In my time serving as an elected representative in Auckland local government (12 years), I came to the firm view that there were three local initiatives that will make a difference to the direction, economic efficiency, and social equity of Auckland's development:
- the Metropolitan Urban Limit (MUL) policy enshrined in the Auckland Growth Strategy
- the ability to charge Developer Levies on new land use developments
- the strategy to transfer $1 billion (over 10 years) from State Highway development to Public Transport investment
A few years ago I was invited by Connal Townsend to attend an informal meeting of the Property Council. I was asked to share my ideas and thoughts about the Growth Strategy and Public Transport investment. A number of major players in Auckland's property development industry were present. Some were very direct in their criticisms of Councils when attempts were made to progress "brownfield" redevelopment within existing urban environment. "Too hard", was the catch- phrase. "Not worth the candle".
But probably the most honest was the comment, "Joel, if you ask me to choose between buying an investment block just outside the MUL, or buying a CBD block for redevelopment, I'm going to buy the rural block everytime. You guys are going to fold...."
Around the same time I found myself sitting next to back-bencher Phil Heatley in a plane. He spoke of the frustration of being in Parliament all those years, but without the ability to influence anything. I talked about Auckland and its development. He made no secret of his distaste of the MUL, but he seemed very uniformed about Auckland issues. He left me with the clear impression that: "the MUL would be gone by lunchtime, when National gets into Government."
I accept that Auckland's planning has needed change and improvement, to provide stronger incentives around compact development and urban regeneration projects, as well as lining up the funding institutions to assist where holding costs become a major stumbling block. It was never enough just to have a tight strangle hold on the metropolitan urban limit.
Councils have been reluctant to rezone urban land to allow for greater densities and building heights. The rhetoric of "dog boxes" and "rabbit hutch apartments" has been enough to make local communities take fright, and take to the streets to stop any change in their neighbourhoods. NIMBY'ism can be a very powerful thing. But it also stands in the way of a city region fighting to provide the range of housing types and sizes and environments, to meet the very diverse needs of Auckland's cosmopolitan community.
These failures and problems are among those that led to calls for Auckland's local governance to be strengthened, so that its plans and strategies could be actually implemented. Then there was a change of Government. And the reins of change have been seized by those with rather different priorities. The recession has added urgency to Central Government's determination to deliver short-term growth and productivity. Public funded infrastructure is a big part of its program to generate jobs and keep unemployment from getting above 7% (but it is).
And now we have Nelson's very own Dr Nick Smith (Minister of Environment), working with Whangarei's Phil Heatley (Minister of Housing), and pushing a very strong pro development, pro growth, pro "affordable housing", program, which appears to have at its heart the goal of doing away with Auckland's Metropolitan Urban Limit.
"Pushing the Boundaries" was the title of an excellent Saturday Review piece in the NZ Herald last Saturday (13th Feb 2010: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10625802)
It was a good 2 page spread on what is in store for Auckland as the next stage of Government land use planning reforms gather speed. Key quotes:
Smith: "Smith linked restrictive zoning and consent laws to NZ's poor productivity and economic growth..."
(My Comment: In fact the major cost drag on Auckland's economy is the sheer energy and time cost of transport. A full 13% of Auckland's GDP is expended in transport. This compares very unfavourably with modern Asian cities (6%), and European cities (8%). Smith is really only speaking about the gold rush that comes from new land being released. Developers love that gold rush profit, but for a long time afterwards those who buy into it pay excessively for transport and other costs. I suspect Smith is only interested in short term gains - not long term development. Smith has never understood Auckland.)
Heatley: "our drive comes from the fact that property proces have increased hugely ... locked out first time buyers... the biggest propertion has been the land cost, not the cost of building..."
(My Comment: This is the classic case of Heatley wanting to externalise infrastructure costs. Land costs today - because of developer levies - now include some of the related infrastructure costs - roading, 3 waters. For North Shore these "land development costs" can be up round $30,000/housing unit. And even thenm this figure does not adequately cover the full costs of new infrastructure. BTW these developer levies are much less for a new lot built in the heart of existing urban setting.)
