A car battles floodwaters in Mission Bay in the latest extreme downpour in May. Photo: Screenshot Facebook

Auckland Council wants to accelerate 30 years of planned action on flood plains, stormwater drains and creeks into just six years as part of its response to the devastating floods of January and February.

The plan, called Making Space for Water, will almost certainly need funding from the central government to buy and remove homes as the council funds new above-ground pathways for extreme water volumes expected as the climate changes.

“Some elements of the proposed programme will include property acquisition, subject to central government decisions,” officials said.

In the council’s budget for its next financial year, starting on July 1, an extra $20m had been included for stormwater responses to the flood, “however the budget required for future works and increased resilience is beyond the scope of this allocation.”

A report to Auckland councillors on Tuesday said 55,000 homes were in areas at risk of flooding and the council’s Healthy Waters division needed to bring forward long-planned measures now that people realised how much was at risk from extreme weather.

The Healthy Waters general manager, Craig McIlroy, said any houses that needed to be purchased and removed would come from the ‘unfixable’ category, one of three identified by the Government’s Cyclone Recovery Taskforce.

Costs of the Making Space for Water plan would be presented to the council’s governing body in June, but an initial estimate of $1b cited by Mayor Wayne Brown in a statement was sourced from the Health Waters division’s initial calculations. “They were very conscious about having to do more work,” Brown said.

The Mayor applauded the water engineers’ report. “I love it. It’s great stuff. Engineering. Beauty. Corker.”

He said he’d briefed the Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Minister for Auckland Michael Wood on the action plan and it had been positively received. Auckland would need the Government to help fund measures to make the at-risk neighbourhoods resilient.

Deputy Mayor Desley Simpson said the Making Space for Water plan was “real proof that we know what the problem is, we are going to do something about it and we have got an action plan” but she was nervous about the costs involved.

The council believes it must accelerate the flood plains plan while public support for action and spending is high because of the damage from the summer storms.

McIlroy said: “The reality is we have to put the programme on steroids now.”

The head of planning for Healthy Waters, Nick Vigar said: “There’s a good chunk of this programme that’s very much about seizing the opportunity.”

It could be cheaper to remove houses rather than improve infrastructure around them. For example culverts could be upgraded if “downstream properties are out of risk” having been moved out of the way.

Making Space for Water represented “a substantial but achievable acceleration of work delivering what would normally take at least 30 years. For example, Healthy Waters has typically delivered a new blue-green network project every two years. ‘Making Space for Water’ proposes to deliver up to 15 such projects in six years,” a report to the councillors said.

Blue-green networks were explained as “areas identified as having (i) critical flood risks, (ii) feasible stormwater solutions and (iii) wider community benefits.

“Property acquisition and removal of some of the houses in these areas is a part of this programme, subject to central government decisions. Includes: stream daylighting, widening and realignment, and enhancing surrounding parkland or open space. May also include site amalgamation and urban redevelopment where feasible.”

The plan would see increased maintenance of the stormwater network for lower-level flooding events. That would mean increased street sweeping, catchpit cleaning and weed clearance from streams. 

“Delivery will prioritise areas of known critical flood risk, responding to the current public readiness for action. By building resilience in our stormwater network, the programme will help to reduce the ad-hoc workload that occurs after significant weather events,” the report said.

Slips closed many Auckland roads in February, including Tamaki Drive on the waterfront. Photo: Tim Murphy

Councillor Mike Lee hailed the plan as “visionary, timely and pragmatic” and reflecting a response to real world problems. But he criticised an over-permissive culture by previous Auckland councils and predecessor organisations allowing housing in flood-prone districts and worried the Healthy Waters officials might face internal resistance from other departments of the council.

The council’s chief of strategy Megan Tyler said “not all flood plans are created equal” and the risk of developing in them was different. Judgments had been made using agreed levels of risk tolerance and risk appetite. If tolerance was now changed that would need to be addressed by changing the Auckland Unitary Plan settings and/or Parliament changing the Building Act.

“You would be doing that through the unitary plan to change developments when you are in a certain type of flood plain.”

McIlroy said Making Space for Water would need careful policing in the future of structures and waste near waterways.

“I see a very important component of this whole programme is compliance activity… making sure the community do the right thing … particularly around new construction activity and overland flow paths. These are areas that have maybe not had enough priority in the past.”

Councillor Daniel Newman said the floods had changed people’s views of pursuing a greater housing supply without adequate protection or planning.

“The conversation has always been about the need to increase the supply of housing. How quickly has that conversation changed now. It’s no longer about massively upscaling the number of houses.”

He believed the plan would need more than money, instead requiring a process of ‘down-zoning’ via planning law and would need Cabinet, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and Kainga Ora to accept they had been wrong in pushing for such intense development.

But councillor Julie Fairey said the issues were not as straightforward as that. Part of Auckland’s problem had been that “we have had to build in some of the flood plains because we have locked down some of the areas that are not as flood-prone” by rules restricting intensification.

The council approved the development of costings for the Making Space for Water plan, and for officials to prepare public consultation materials for July.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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