Urgently pushing through legislation is justified in rare situations, but increasing housing supply is not one of them. Nicole Moreham argues that intensifying our cities requires careful consideration with input from a wide range of experts.

Comment: Plenty of heat is being generated by the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Bill. Plans to allow up to three dwellings, three storeys high on most sections in our major cities have unsurprisingly been controversial.

Many support the move as a means of increasing supply in an unprecedently overheated property market. Others see it as a rushed-through measure that could lead to inappropriate development in our major cities.

But there is another story to tell here too. It is about the way the Government is rushing through the legislation.

The bill was introduced to Parliament on October 19 following “secret” discussions between National and Labour. Those discussions resulted in bipartisan support. According to media reports, mayors and city councillors had no idea the bill was coming. Wellington Mayor Andy Foster said he found out about it just one day before the city council was due to debate its own district plan.

Despite this lack of warning, Parliament’s Environment Committee has been given five weeks to report back on the bill, and local authorities and the public had just three weeks to make submissions.

And these were not just any three weeks. The bill was announced whilst Aucklanders were dealing with the Delta outbreak and suffering the effects of a protracted lockdown. To put this into perspective, select committees typically have six months to report back on a bill. This in turn means stakeholders have months – not weeks – to give feedback. Here, councillors and individuals (who are presumably distracted and stressed out by Covid and its fallout) had less than 20 working days.

Debate in Parliament is highly unlikely to make up for this deficit. The fact both National and Labour support the bill means opposition in Parliament will inevitably be limited.

In my opinion, it is difficult not to conclude that all this is exactly what the Government wanted. All of the measures just described seem calculated to avoid debate. Labour knew the intensification proposals would be unpopular with many but its timetable suggests it doesn’t really want to hear about it. It knows what it wants to do; and it wants to do it now.

Democracy can be inconvenient for those who want to get things done. It slows down decision-making and leads to unwanted compromise.

The housing crisis urgently needs addressing and this legislation is one possible step towards that (targeted taxes such as stamp duty on second homes having been ruled out). But debate and consultation processes are there for a reason. They lead to better decisions and allow citizens to be heard on matters that affect them. They allow ideas to be tested and socialised amongst the community.

Debate and consultation are not nice-to-haves that can be pushed aside when a government decides it is suddenly in a hurry – they are fundamental tenets of democracy.

Submissions from groups such as Coalition for More Homes show how much room there is for improvement in the Enabling Housing Supply Bill, even while retaining its central aim of intensification. Democratic process helps make those improvements.

The Enabling Housing Supply Bill also steps firmly on local authority toes. The development of appropriate housing obviously involves knowledge of local infrastructure, topography and built environments. Local authorities and their planners are experts in this.

Labour was rightly up in arms when, during its last stint in office, National sacked Environment Canterbury over its handling of water rights and overrode the Christchurch City Council’s decisions on post-earthquake recovery.

But now Labour is making similar arguments about local authorities styming what it regards as public interest decision-making. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, it is proving more willing than supporters might have expected to step into local authority domain.

Urgently pushing through legislation is justified in rare situations where there is a procedural reason for haste or a genuine emergency. Covid has been one such situation. But no government should get used to ruling in this way.

Years of inaction have undoubtedly exacerbated the housing crisis in Aotearoa but changes to council planning rules are not an emergency. Like all major changes, intensifying our cities requires careful consideration with input from a wide range of experts and affected parties. Democratic processes facilitate that.

As the Covid response moves into a more latent phase, Labour should be reinforcing its commitment to proper democratic decision-making in everything it does. Unfortunately, instead, this bill gives us reason to doubt its commitment.

Professor Nicole Moreham teaches in the Faculty of Law at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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