The cheapest housing in Auckland is in the South West. It's where a lot of deprived and low income families live. This is Auckland's urban wasteland. Many households live in rented accommodation. But that's not where the bulk of the family income is spent. In fact it is spend on transport. There is very poor public transport here. So - no alternative travel options. Shops and employment and education options are all a decent car trip away. So every mission requires a car trip.
Big families, big cars, cheap and energy inefficient cars. That is what Auckland people get when "affordable housing" is built at the edge. Surveys are showing that a sizeable number of these households are spending upwards of 30% of the household income on transport. These families will not be able to afford to buy a house - not because it may be too much for them - but because their transport priorities must come first - and it is these costs that mean they cannot afford to buy a house. That is the reality.
I was a commissioner with Cllrs Walbran and Glenn for a private application to ARC to release land from outside the MUL for 1000 houses at Papakura. The development application was to build 1000 houses. That was it. Nothing else. No shops. No public amenity like a school or a kindy or anything else to relieve the expense and pain of being isolated away from the services and amenity that most Auckland dwellers have come to expect as normal to urban life.
Agreeing to that development would condemn many more households to lives in relatively cheap houses, but with huge transport and access costs that would have to be born and paid for every day. It is these costs that need to be included when assessing affordability. Let alone the social costs associated with isolation, loss of sense of community etc. These are the long term costs of poorly planned - but apparently "affordable" housing.
These costs need to be counted and included.
This is the lesson from other countries and other cities that have though about these matters rather more deeply than our Ministers. A good summary of papers and reports for and against can be found at: http://www.psrc.org/assets/2032/appIF14-sprawl.pdf
That report contains a good summary of arguments for and against sprawl. I reproduce it here:
Arguments in Defence of Sprawl
|• Development is cheaper in suburban/rural areas||• True, but real costs are not measured. Adjoining municipalities often subsidize the more extensive and less efficient infrastructure needed for sprawl development.|
|• The additional cost of sprawl is privately provided indicating people’s willingness to pay more for sprawl and their desire for sprawl||• Again, real costs are not reflected in the price of sprawl development. Adjoining municipalities often subsidize the more extensive and less efficient infrastructure needed for sprawl development.|
|• People prefer low density development over high density development||• Survey results showing more people preferring low density development can be misleading due to varying perceptions of "high density." Surveys that use visual examples are more useful and show that many are willing to sacrifice low density and more square footage for better designed homes with a range of nearby amenities.|
|• Residential development in rural areas produces public revenues in excess of public costs||• "Working" land, such as in agricultural production provides revenues in excess of public costs.|
|• Commutes are shorter in suburbs||• Due to growing suburb-to-suburb commuting, travel to work may be shorter for many workers, but more trips are necessary because of separated uses. Trips are longer and there are few alternatives for those who can’t drive.|
|• Cars are the most versatile form of transportation and as cars get more fuel efficient and less polluting, environmental impacts will no longer be a concern||• Cars are still a long way from being environmentally friendly, but even if they were totally clean, it does not solve the problem of loss of wildlife habitat, resource consumption, traffic congestion or traffic fatalities resulting from sprawl type road infrastructure and lack of sidewalks or bike lanes. Auto dependent development also prevents non-drivers from having choices in how to get around. 32% of the U.S population can’t drive.|
|• We are able to grow more crops with less land and labour, so prime farmland being lost to development is bunk||• The problem is where and what land is being lost. Productive farmland close to urban centers is being lost. New land could be brought into agricultural production but often at high economic and environmental cost. Also the farther farmlands must move from urban centers—where the consumers are—the more inefficient it is to bring products to market, especially for smaller farms selling their produce in local markets.|
Table. Prevailing Arguments in Defence of Sprawl and the Counterarguments
This debate is only just getting started in Auckland.
I hope that Auckland Regional Council can lift its head from trying to shoehorn a $97 million cruise ship terminal onto Queens Wharf, and extract the labour of its expert staff from being forced help for the Auckland Transition Agency, to engage with this issue, and drive a strong public debate in defence of the regional development policies it has been responsible for adopting and championing.