway fatalities list).

Alternatives to the Rail Loop include:

  • Scrapping Britomart and going back to a hub built on the rail-loop that involves the southern and eastern lines with either a new hub built at the site of the old station, or Newmarket becoming the hub and junction.

 

  • A short tunnel from Britomart connecting with a new harbour tunnel and a North Shore rail line which is already pressing for both population and emergency strategic reasons; the city’s vulnerability to a Harbour Bridge failure something authorities continue to under-estimate. A line that could eventually be linked with a loop to the Helensville Line which would all be cheaper than the crazy central city rail loop.

There are other rail projects which are pressing (without the Unitary Plan facilitated rapid city expansion) including:

  • The long-planned Onehunga to Avondale link for which land is designated, and which should have been done in conjunction with the North Western Motorway extension or even before it.

 

  • The Onehunga to Airport link: the only justification for delaying being that the Council itself  is an airport owner and making parking revenue while abandoning consumer interest. Such a link would do much to solve Auckland’s transport problems if combined with the Onehunga – Avondale line and an extension to Manukau which could in turn loop via Botany Downs back to Panmure and the Eastern Line.

Unfortunately both the Greens and Labour political parties seem to be captive to the Inner City Rail Loop, probably because like many environmentally-minded they are captive to the concept that if it is expenditure on public transport it has to be good, when in reality it means that much needed public transport projects will not be funded.

SENSIBLE CITY GROWTH

The consultation process for the Unitary Plan, which would be far better called the Insanity Plan, is being pushed through at break-neck speed with no real opportunity for critics to stop it. At best local objectors will be successful in getting a story or two lopped off the height of multi-storied blocks which will without doubt destroy the character of suburb after suburb across the city all in the name of progress.

You see, the Unitary Plan is based on a philosophy the planners, and through them the politicians, have adopted from overseas. It’s called the “New Urbanism” and it has as its base the concept that cities must go up as the most economically efficient way to provide resources and services to the people. The bogey they’ve created to justify their actions, painting it as a heathen thought which would lead to the very ruination of civilization itself,  is the thing they call “urban sprawl”.

With little short of religious zeal, they portray examples from overseas showing social housing tenement blocks built on the outskirts of cities with no services which inevitably became social disaster areas –  the so-called new towns, motorways snaking for miles across cities like Los Angeles with commuters going nuts and outer burbs being consumed in bush fires, and quaint rural communities being swallowed up by low cost near-shacks spreading like unwanted fungus.

When they paint their vision for the future here, it’s not showing the inner city mess they allowed last time. Now,  it’s Alice in Wonderland very trendy looking three or four storied buildings at most, constructed out of expensive materials with everything from established trees to super-wide footpaths and trendy-looking cafes.

But no one should be fooled by this. The reality is that in the past they couldn’t stop developers getting away with building the cheapest, yet for them most profitable, blocks they could, and they won’t be able to stop them again. While the Unitary Plan is long on dreams about what they’d like to see, it is decidedly short on detail for quality standards. Rest assured this isn’t an oversight. The truth of the matter is the kind of standards necessary to guarantee the image they’d have us believe, would be financially prohibitive and the investment just wouldn’t be forthcoming. If people think affordable housing is beyond them now, the type of multi-storied dwellings those pushing the Unitary Plan would have us believe it will deliver, will be way more unattainable.

As I have said, the only way it could possibly work is that they get filled with increasing numbers of immigrants from countries where incomes are higher than ours. Of course that is exactly what their population projections are based on. Growing the influx of immigrants, principally from Asia, at an exponential rate. The demographic projections for the natural growth of the New Zealand population without a massive increase in immigration don’t in any way justify or require the Unitary Plan. Don’t get me wrong: immigrants from Asia have proven to be comparatively good law-abiding and hard-working citizens, but the question we really need to be asking is whether building another giant Asian city on this isthmus is really what we want to be doing and just who will benefit from it?

The best excuse that could be mustered for the planners and local government politicians backing it is that they are merely extrapolating population projections on current trends and that the immigration issue, particularly consideration of restricting the number of immigrants in the future, is a national issue and their responsibility is to plan on the basis that current trends will continue.  This position carries some sympathy and indeed Aucklanders in particular, and New Zealanders generally, would be wise to be giving consideration to the broader question of economic development and the role of immigration.

