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5 crazy ideas about the Unitary Plan

Aug 1, 2016 Urban design

The new Unitary Plan is not the last word in how to make Auckland a better city. No plan ever will be. But some of the criticisms it has received are just plain wrong. Here are five of them.

1 “The UP won’t provide affordable housing.”

Labour leader Andrew Little has led the charge on this one, revealing that modelling for the independent hearings panel shows 85 per cent of new homes will be worth more than $800,000, and less than two per cent will cost less than $600,000.

But as economist Shamubeel Eaqub says, that modelling is based on current prices, not future trends. The UP says we currently have a shortfall of 40,000 homes, and counting, and it proposes a building programme big enough to bring supply into line with demand, possibly even to outstrip it.

As that happens, pressure on property prices will inevitably ease. The modelling Little refers to is based on the 247,000 new homes the UP allows for within existing urban areas, over the next 30 years. In fact, the UP establishes many new urban areas as well, and allows for a total of 422,000 homes over that period.

Little has also criticised the RUP’s failure to retain quota for affordable housing in developments with more than 15 units. The earlier version required 10 per cent of such developments to be “affordable”.

This isn’t the problem it might seem. Partly, that’s because quotas are difficult to retain over time: a cheap house in an expensive part of town usually becomes expensive itself. Partly, it’s because affordable housing usually has to be built at scale, to get the necessary cost efficiencies. That’s hard to do unless you’re building lots of similar homes together.

Mainly, though, the fact is that the quantity of affordable housing required over 30 years is far greater than could be provided by small quotas in other developments. Auckland needs whole new areas of affordable homes, built to high standards.

Which leads to the biggest reason why it’s wrong to say the UP does nothing for affordable housing. Building such homes cannot, and never has been, a matter for the market. That’s because the aim of developers is to optimise (or maximise, if you want to be more cynical) their profits. That way they can build more homes, and more again. That’s how the market works.

But the aim of anyone in charge of affordable housing must be to minimise profit. It’s the opposite. This is why affordable housing must be built by the government – both central and local. It doesn’t literally have to be built by the government, though. Remember, the state houses of the first Labour government were largely built, under government contract, by Fletcher Construction.

But costs, like design standards, location, infrastructure support and more, must be controlled.

The reality is simple: the RUP is designed to enable all the affordable housing we want, but it also requires that central and local government between them take the lead in getting it built.

One thing Little is right about: Labour’s KiwiBuild scheme suggests it would do exactly that. It’s a mystery why Little didn’t claim a political victory from the RUP, because it’s exactly in line with his party’s own policy.

And what is “affordable housing”? For heaven’s sake, in today’s terms it’s got to cost less than $500,000. The RUP allows it.

2 “The removal of density rules will allow developers to build terrible shoebox apartments.”

Density rules have been a barrier to efficient development of sites in residential zones. The removal of them doesn’t mean your neighbour’s house can be replaced by a big block of shoebox apartments right on your boundary. It means that if a developer can figure out a way to put, say, four units instead of three onto the site, while observing all the other rules relating to your housing zone, they will be able to go ahead. In particular, the height rules and boundary rules remain.

This is a critical measure that will allow mid-scale and low-scale townhouse-style developments throughout the city. And that, not tower blocks, is the most valuable way to increase density without undermining local character.

3 “There are no design rules.”

This is complete nonsense. After the shoebox apartments of Nelson St and elsewhere were built 15-20 years ago, councillors and planners looked at the vandalism they had perpetrated and had a Damascene conversion. So they called in architects and other experts, set up design panels and advisory bodies and began working out how not to do it again. The result is that Auckland now has a very good Design Manual.

It’s not perfect, but nor is it finished. It is, and will remain, a work in progress. But it’s a hands-on guide to designing the built environment of the city, and it’s actively used. In addition, the Building Act and many other laws and bylaws prescribe other sets of rules.

The reason the UP doesn’t contain design rules is not because the panel didn’t think there should be any. It’s because the panel knew we already have them. It didn’t think the UP should repeat what’s already there.

4 “The removal of ‘overlay’ protections for historic and heritage properties, sites of importance to mana whenua and ‘special character’ properties will lead to the destruction of our heritage.”

This general area was probably the biggest surprise in the RUP. The panel appears to have decided that general “overlays” were too clumsy. Declaring that all homes built before 1944 have intrinsic historic value, for example, ignores that a great many of them are very plain, draughty little houses. Another example: designating a broad sweep of 36000 sites to be important to mana whenua, so that in many cases property owners must commission impact reports from iwi even though there is no relevant impact.

However, it’s clear the panel also expects the council to develop much better rules in these areas. It will be for the new council to decide how, but the measures at their disposal include specific plan changes, more precise identification of features of enduring value, and new central regulations. The outcome should be a much clearer and more refined set of protections for everything we want to preserve in our built environment. That’s good.

But yes, it’s a risk. The new council might not do the work well, or do it at all. But we should assume, and insist, that this work is done, and done well.

5 “The leafy suburbs will be ruined.”

An underlying principle of the RUP is that the costs and benefits of living in a bigger city should be shared by everyone. That’s hard to argue with. The alternative is to prioritise the ability of the wealthy to live on large sections close to town, so that the poor must spread into the far distance, forever bearing the financial and social costs associated with this, and so that we continue with our housing shortage and all the social costs it imposes.

And yet increased density, done within good planning guidelines, will also bring great benefits to the leafy suburbs themselves. People who live in family homes there will find it easier to retire to smaller homes in their own suburbs. Their own families – children and grandchildren – will find it easier to live nearby, which benefits family members directly but also helps preserve those suburbs as mixed communities.

There will be more shops, more public transport, more events and activities, more amenities: more choice for residents of things to do and places to do them.

Not every single development in 21st century Auckland will be a good one. Unscrupulous developers – and unscrupulous property owners who sell to them, frankly – will always exist. But the RUP, backed by the council’s other rules and guidelines, doesn’t help them. On the contrary, it’s a powerful weapon to use against them.

It’s a rulebook and also a statement of intent. It says: We want to build a bigger and better city, for all citizens to enjoy living and working in. It says, We’re looking to the future, and we need to do it together.



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