Resource Management Amendment Bill: New Zealand Cities Grow Up

Phil Heffernan staff photo
Phil Heffernan
Principal - Planning Manager
OpEdPhil

Back in October 2021, the Government made what, for many, appeared to be a radical announcement. They introduced the Intensification Streamlined Planning Process (ISPP), which proposed a new streamlined process that would support Tier 1 councils in implementing intensification policies.

On top of that, the Government stated that these councils will have to adopt Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS), allowing landowners to develop up to three homes of three storeys without the need for resource consent from the Council. 

After recovering from the initial shock, councils then had to scramble and bring in expert opinions on what areas of this bill are achievable and what they can push back on.

Now, five months on, Auckland Council has responded.

Is the Government’s goal unrealistic?

As a planner and a believer in housing for everyone, my first reaction to this policy shift was positive. Every major city in the world has undergone a similar evolutionary step, in which they run out of space to go out and simply need to move up. Some do it betters than others, but we are not unique.

Many have been disappointed by the councils’ handling of New Zealand’s housing supply issue and their lack of making any kind of meaningful change. This policy implements the kind of we change we need. It will also increase residential property potential, offer more opportunities to change our residential areas, and ultimately provide accommodation for our growing population.

However, it wasn’t until a little while later when I read the Government’s goal of 57,000 houses in Auckland in five to eight years, which is 50% more than what we’re currently doing. My suspicions about this being a realistic goal were confirmed by the numerous builders I spoke to, who all basically laughed it off and said, “And who’s going to build them?”

While I still believe this policy is heading in the right direction, there is a risk that being such a large number in such a tight window of time, and there is going to be some bad design outcomes (a theory that has also shared by builders and designers I’ve spoken to).

Then, just a short while ago, councils across New Zealand removed the minimum vehicle parking requirements. Parking in new developments will now be driven by market demand. From an environmental perspective, this is an excellent move. However, paired with the Government’s recent policies and the Big Hairy Audacious Goal of 57,000 homes in Auckland, this could potentially put Kiwis at risk of living amongst cramped, poorly designed houses and overflowing streets.

Is this a wrong move? No. Is there going to be localised pain as we increase density and shift away from a car and car space dominated city at the same time? Yes. We shouldn't avoid doing the hard things, but we need to acknowledge there will be material impacts.

Significant re-zoning

One other pain that Auckland Council seems to be trying to avoid is over-complication.

It appears that after looking at their new requirements, Auckland Council has decided that the best way to manage everything is to do a massive re-zoning of the city. Now, instead of the previous three zones, the Council has proposed simplifying things by re-zoning the majority of Auckland as Mixed Housing Urban.

While streamlining this process is certainly something I agree with, I was disappointed to see the move to retain the majority of Special Character Areas.

The Council’s proposal of withholding 70% of the 21,000 homes from intensification efforts is, in my opinion, unjustly high, and I suspect the real number should sit more around the 10,000 mark or lower. I personally struggle to see 15,000 houses that qualify as “Special Character” in Auckland when weighing affordability and land supply.

However, I also suspect that the Council is aware of this and is actually prepared to lower this number throughout the hearing process. I read this as Council’s opening gambit in a highly contentious area and we should expect to see major pushback from central Government.

Infrastructure – the missing piece

I like many others, am waiting to hear what the infrastructure plan will be. This critical piece was missing from the Government’s announcement, and even after the Council’s recent proposal, it still remains unanswered.

While the Council lists infrastructure as a potential constraint as a qualifying matter, they have not identified what areas of Auckland they believe to have insufficient infrastructure.

If this response feels slightly vague, that’s because it is. This is likely due to the amount of time they’ve had to formulate a response. The Auckland Council has only had five months to announce these changes and hasn’t had enough time (or budget) to highlight down to suburb or street level, let alone house level.

On the other hand, the vagueness could also be due to the significant lack of guidance the Government has offered councils on how to achieve 57,000 homes in Auckland successfully.

What now?

Despite a few gaps and some oversight by the Government, I can’t knock a plan that is designed to provide more housing for Kiwis.

Concerns around infrastructure are legitimate. When boiled down, it comes to a funding issue. Infrastructure and funding need to align in order for this plan to work. However, this opens debate on debt levels and funding models of infrastructure that successful Governments have avoided, or at best, tinkered with at the edges.

I also believe there is a future where all of this can work, but it needs to work together. More supply is the first part. For right and wrong, this gets a significant amount of planning constraints out of the road.

Next needs to be the infrastructure.

The same question we asked five months ago remains: Will Parliament be as bold with infrastructure and funding as they have been with this Act?