This aside, an argument for an alternative direction for the city does not hinge on restricting immigration but rather that the imported “new urbanism” mantra that “up, up, up is the way to go” is fundamentally flawed in the Auckland context.

While such strategy may have been the answer in heavily populated overseas situations where land for outward expansion was either not available or at a massive premium, in New Zealand this is not the case with just over 4 million people living on a land area on which in the overseas examples they are borrowing from, ten times or more than that number live.

Of course this ‘Up not Out’ approach to city planning is not something new. For decades now we have slavishly resisted all but minimal expansion of city boundaries much to our detriment. Its what’s given us the Central Business District apartment block abomination, and it’s given us some very questionable suburban housing developments including those where the self-same planners and regulators, now behind the Unitary Plan and asking us to trust them, allowed construction methods which any fool should have been able to see would lead to leaky buildings.

It’s also led to the situation today where owning their own home in Auckland is beyond young New Zealand families. It’s Economics 101 – restrict supply, in this case the supply of land, at a time of growing demand and the price will inevitably go up. It’s the law of supply and demand.

When the parents of the young families wanting to own their own homes today were their age there wasn’t such arbitrary and artificial barriers put in place. Cities and towns around the country simply extended their city boundaries to accommodate the post-war families that created the baby-boomer generation.

The governments got behind the young families, not only providing the schools and other services for them, but also they gave them access to low interest loans to get into their own homes through what was called the State Advances Corporation.   Young families could capitalize – or get as a one-off bulk payment – the Family Benefit or weekly allowance they got from the government for each child they had until the age of 16. They then used this to buy their first home, the government seeing getting a young family into its home as the best form of assistance it could provide.

Critics of so-called urban sprawl would do well to remember the so-called “quarter-acre pavlova paradise” as the areas created were called. The generation who’ve seen their quarter acre increase in value, or expanded their wealth massively on the back of the increase in the values of their properties, the capital gain untaxed like other forms of income, would do well to ask to what extent they are directly benefiting on the back of their children’s generation’s comparative misfortune. For it’s the artificial limit on land that is not only stopping young people from having the same opportunity their parents had but it’s that artificial barrier restricting supply which is pushing up the value of the properties their parents own.

While some may attempt to rationalize this by saying the kids will inherit their wealth, and some will use the capital gain they’ve made to help their children, the truth of the matter is that many of them through extending mortgaging are living the high-life. It’s also creating and perpetuating a landed class in New Zealand of privilege and a tenant class of under-privilege. This is a factual observation to which no value judgment is attributed.  However, the generation which benefitted from the expansion of urban limits when they were starting out could be creating the potential for major generational social discontent.

While some, particularly young people, will have a preference for inner city and apartment type living, the traditional New Zealand suburban section way of life has much to commend it, both socially and physically. New Zealand needs to think very hard before it sacrifices what is the very basis of so much of the New Zealand way of life based on the home and section with the stability home ownership provides.

And it’s not just the privately ownership which is being put to the kosh by the restriction of urban expansion but it’s the State’s own ability to provide State Housing for a section of the community for whom home ownership is not realistic. The cost of land in Auckland, in particular, is beyond the capacity of Government to provide anywhere near the level of affordable state housing needed to deliver what has traditionally been seen as a primary social responsibility of government. Arguments about building costs and the effect the Resource Management Consent process has on the ability to provide affordable housing, pale into insignificance in comparison to the escalating cost of land. Likewise arguments emerging from the Government that the third sector is better equipped to provide and manage affordable housing than the state is as much a convenient way for the government to extricate itself from the position it is in with the city boundaries making housing unaffordable.

There’s another effect the artificial barrier to Auckland’s growth is having and that’s the effect it is having on inflation. The Reserve Bank’s identification of Auckland property prices as the main driver of inflation is nothing new. Reserve Bank governors have been pointing to it for the past three decades with it being a key reason for their need to keep interest rates up. Interest rates which not only impact on everyone with a mortgage but on the cost of money for businesses and that impacts on the whole economy.

The advocates of the “New Urbanism”, which isn’t so new now, argue that lateral city expansion is bad economics due to the prohibitive cost of providing infrastructure such as road, water and sewerage reticulation, power, etc. and social service from schools, doctors, and policing to retail facilities.

