Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Denial as Defence: Time to Acknowledge Flaws in Auckland’s Unitary Plan

Evidence mounts, resistance increases
Yet another research project has reminded us what the majority of Aucklanders already know.  Most of them want to live in suburbs, and prefer detached to multi-unit dwellings.  Yet the Auckland Council – or at least the majority of councillors and their planners – apparently remains in denial.  Through the Auckland Plan and now the Unitary Plan the Council continues to elevate higher density dwelling in and around town centres, the CBD, and arterial roads as the principal response to Auckland's growth potential and to a longstanding and growing housing crisis confronting the city.

But the evidence is mounting that it is not an appropriate plan for accommodating growth and maintaining Auckland’s liveability on either economic or environmental grounds.  And the signs that Aucklanders will resist the plan are mounting, even as the Council aims to rush it through with limited consultation and even more limited evidence.

Who are we planning for?
This left me wondering just who will occupy the medium- to high-density residential precincts planned to shape our future. To get an insight into this I went back to the 2006 Census to find out who lived in the inner city in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch.[1] 

I looked at a number of indicators for the inner suburbs, and compared them with the same statistics for the respective regions (which include their peri-urban catchments, additional urban areas in Wellington, and towns in Canterbury). 
The results are displayed in the various graphs at the end of this blog. Take a look. 
The evidence is compelling.  Inner city dwellers tend to be in rental accommodation, they are generally younger – with a marked absence of families – they are less likely to be currently married or in a civil union, they haven’t been at their current address very long, and are likely to have moved in from other parts of New Zealand and overseas. 

Central Auckland residents –passing through
This pattern prevails in each of the three inner city areas considered to a greater or lesser extent.  But it looks most pronounced in Auckland, so I delved a little deeper there.  The table tells the story: inner Auckland by no means represents Auckland or Aucklanders.

Inner Auckland – an area in which small, often multi-unit dwellings tend to prevail – is where people appear to touch down briefly, not where they settle.  They come from elsewhere, and do not stay for long.  They are predominantly young adults, a significant share being students.  Older people are not necessarily attracted to the smaller units of inner city living – something we looked at in an earlier post.  Most residents in inner Auckland are not in permanent relationships.  And the people who are tend to be are couples without children. 

So where is the evidence that suggests that the plan will be widely accepted?
If this is the sort of profile we might relate to inner city and multi-unit living (apartments, terraces, and the like) the Auckland plan could be on shaky ground. It may well be shaped around the residential preferences of a distinct (and diminishing) minority: younger, transitional and transient people and households. 

Of course, the data is dated, and there has been a pretty intensive PR effort by the council and its supporters to push a plan telling us that we ard ready to make the shift to higher density.  But surely such a push should be based on evidence that suggests many more people are prepared to accept a radical change in the lifestyles that typified Auckland in the recent past?  And while the evidence cited here against the plan is a little dated, I have seen none that suggests tastes and behaviours have changed that much.
So we are left with a radical shift in the way we think about and live in Auckland, apparently founded on little more than supposition and dogma.

More evidence is around the corner
Perhaps we should seek a stay in play at least until the 2013 census results become available later this year and early next.  Maybe they will show the sort of shift that might increase the credibility for the plan. Either way, it makes sense to actually wait and see, if for no other reason than what the most recent data tells us about the housing market and residents' preferences is bound to be brought to bear as communities dig in to resist it. 

And no need to hold up the main task
And with a more relaxed (and realistic) timetable for the Unitary Plan, the Council could push ahead in a more focused way with a series of changes under currently operative plans – or even in partnership with central government through special legislation – to address the city’s housing crisis.  And it could do that without getting caught up in the growing debate over a plan that at the moment is not standing up well to community (and perhaps even government) scrutiny.

[1]         Including the following Census area Units:
Auckland: Central West, Freemans Bay, Central East, Newton, Grafton West, Grafton East
Wellington: Lambton, Willis Street-Cambridge Tce, Thorndon-Tinakori Rd, Aro St-Nairn St, Mt Cook-Wallace St, Mt Victoria West
Christchurch: Cathedral Square, Hagley Park, Avon Loop, Mona Vale, Riccarton West, Riccarton, Riccarton Sth, Merivale, St Albans West, St Albans East, Edgeware
 The Inner City is Different ....

 Note: Married includes civil unions




Mark said...

Good points.
Currently there is no shortage of the land supply for apartments, in cbd or fringe. Many fringe areas such as Kingsland have been able to do 4 storey apartments for 12 years or so - and only 2 built. Supply and demand for apartments is working well - as evidenced by stable (and even falling!) prices.
On your comment re the no need to hold up the plan, I've also suggested a two tier approach:

This would allow a concentration on the real affordability issue of single dwellings / new sections, and also commercial land, while allowing more time to work through a proper masterplanned/outcome focused of intensified brown field areas.

Phil McDermott said...

Thanks for your comments, Mark, and for your opinion piece which makes it very clear why we have to avoid the council pushing through its particular vision for Auckland.

Auckland is a collection of quite different communities sharing a distinctive physical setting. A single and singular vision imposed on the city as a whole denies local character and choice,and has negative impacts for many - most? - communities. But the council appears to have escalated the political debate upwards, trying to stake out its ground with central government by truncating the establsihed statutory process and, consequently, downplaying the significance of local circumstance and community aspirations. (This was always a risk, of course, of creating a super-city).

Andrew D Atkin said...

Important post, Phil. Looking at the reality of demand, it's like Auckland councils ambition is to turn Auckland into a revolving-door economy. A halfway-house western-society training camp for young immigrants, before they start their "real life" in Australia...maybe!?