Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Question was never "whether?" Just "when?" The Unravelling of the Auckland Plan

Getting the housing equation wrong
The failure of the Auckland Plan to reflect the simple aspirations of Aucklanders for home ownership and predominantly low-rise suburban lifestyles and promote instead the lofty compact city vision held by its planners and policy-makers made its unravelling inevitable.  And now it’s started.

Rationing land to squeeze the city upward was always going to create problems.

Given the fundamental shift in aspirations, expectations, and behaviour that implementing the Auckland plan demands, the first problem is the need for an over-blown and over-complicated rule book - the draft unitary plan - to get citizens to comply with a transformation they didn’t ask for and don’t want.
The result is, predictably, growing alarm at the proposed transformation of communities and streets to achieve high densities in an area already constricted by its coastlines, its estuaries, and its ranges.

Regulatory Risk
Another problem: the draft unitary plan introduces unknown regulatory and fiscal risks.  Despite an avalanche of material advocating higher settlement density and centralisation, there is no accessible Section 32 analysis (which the Resource Management Act requires in support of policies) confirming that crowded is good and more crowded is better.  The lack of evidence in support of a compact city is particularly telling during the limited period allowed for public consultation on the plan. 

We don't know the cost of implementing the plan, its rules and regulations, so we don’t have figures that might be weighed against purported benefits, or on which to judge how effective it might be in achieving even its authors’ hopes, and how much it will cost the community to try.  

Rhetoric won’t carry the day.  We have no idea of whether the plan will be a drag on the Auckland economy, or a boon to it.   Creating a planning framework that looks set to promote unrealistic land use options to try to compel the majority of Aucklanders to change the way they live will create conflict, though, and inflate the cost of development – and living. 
This is over-regulation: a weighty, complicated legal document which probably exceeds the council’s capacity to implement it, which will impose significant costs on the community, and is bound to have unintended consequences.  And the means, the unitary plan, look set to undermine the ends, a more liveable city.

Loss of autonomy
Another problem with the plan as conceived was the prospect that ill-founded regulation would lead to central government stepping in.  That was predictable, and now it’s happened.  There is no point in decrying the loss of community input if the government has to champion the interests of people aspiring to own homes in Auckland because council plans and procrastination have made it that much harder for them.

When the council decided to go down a prescriptive path to assert a centralised city format – one that had already struggled to gain traction over the previous two decades – informed by principles and nostalgia rather than feelings and circumstance, it lost touch with the Auckland’s diverse peoples.  It confused a singular (and high risk) vision with unity of purpose, and pre-empted a simpler plan that might better cater to the vagaries of a growing city. 

The real irony is that central government has been brought into play as a result of a heavy-handed, over-centralised approach by the local council. 

Can an accord be imposed?

Having made clear its concern over the economic and social consequences of the plan, the government has required the council to work with it in an accord to free up land for housing.  By insisting that its way was best the council has ceded control of the cornerstone of its plan.   

Addressing the supply of land for housing is well overdue, but it would have been more satisfactory if the council had been a little less dogmatic and done so in the first place.  This would have protected its credibility and autonomy.  Instead, a streamlined consenting procedure has now been established virtually by decree, a procedure that may well downplay the environmental checks and balances that an autonomous, local planning process might employ.

A Change in Direction?

This shift is fundamental to the plan.  The Accord provides for a degree of decentralisation that the draft unitary plan is written to resist.  Multiple opportunities for expansion on or beyond the fringe may be pursued under the Accord, in a number of forms, including extending existing settlements, new settlements, villages, and suburbs. 

While no ad hoc solution is straightforward, the Accord does what the unitary plan doesn’t: it enables rather than limits development.  Hopefully, creativity, design skills, and market and commercial acumen can now be brought to bear in a variety of settings and solutions – operating within sensible and justifiable environmental limits. 

What else is needed?

While accelerating the release of land for housing is critical to solving the housing crisis, by itself it’s not enough.  Moreover, it fundamentally changes the tenor of the Auckland Plan and Draft Unitary Plan, built as they are around centralisation.  The promotion of the CBD ahead of suburban living, the heavy commitment of resources to a dubious increase in the capacity of rail serving the central city, the presumption that future employment will grow most Auckland central – all these assumptions need to be revisited and revised.

That’s the nature of an integrated plan – you cannot fundamentally alter one component without changing others.

Back to the drawing board

Promoting a doctrinaire and single-minded view of what Auckland should look like in the future, and a commitment to urban form out of touch with the City’s history, its residents, and its prospects was always a high risk project.  That risk has just been magnified.

If the unitary plan is to survive, there will need to be some radical responses to the current round of consultation – and from now on a careful ear to the ground on what the government as well as the community at large has to say about some of its other provisions.

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