While such argument may carry some weight in areas where such infrastructure has to be provided from scratch, Auckland is uniquely placed in this respect. Take the Waikato Valley which is the obvious direction for easy growth.  The area is abundantly catered for, utility-wise. The double-tracked main trunk railway line extends all the way to Hamilton and beside it the fibre optic cable laid at the same time as electrification, making the area ready and waiting for ultra-fast broadband at a far less cost than providing it to an upward stretching new urban city. The motorway also runs virtually the length of the valley so there’s roading solved and over-head the national electricity grid means power reticulation to new communities would be a breeze and again actually far less expensive than providing increased capacity to the areas the Unitary Plan envisages major increases in population and hence consumption. The natural gas pipeline also runs right through the area providing the potential for a cheap and highly efficient form of energy.  Likewise the cost of providing water would be significantly less than for the Unitary Plan city. Auckland already takes a large proportion of its water from the Waikato River and developing communities alongside it makes far more sense than having to pump increasingly huge volumes to the locations the Unitary Plan would have residents of the future dwelling.  And of course the river itself holds the potential to again be a significant thoroughfare as well as recreational playground with multimillions being spent on its clean up.

As far as things like schools, policing and community services go, they will need to be provided wherever the people are and retail facilities go where people are: that’s their business. And the area is already well serviced with tertiary institutions when one considers that students would not necessarily be travelling further than they are now to universities, technical institutes and Wananga in Hamilton and South Auckland, albeit they may be moving in a different direction probably on a highly efficient train system running at regular intervals linking all the communities not only for students but all commuters.

We have seen universities from as far afield as Otago, Wellington and Palmerston North establishing campuses in Auckland, showing they will go where the students are. Likewise employment would follow the workforce to an extent. Construction on a scale larger than Christchurch, albeit spread out in small clusters, would be a major employer with numbers of the workforce expected to live in the new communities where low rise family homes rather than multistoried blocks would be the order of the day.

Such dwellings would be cheaper to construct as well. For one thing building materials would be closer at hand with major sawmills already at Bombay and Taupiri, Huntly brick a New Zealand institution, river sand abundant, and quarries nearby.

Also when it comes to employment it shouldn’t be forgotten that even today it’s quicker for people to drive from Huntly to South Auckland, the city’s major manufacturing and production area, than from north or west of the city. A couple of significant employers: the new prison at Springhill, and the rubbish disposal centre at Hampton Downs (where incidentally a large amount of Auckland’s refuse now goes) have located in the Waikato instead of the city for the kind of reasons being outlined.

The Bombay Hills are basically a psychological boundary but once a high speed commuter rail service was skirting around the hills and into the city they will be seen as just another bump in the road. And this of course ignores the fact that Hamilton – Te Rapa – Horotiu is a major employment area expected to grow significantly as the service centre of the most productive agricultural region in the country. It also should not be forgotten that it takes less than half the time to get to the Coromandel Peninsula holiday playground from the area than it does from most of Auckland.

For the open minded it’s not hard to envisage a range of thriving communities or living clusters right along the valley between Hamilton and Auckland complementing the existing townships such as Pokeno, Mercer, Te Kauwhata, Rangiriri, Huntly, Taupiri, Ngaruawahia and Horotiu and that’s just on the east side of the river. To the west: Tuakau, Pukemiro, Onewhero, Pukekawa, and Rotowaro.

Critics may say people wouldn’t want to live there. Wouldn’t they if the price of land was significantly less, as it would be with one simple change to planning? Instead of the central planners dictating where and how people should live, if planning law was amended allowing people to build where they liked provided they keep with environmental, aesthetic and co-operative guidelines, i.e. they weren’t going to shit in anyone else’s nest.

Modern technology allows such an approach which would encourage creativity and diversity. No longer do we have to choose between long-drops and massive sewerage treatment plants where all the poo from miles around has to get pumped. Modern high tech systems exist which can service a single house, while systems servicing small clusters are both effective and cost efficient. In past times the planners determined things like minimum and maximum size of a subdivision and number of dwellings allowed but why? Such planning is more akin to the way things were done in the old Soviet Union than modern day society. Allow people to do whatever they want on the land, to build as many or few homes as they want, provided it doesn’t compromise the environment and doesn’t impact negatively on neighbours.  With an abundance of affordable land there wouldn’t be the incentive to over-crowd. To do so would merely lessen value.

