Auckland remains in the throes of a housing and infrastructure crisis — facing declining home ownership rates, what some have described as an armour-plated housing bubble, a drought of quality housing and a ballooning social Housing Register.

One of the ways the Government has responded has been to create a new Crown agency, Kāinga Ora – Homes and Communities, with a mandate to transform housing and urban development nationwide.

Here, in this content partnership article with Newsroom, three of consulting firm Beca’s Auckland leaders; Rupert Hodson, northern region manager (and champion of all things Auckland); Bryce Julyan, community-shaping practice lead; and Matt Lindenberg, senior associate – urban planning, discuss what this means for our biggest city, and across Aotearoa.

Auckland from the air. Photo: Getty Images

Kāinga Ora, which was formally established on October 1, has pulled together three existing agencies; Housing New Zealand, its subsidiary HLC, and KiwiBuild.

Under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) umbrella, Kāinga Ora is soon to have a portfolio of powers, and forms a big part of the reforms in the Government’s ambitious Urban Growth Agenda (UGA), and billion-dollar Housing Infrastructure Fund.

Minister of Urban Development Phil Twyford has said Kāinga Ora will have two key roles – being a world-class public housing landlord and working with partners to enable, facilitate and build urban development projects of all sizes. The hope is to unlock land for development, streamline consents and approvals, and make room for our cities to grow up as well as out.

Q1 – The housing and infrastructure crisis didn’t happen overnight. What factors contributed most to where we are today?

Rupert Hodson – Essentially, the key driver of the infrastructure and housing crisis in Auckland has been our high population growth, on the back of a serious infrastructure deficit. We’ve basically grown by the size of Hamilton over the past five years – an additional 180,000 people – without the required level of central and local government investment in infrastructure to support it.

Bryce Julyan – Housing and infrastructure just hasn’t kept pace with the number of people coming into Auckland, and New Zealand growth areas more generally. And this is not just immigration of new people coming in, but also the general rural-urban flow. Cities are the social and economic powerhouse of growth across the globe and Auckland is no exception. The opportunities people see in the city is pushing our communities into these metropolis areas and inflating demand for the services needed to support them.

Matt Lindenberg – Paradoxically, a consequence of Auckland’s rising up the ranks as one of the world’s most liveable cities, is that the cost of living in a city goes up alongside the demand to live in it. Just look at the likes of Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, or New York. It’s part of a global mega-trend of urbanisation which is really hitting here now. At the same time as this increasing demand there hasn’t been enough of a supply response, which has been exacerbated by a lack of effective planning.

Q2 – What’s needed to really shift the dial on the crisis and turn around Auckland’s development?

Rupert – It’s quite complex and there’s no one thing. Infrastructure is critical; we need to be focused on funding and financing infrastructure, addressing the gaps in the provision of the required infrastructure and eventually moving to front-loading infrastructure ahead of building and developing houses. We also need to continue the conversation around good-quality densification and what that means for Aucklanders – things like access to amenities, open space, green space, good public transport and mass transit links that provide options to shift to different modes of transport – and we’ve got to invest in that.

Matt – We understand we’ve got a problem, and we have started taking action to resolve it. Auckland’s Unitary Plan has been a great step in this direction. Now we need to be able to respond at scale and pace to get solutions on the ground. What’s holding us back now is funding and the labour to deliver. We know what infrastructure is needed to support urban areas, we know how to build, design and deliver it. So, the key thing we need is to get smarter about what all our funding options are, and connect strategic and integrated land-use planning with infrastructure planning and funding.

Bryce – Infrastructure needs to align with the city’s growth areas and prioritisation. An element of this, too, is that Auckland’s response has tended to be expanding urban areas to build more houses outside existing city boundaries. This appears to be the easy approach but has the effect of encroaching on and absorbing productive land used for other purposes such as horticulture. This greenfield development pushes residents to the outer limits of the city adding un-planned costs such as transport and infrastructure as we still need to provide access to services and employment. Instead, we need to look at optimising our brownfield areas – our existing urban areas where there is capacity for taking more intensity or better re-development of our existing urban fabric. 

Greenfields development in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images

Q3 – What’s the role of long-term planning in all this, and joining the dots between infrastructure and the way we use land?

