Some Auckland councillors want to throw the new housing density law out with the floodwaters, amid concerns the multi-storey residential building regulations might overwhelm already stressed stormwater infrastructure.
The council’s environment and planning committee voted without dissent to ask the Government to allow an extension to the work of an independent planning panel about to examine what is known as Plan Change 78 for the Auckland Unitary Plan.
Mayor Wayne Brown will raise the request with the Government, saying if ministers did not grant an extension they might find the public won’t grant them an extension of their time in office after the October election. “The last month does change things and it would be a foolish group to oppose that we go through this carefully and fully.”
Since the January 27 megastorm, and then Cyclone Gabrielle’s renewed flooding and disastrous slips in mid February, politicians have been debating whether it is wise to allow more housing intensification city-wide when some zones are clearly prone to flooding in severe weather and stormwater systems are already unable to cope with extremes.
Plan Change 78 arises from a cross-party law from late 2021 when National joined Labour in pushing for sweeping changes to existing plans for the country’s major urban areas – and effectively overrode the Auckland Unitary Plan. Agreed in 2016, that plan had in itself made radical provisions for higher building zones and more housing density in the city to cope with 20 to 30 years of growth. It stands criticised for allowing building in flood plains.
Local political pushback against the new law was evident during the 2022 local body election campaign, with Brown among those questioning the new rules imposed ‘by Wellington’.
He told the committee meeting this week: “Rushed decisions in the midst of complex issues never give good results. It’s just unfortunate the Plan Change 78 process has got itself under way – the legislation has been foisted upon us, legislation I’m not at all happy with but that’s what governments do when you let them sit in a room in Wellington.”
The delay being sought by the council to the hearings panel deadlines would be to allow council experts to complete work on both the short-term effects from the summer’s extreme storms and a longer-term analysis of the city’s policies and planning settings in light of housing and infrastructure destruction.
While the committee was at one in seeking more time before the panel makes its findings on the plan change, not all councillors believe the overall change should be thrown out.
Councillor Shane Henderson, from the badly affected Waitakere ward, argued that if the council wanted to restrict intensification in some areas due to the lessons from the storms, then it should be looking to increase intensification elsewhere, in areas where infrastructure did cope.
Councillor Kerrin Leoni, of the Whau ward, said some parts of Auckland had stood up well to the extremes of what was a once-in-100-year rain event, and Julie Fairey of Albert-Eden-Puketāpapa ward urged officials to look at areas that did not flood, where the infrastructure coped, and consider them for more housing.
Critics of the plan change, however, said Auckland Council had to push back hard now against the cross-party parliamentary edict.
One councillor, Wayne Walker, said the existing Auckland Unitary Plan had seen developers become beneficiaries of poor council decisions, with wall-to-wall concrete and retaining walls on previously mixed residential sections leading to stormwater systems failing, overland water flow paths culverted or filled in and poor road designs failing to divert water from homes.
Auckland wasn’t coping with the AUP level of intensification, let alone even greater housing density. “It’s Plan Change 78 in its entirety that needs to be rejected.”
The state housing company Kainga Ora, which has advocated in its submission on the plan change for no restrictions on building heights via council policy exemptions, also came in for criticism.
Councillor Daniel Newman asked officials if Kainga Ora, given the summer’s extreme storms and damage across its own housing network, had withdrawn that “radical” submission. The council’s general manager of plans and places, John Duguid, said no such advice had been received. “I would be quite surprised if they did.”
Councillor Christine Fletcher said it was common sense to seek more time. “We are going to try to put a stop to those things that we think are not going to be workable. This is the first step in trying to get it right.”
The committee received a petition from 29 community groups asking for Plan Change 78 to be withdrawn. Interestingly, the motion to refer the petition to the council’s head of strategy was moved by the mayor and seconded by his deputy Desley Simpson.
Brown said of the council’s internal study: “I think that will identify the natural hazards and stormwater management issues are rather larger than we thought they were.
“We do have absolute information about where the stormwater inundation occurred. We are working with the Insurance Council. They are giving me information about where the houses were for claims. It’s irrefutable.”
Council chief of strategy Megan Tyler said the council would not be able to use the existing process for Plan Change 78 to try to make house building rules more restrictive than the current Auckland Unitary Plan. If politicians decided more restrictions were necessary in light of the weather events, that would need to be done through “a whole new plan change”.
The committee’s chairman, Richard Hills, said the council’s work needed to be broader than assessing Plan Change 78 and whether it was appropriate. “Unfortunately we are going to see more of this [extreme weather] with climate change. We will need help from the community, from government. It will not be easy and it will be expensive.”