And if anyone needs an example of what great places to live communities in the area could be, they only need visit Te Kauwhata. Nestled in one of the country’s long established wine-growing areas with excellent cafés, a range of craft and consumer goods outlets, retirement village where the residents are at the very heart of the town and Marae an integral part of the broader community.

It’s probably too optimistic to imagine that the Planners would be enlightened enough to allow such a progressive system of land occupation even if they were forced to accept that the Unitary Plan is not the best way to go. But even if they couldn’t keep their grubby hands from determining what could be done here and not done there, they couldn’t make a worse job of planning development along the Waikato for example, than their current plans for Auckland.

Hopefully they’d be able to see past the self-interest arguments of land holders of the past. When 40 odd years ago I was a young journalist in the Waikato I used to attend county council meetings around the region where the majority of time was taken up considering proposals where farmers wanted to subdivide their properties and/or build additional dwellings on them. In their wisdom, or lack of it,  usually after a large lunch accompanied by an open bar, the Councilors would deliberate, most often coming down against the proposal on the basis that it would create what they considered to be an uneconomic unit or take valuable farming land out of production. The trouble was that this didn’t allow for changes in land use and ruled against innovation. In other areas in their wisdom, or rather lack of it, councils with planners’ backing brought in minimum subdivision sizes which led to the proliferation of so-called life-style blocks which ended up in many cases meaning people who wanted to live in the country had to buy and manage more land than they wanted, land which in many cases has been taken out of efficient production to accommodate young Suzie’s horse she no longer wants to ride and even less groom.

The facts of the matter are if prime dairy land is far too valuable to be used for housing it won’t be but throughout the valley there is a huge amount of marginal land that’s not economically viable that would be most suitable for housing.  Indeed it’s where planners have determined settlement should be, rather than the letting the potential return off the land establish its use, that good agricultural land has been swallowed up for housing. The expansion of Pokeno is a good example.

Generally opening the region for housing development would solve Auckland’s housing problem and alleviate the need for a Unitary Plan that’s not wanted and makes no sense. But south is just one direction the city would go, albeit glaringly obvious: west and north also beckon.

Whether of course such development takes place through further local government amalgamation, that is, further expansion of Auckland Super City, or the creation perhaps of a new amalgamated authority between Franklin and  Waikato Counties, are again political decisions that need to follow good commonsense with one suspects more than a small degree of central government direction or perhaps  coercion.

And ironically while a planned, or should I say a strategic approach, would obviously realise the area’s potential quicker and alleviate Auckland’s problems inevitably if Auckland does go ahead with its Unitary Plan and people are priced out of the city, they will put pressure on the area south of the Bombays to accommodate them.

I foresee big money to be made in the house removal business with houses all over the city cleared for multi-storied tenement blocks put on trucks and carted to the Waikato as a ready source of housing for the new developments. That’s if planners don’t put in their dirty mitts and ban relocated housing which is the kind of dopey thing they’ve done in the past in many city fringe areas where boundaries have been extended.

Look, I am not saying that rural community living will suit everyone. Many will choose to reside in the high rise and density jungles, particularly many of the new immigrants who will have come from large Asian cities and find them more familiar than having a piece of turf.  Others will want to be closer to their places of work, play and study. But New Zealand should be very careful about turning its back on people owning their own section and the benefits it holds, from a great place to bring up children with places to play, to a good place to be if the world does see another great depression, which one would have to give some considerable odds of happening over the next 50 to 100 years. Supporters of the Insanity Plan should ask themselves where they’d rather be if the balloon goes up with massive unemployment and people and businesses going bust due to global depression and recession. The plot of land where vegetables can be grown, fruit trees planted and neighbours able to pull together to fight adversity or the Unitary Plan delivered apartment block with nowhere to  hide from hunger’s rage with the alienation and anomie such places build even in good times a memory as social structure collapses. Many of us grew up in small towns or city suburbia with places where we could play and build active and healthy lives for ourselves.

Before leaving the subject of housing I would not want it thought that I am totally averse to multi-storied housing. Quite the reverse: I believe it’s a sensible thing to do in areas where for one reason or another numbers of people want to live. But that’s not the kind of concrete apartment jungle we’ve allowed in the past and its certainly not the widespread multi-storied proliferation envisaged in the Unitary Plan as the planners have obviously started with the projected numbers they have to fit into the confined space and to do so they’ve literally had to compromise area after area of the city pushing heights to the maximum they think they can get away with. One can only ask if residents are successful in lobbying to get reductions in the height of building in their neighbourhood will even greater intensification be required in other locations where residents may have been less vocal in opposition or the whole thing will be allowed to be compromised in the interests of expediency.