Matt – You can look internationally and find examples of where these things are far better integrated – take the UK, where you can’t have a spatial plan without an infrastructure plan to go with it. Say you’re a local authority and are writing the spatial plan for the urban growth of your area, you have to have an infrastructure delivery plan that accompanies your spatial plan. This literally lists out all your projects in your spatial plan and aligns with the infrastructure provider responsible for the funding and delivery.

Rupert – We do have the Auckland Plan, which is an aspirational spatial plan, and a strategic view of the future and vision of where we want to get to – but there is not necessarily the accountability and commitment to its delivery by all government agencies. We’ve also got the Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP), which is an attempt to have a 30-year transport delivery plan, linked to the aspirations of the Auckland Plan and strategic land-use. There is certainly the intent, though affecting all of this is the fact that there’s just not one agency responsible for delivering infrastructure and that much of the planning has been led at a regional or local level and mostly funded centrally. Long term planning needs to be something that all agencies are involved in.

Bryce – As we noted earlier, integrated planning is critical. Developing tools such as a spatial plan enable communities to look 20 or 30 years out, and we tend to break these down into decades or less for implementation. The political three-year cycles make long-term visions very hard to commit to, because the incumbents are not necessarily going to be seen as delivering the action on the ground. It’s a well-recognised issue with infrastructure investment and planning, at both a local authority and also national level. The issues go beyond electoral terms, so collaboration across political lines is also important to ensure everyone shares the vision or has the opportunity to participate. 

Matt – It’s worth noting that the new Infrastructure Commission and the Construction Sector Accord are intended to help break down and get away from these shorter-term cycles, so the environment is certainly changing.

Q4 – How about that housing crisis – has the bubble burst?

Matt – I think the needle is certainly shifting, as far as where we’re at on the housing crisis spectrum. If we look 12 or 24 months ago, then it was the number one focus and issue. However, we’ve had a few changes now in the past 12 months, including the Government’s approach to immigration, and also restrictions on capital coming into New Zealand for property purchases. Still, while the pressure has broadly eased, we continue to have a crisis of accessibility and inequality for particular segments of our community. The Housing Register and demand for public housing is increasing and we still need to deliver a greater variety of housing types and sizes in the right places to improve affordability.

Rupert – Yes, while house prices are still extreme, at least the affordability problem isn’t getting materially worse, although many communities in Auckland remain shut out of the opportunity for home ownership. We also need to acknowledge that Auckland Council is consenting 13,500 dwellings per year at the moment. New Zealand almost has a founding principle that everyone has a right to own a home, but in other countries people will rent long-term, with security of tenure and quality of stock. It’s a multi-faceted issue, with a need to also look at the rental housing market, and social housing, and provide for this big chunk of the market which is not now seeing home ownership as an achievable aspiration.

Matt – If we’re delivering public-private housing that sits in the middle to upper tier of the market, and it’s the people in the lower-to-middle tiers who are needing to buy or access housing – are we solving the problem?

Bryce – I think that’s a real challenge from the planning side as well – because to create greater density, that supports housing affordability as well as community connectedness, you need better design, better integration of open space, with public transport and local social infrastructure.

Matt – We also simply can’t deliver the houses we need, at scale and pace, by continuing to build houses as we did 90 or 100 years ago. We just can’t. There’s a huge programme of work required. Think off-site manufacturing and pre-fabrication – we need a fundamental overhaul of how we construct, and how we resource mass production of housing, in this country. This is also a real opportunity for a government with funding focused on the regions – and a chance to stimulate our regional economy.

Bryce – Back in the 70s, we were seeing homes that were pre-fabricated and shipped out wholesale into greenfield sites. You picked your typology and layout based on a limited number of floor plates. Now, we’re really trying to densify and create better communities that are not on an urban sprawl scale. Returning to the UK – terraced housing was built block, by block, by block. But they were just standard plans and rolled out in that kind of manner. So that kind of mass-production, even just off standard plans, needs a planning environment or regulatory environment that allows it to happen – while still meeting health and safety and other requirements, and achieving 21st century quality designs.

Nimbyism can be a hurdle for development in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images

Q5 – With Kāinga Ora now established, what are its biggest challenges?

Rupert – One of the challenges Kāinga Ora will have to confront, and that we are seeing play out on the ground in Auckland, particularly around changes to housing density and transport planning, is nimbyism. The localised resistance to change and challenge to intensification. It’s an ongoing debate as we transition from being a city that’s really grown around cars and motorway corridors and sprawl and the 1/4 acre section belief of home ownership.

