Auckland Council wants more time, infrastructure funding support and focus on quality over quantity in the intensification plan handed down by the Government

Big changes are coming to New Zealand cities in August, perhaps signalling an end to the quarter-acre dream and the beginning of a more intensified urban New Zealand.

The National Policy Statement for Urban Development, spearheaded by the Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, will remove barriers of consent for taller buildings and intensified housing across urban centres.

The new policy allows unlimited development capacity in the city centre, buildings of at least six storeys in metropolitan centres and their walkable catchment areas, and higher-density development everywhere else, provided factors such as heritage zones or significant natural resources like old and notable trees don’t pose an obstacle.

It’s a broad and sweeping change for cities that are more and more dealing with a lack of housing supply and its retinue of social consequences like high living costs and commute times – and nowhere is this more the case than in the City of Sails.

But Auckland councillors have gone on record since the unveiling of this new plan with some hefty concerns. The policy requires the rewriting of the Auckland Unitary Plan for housing, which a council response says will “damage the liveability of the city for current and future Aucklanders”.

The new policy stands to replace plans from the council that would see intensification focused on the city centre, town centres around Auckland and the arterial routes that connect them. This would ensure that new apartment blocks and medium-density housing are built with access to necessary infrastructure.

The Government’s Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS), however, act as a blunter instrument, opening up development opportunities in a blanket across the city.

This “broad-brush approach” has raised concerns from councillors that it will see intensification dispersed across the city, setting expectations of infrastructure provision that are both unrealistic and unaffordable.

The latest step in moving towards the new intensification plan ended on Monday, when after just over 6000 responses, the first consultation period for the new housing rules came to an end.

These responses will now be considered and then a formal proposal will be heard by an independent hearings panel who will make calls on what to do to the council.

Members of Auckland Council have expressed concerns about infrastructure provision such as public transport if intensification is not focused on transport corridors. Photo: Matthew Scott

Auckland councillor and Planning Committee chair Chris Darby said the area most likely to change was the size of walking catchment areas, which define how far higher-intensity development will be allowed to be from the inner city and hubs of transport and infrastructure.

“We can’t change the direction towards greater intensification at this point,” he said. “But we can determine details like the walkable catchments, so that’s one of the things that we are asking Aucklanders about.”

Although some of the details are still up for discussion, it seems that the bulk of the policy change is now inevitable, with Government moving it into practice in August.

Darby worries that the policy may allow for a large amount of consents to be granted, but that doesn’t necessarily mean difficult supply lines and labour shortages will allow the properties to actually be developed in any sort of timely fashion.

“You don’t live in a consent, you live in a house,” he said.

On top of that, the new plan eschews many of the council’s specific requirements for new developments, which may put the quality of the city’s future housing stock into question.

“There is more work to be done than just enabling quantity,” Darby said. “Once you’ve done that, you need to go in with a targeted approach.”

He wondered if political pressure had pushed the Government to move on the wide-reaching policy in an attempt to quickly address the mounting housing crisis – a crisis with roots that stretch back across multiple administrations and councils.

“The problem has really taken off,” he said. “Aucklanders are in complete disgust at their ability to buy a house, or even rent.”

Auckland Council chief of strategy Megan Tyler said the council’s proposed approaches were just the starting point for a lengthy period of more detailed policy and public engagement work to prepare changes to the Auckland Unitary Plan, but said there was only so much wriggle room for the council when it comes to making changes.

“There is limited flexibility for the council to tailor the [bill] to meet the needs of our city,” said Tyler.

“We have some discretion but must provide robust evidence justifying why required building heights should be modified, including surveys of specific sites, and even then, must still allow for more high-density housing than we currently do.”

Mayor Phil Goff appealed to the Environment Select Committee in November of last year, stressing that the Auckland Unitary Plan had already allowed the development of 900,000 dwelling sites, so Auckland’s issues have less to do with not enough zoned residential space and more to do with infrastructure.

“I’ll say that again – 900,000,” he said to the committee. “We don’t suffer from a shortage of dwelling sites in Auckland. That’s enough to last us 30 years and beyond.”

From 2020 to 2021, almost 70 percent of these building consents in the city were granted for apartments and terraced housing. Goff said the challenge was keeping up with this rapid development and intensification with the provision of vital infrastructure.

“The problem with housing shortages and affordability, which is really a very real one in Auckland and elsewhere now, is not about zoning, it’s about how you create the infrastructure for more than 20,000 new homes a year,” he said.

In the council’s written submission to the committee, it said the compressed timeframe during Auckland lockdowns had prevented it from engaging sufficiently with stakeholders, including iwi Māori, on the ramifications of the bill.

Covid-19 restrictions and the ticking clock meant the council’s heritage team had to conduct their street-based survey of special character areas in the city largely via Google Street View.

The patterns of intensification in Auckland affect not just the standard of living for current Auckland residents, but also a massive chunk of the population of New Zealand yet to be born.

At the moment, the supercity represents about a third of the country’s population. Projections from Stats NZ suggest this proportion will only grow. Auckland’s growth, which is expected to come half from natural increase and half from net migration, could see it comprise 37 percent of New Zealand’s population by 2048.

Government providers like Kāinga Ora – the country’s biggest housing provider – are putting a dent in this problem by building thousands of homes over the next decade in places like Mangere, Northcote and Mt Roskill. Despite this, Darby said the Government could ease this along by showing more co-operation with community housing trusts and other stakeholder groups such as iwi Māori.

“I don’t get the sense that the minister has instructed staff to bring out options on the next layer,” he said.

It’s a plan that might work for Wellington, where Porirua, Hutt Valley and central Wellington can act relatively separately, or Hamilton or Christchurch. But Darby says Auckland’s massive size and supercity structure make it a complex planning situation that might not be best served by a one-size-fits all urban development policy.

While the first round of consultation has closed, Aucklanders will be able to have their say on the council’s proposed plan changes once they are publicly notified on August 20.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

Leave a comment