In fact, in Auckland there are some excellent examples how medium height medium density affordable housing can be integrated into established communities that few people are aware of and that’s because it’s been so well done. It’s the multi-million dollar Housing New Zealand developments undertaken during the term of the Helen Clark government but ditched by National with its championing of the private sector to provide for the housing needs of the future which clearly hasn’t happened.

The Labour government acknowledged the housing need and dedicated $2 billion over three years for state housing essentially in the Auckland area and the Corporation did a very clever thing to realise the task. Now the largest building company in New Zealand, Housing New Zealand employed a team to manage the projects with expertise from the private sector. I was part of that team and I experienced first-hand the creation of amazing housing developments across the city. Projects like the redevelopment of a site in May Road, Mount Roskill, where a mixture of 82 one, two and three bedroom homes stands as evidence of what can be done. The 64 home development on the corner of St Lukes and New North roads in Sandringham behind the St Likes church. The two storied developments in places like Valiant Street in Onehunga where run-down single dwellings on large pieces of land were replaced by stylish well designed and environmentally friendly enclaves. To ensure quality standards were maintained during three years of the fastest growth in state housing in this country’s history, Housing New Zealand retained the position of chief architect who had to sign off every planned development making sure it adhered to strict quality guidelines. In the face of at times immense pressure from senior management who were working against almost impossible target delivery deadlines, with large pay bonuses if they delivered, he stood firm and refused to compromise standards which is among others things a key reason why Housing New Zealand hardly suffered at all from the leaky building crisis that ravaged the private sector.

The team went block by block across the city identifying areas, such as those mentioned above, where the Corporation owned state houses, often worn out semi-detached units, which were very poor usage of valuable land. Once an area had been identified they went to the city’s architectural firms, which would have to be among the best in the world, and asked them to come up with designs that were affordable but of a quality that would not be out of place in the neighbourhoods chosen for redevelopment.  Sometimes this was done by selecting a firm that had proven itself in the affordable housing market place and at other times concept competitions were held to see which architects could come up with the most exciting design for the location. The city’s architects to their great credit embraced the project going to great efforts to answer a challenge which they generally saw as an opportunity to give something back to the community. Of course there was considerable kudos in winning a design competition and pride in designing developments which were among the best affordable housing solutions seen anywhere in the world. Their designs were turned in to reality by construction firms chosen on the basis of competitive tender and reporting to in-house Corporation project managers virtually all with international experience. Today the projects stand as testimony around the city to their brilliance enhancing rather than detracting from the neighborhood’s appeal and showing what can be done with political will and a model of development that works. The reader may be asking why they haven’t known about such a magnificent and successful multi-billion dollar scheme. The short of it is the Corporation took great care to ensure the developments as much as possible flew below the radar of public questioning: a strategy again in which I played an important role giving the Minister of Housing weekly heads-up reports on anything that might reflect negatively on the government. The truth of the matter was that, then like now, fast-escalating Auckland property prices were the major cause of inflation and the government itself, through its housing developments and buying of houses to add to its stock on the open market, was a major, if not the major, driver of the rising property prices. Real estate agents knew that if they got a two or three bedroom house in many areas right across the city all they needed to do was approach Housing New Zealand, and often with nothing much more than a phone call they’d have a sale that wasn’t even conditional. Obviously with such an active buyer with seemingly bottomless pockets, as achieving those targets was paramount, couldn’t help but drive prices skyward. And equally the government didn’t want to be fingered as the culprit when the Reserve Bank consistently restricted the money supply in its endeavour to fight the effect of Housing New Zealand fuelled property prices on inflation. That’s why there were no grand openings of multi-million dollar world class affordable housing developments. That’s why it was done below the radar but that shouldn’t take away from the excellent job done on the ground and doesn’t lessen the argument that right before our eyes exist examples of affordable housing development that are the equal of any anywhere in the world.