Bryce – There is also a bit of an intergenerational divide, with a growing awareness particularly in younger generations of things like climate change, long-term sustainability, and of course technology. Diversity in our communities and cultures is also prompting change to the types of social interactions and housing arrangements we have. This should be an opportunity to consider the type of housing that may need to service the next generation of NZ communities.

Matt – It’s a generational appetite and attitude towards the concept of change – and the sense that some people have this preference for the status quo and see change as a threat. Personally, I think people either see change as a threat, or as an opportunity. We have a generation coming through, from millennials and the next group that will be the generation of challenging change, and seeing what’s possible. The challenge in the near-term, is how do you have a conversation with everyone else about the need to expect change. After all, it’s not just death and taxes that are certain!

Q6 – It’s going to take time to really understand and embed Kāinga Ora, the Urban Growth Agenda (UGA) and other initiatives. Is Auckland ready?

Rupert – We’re really working in a time of change, with leaders who are embracing change and the policy settings needed to adapt to growth, particularly urban growth. To get the actual policies and legislation right takes time and is complex. We’re seeing this in the time it’s taking government to work out the funding mechanisms needed to deliver on various infrastructure projects.

Matt – It’s important people realise we’re not looking for a short-term solution to a short-term problem. We do want to deliver outcomes quicker on the ground, but we’re trying to fix a problem that has developed for the past 30 to 40 years, for the next 30 to 40 years. It’s going to take years to embed solutions, from policy and laws to planning and infrastructure approvals – before we can see the scale of change that we need.

Rupert – For us in the industry, though, a lot of this is change that’s not before its time; from Kāinga Ora to the Infrastructure Commission and Construction Sector Accord, the climate change Zero Carbon Bill, the significant change in transport policy under the Government Policy Statement. Then you’ve got reform of the RMA, further change to the Land Transport Management Act, Local Government Act and spatial plan reforms – all underway or on the horizon. For the first time we will have a national policy statement on urban development capacity. 

Bryce – Absolutely. The professional planning community for instance is engaged in this change. What’s more is that in the time it takes to integrate and implement all these changes, to embed Kāinga Ora and the other policy and fiscal settings to deliver for particular areas, there will possibly be two or three elections. The continuity of policy and direction needs broader buy-in so we’re not chopping and changing every three years if we’re getting changes in government.

Rupert – In terms of the legislation for Kāinga Ora, there’s obviously the first phase establishing the agency which has now come into effect – and then there’s the second with the new powers and mechanisms that will have to fast-track large-scale urban development. It will be interesting to see what those powers look like, as even though it will be fast-track, you’ve still got to allow time for meaningful community engagement.

Photo: Getty Images

Q7 – How important will that engagement be in getting the right outcomes for Auckland?

Matt – We’re in a world where we’re trying to plan for the future – but a lot of the time the loudest voices we’re hearing through the planning process aren’t the voices of future generations. So, we’re caught in this dichotomy between asking what are we trying to plan for, and who are we trying to plan it for – and trying to have honest and open conversations about that. Auckland had a huge process of public consultation a few years ago around re-zoning maps in the Auckland Unitary Plan, that got massive community kickback in some parts of Auckland. Certain groups were up-in-arms about apartments, density and intensification coming to particular suburbs. Broadly speaking, this nimbyism needs to be better balanced against our rights as a community to be able to live in a liveable and affordable city.

Bryce – There is a very, very strong private property culture in New Zealand, and a lot of parts of the world don’t have that same issue. Even the planning system grew out of that protection of private property rights. And it’s such an ingrained thing it’s hard for Kiwis to understand that in order to enable change, “different” ways of living and moving are needed. Engagement is crucial, and it should consider community views. However, changes are needed, and we should focus on the positive outcomes that can be achieved and look at offering more choice (in housing and transport etc) for our future communities. It is about more than the idea of their section and their house being their castle and that they shouldn’t have to put up with anything that changes their environment.

Matt – Agreed, though the conversation in the past was also missing some vital context. Just because people saw a colour on a map, in their community or neighbourhood, that didn’t mean the zoned development would actually happen. Take land being zoned for an apartment complex or apartments. If the site is 600 or 800 square metres in area, well, no one can build apartments on a site of that size. The reality is, of what you try to zone for intensification – you might only develop 10-20 percent of that land area over a 10 to 15-year period, out of pure development economics.

* Beca is a foundation supporter of Newsroom’s New Auckland section.

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