Unlike the Unitary Plan method of allowing multi-storied development in area after area around the city, to get consent for their projects Housing Corporation had to get planning departures from the council to which residents could object.  My job was to make sure the neighbours were fully informed about what was planned, and their rights to object, consultation being a statutory requirement under both the Resource Management Act and the reform of the Local Government Act of 2002. As well as telling people in the neighbourhood what was planned it was important in getting council approval to minimize public objection getting the community to see that the development would improve their neighbourhood rather than detract from it. A difficult task when it was realised that the projects generally involved a significant increase in the number of state tenants being accommodated and invariably there was some history such as trouble from past state tenant neighbours. Few relished the idea of more state houses in their neighbourhood, often a neighbourhood such as Ellerslie or Epsom which didn’t exactly cry out state housing.

Without any completed examples to demonstrate the quality Housing New Zealand was now putting into its building after a period when most of the units to be demolished were anything but high standard, it wasn’t an easy task.

But thanks to the architect’s patience, the work put into models and sketches to sell their work, and I would have to say the generally broadminded attitudes of Aucklanders who may have seen intensification of state housing in their neighbourhood as the last thing they wanted but accepted that they shouldn’t let their good fortune of living in a so-called good neighbourhood stand in the way of the less fortunate getting a home, the projects got the go-ahead with minimal modification. And I would say without any doubt that once the developments morphed, doubts were dispelled as in spite of greater numbers of state tenants living nearby, the developments were a massive improvement on what was there before. Also with well-planned projects both physically and socially, neighbours have come to learn that if you give people a quality home they will respect it as they, with rare exceptions, grow healthy families which can and do contribute positively.

I mention this work which I was closely involved with for around four years, as an indication that building intensification can be achieved without resort to blanket modification of what is allowed, which is the very purpose of the Unitary Plan. Whichever way you look at it, its holus bolus doing away with citizen’s rights as multi-storied buildings (which would not have a show in hades of getting approval under current zonings and regulations) will be allowed as of right without those who previously could object having a say or even needing to be notified. The only surprise is that there hasn’t been a greater outcry, but there is no doubt great concern among those who do realise what’s going on. In fact as far as pushing their plans through with a minimum of objection the Council will be patting itself on the back. It has set up an appallingly short time for people to give feedback on the Insanity Plan, itself presented in a way designed to cause despair to anyone but the most diligent studier of its contents. Rather than being simple, it confuses by its shear volume and complexity. It clearly paints a situation where the Council will be able to magnanimously claim they’ve listened to the feedback and modified their intentions accordingly but in all reality any modification is likely to be nothing much more than shifting deck chairs on the Titanic. People may consider they’ve made gains here and there in pegging back the monster in their midst but I will guarantee the modified result will be no real compromise or rethink.  The only question one would have to ask is who benefits from this. Who actually benefits from turning what is a still beautiful city in spite of the Council’s best efforts to encourage ugliness, into an abomination? Whose interest is being served by turning Auckland into another Asian metropolis? And mark my words, that’s what lies at the heart of the Insanity plan. It’s all designed to accommodate a massively increased population which most definitely isn’t being generated locally. In fact the birthrate is falling and the population without massive infusion from overseas would actually decline over the period the plan’s  designed to cover. Mayor Len Brown is so cocky in his election campaign television advertisements that he presented huge growth of the city as unquestioningly a good thing, which will lead to economic growth. Again one has to ask: good for whom? Has the recent burgeoning of the city’s population seen a significant improvement in Aucklanders’ standard of living? Has New Zealand seen significant economic growth as the populations leapt from three to four million before our eyes? The answer is a definite No. In fact, our economic growth has been among the poorest in the OECD and our living standard has dropped from 4th highest in the world to somewhere in the mid-30’s and continuing to decline compared to successful countries. And that reflects changing fortunes for the average New Zealander, while the truth is what we once prided ourselves on as the egalitarian society, where there wasn’t a  great disparity between the haves and the have-nots, has been replaced by major difference between rich and poor to the extent that two out of every five children are being brought up in poverty and going to school hungry. And the major benefactors of the shift in fortunes, the landed gentry who own Fonterra, have the cheek to parade themselves in television ads portraying themselves as next to Father Christmas because they’re giving the starving kids a glass of milk. Its sick! Charles Dickens would have found fertile ground in the land we once called “Godsown”.  Here the country has the growing gap between haves and have-nots being played out in Auckland’s south and west and parts of the Shore. Sorry Mr Mayor, your sanguine belief that a growing population is good for us is just plain wrong. Yet it’s the underlying belief of those who have cocked up in the past and basing the plans they are imposing on us for the future. That’s why I say we need to take a radically different path.

 

 

 

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