Wednesday, June 19, 2013

At Last Some Action on Housing – Getting Past Planning Paralysis

Daylight through the gloom
Even as the public begins to react against the over-simplistic approach to urban growth underlying the over-complicated draft Auckland Unitary Plan, there is a little light on the horizon.  The Tamaki Redevelopment Company, a joint venture between Auckland City and central government, has put together a plan to add up to 6000 new homes to an existing 5,050 in a special housing area under the Housing Accord signed last month.

Hopefully this urban regeneration project will be more than just a gentrification exercise. I suspect that government participation will ensure that the need for continuity among current residents including tenants of state housing, will be met.  Ideally, the plan will enable the low income households that currently occupy much of the area to stay and first time buyers to purchase there, in a neighbourhood of quality amenities and services, and sound, affordable, new homes.

Central government taking the lead
It is ironical that this good news story should be accompanied by news of continuing resistance to collaboration by the Council.  It has been so myopic in pursuing the grail of consolidating growth and in its reluctance to explore alternatives for an expanding city that it has created a complex web of policies that many of its diverse residents will struggle to come to grips with, or welcome. 

Given this track record, it was inevitable that the council should emerge as the junior partner in this arrangement. 

It’s no good wringing political hands over a threat to autonomy. The Council’s own failure to advance Aucklanders’ housing hopes with any urgency left central government to take the decisive stand. 

A threat to local autonomy?
A loss of autonomy may simply be the price we are paying for the council confusing its priorities – putting process ahead of form, and principle ahead of practice.  It had known about the housing supply and affordability issue that threatens to undermine Auckland’s growth for some time –it’s the core problem it inherited from the eight councils that came together on its formation. 

Despite all the good intentions, the new council continued simply to pay lip service to the issue.  It preferred to pick up and promote the old Auckland Regional Council shibboleth, trying to change the way Aucklanders live by shifting the emphasis of development to consolidation and centralisation. 

Sharing responsibility
A loss of local autonomy may, however, be more apparent than real.  The Government has had a long-standing role in the provision of social housing in New Zealand.  It also has the resources and clout to make things happen.  So it makes sense for it to take the lead. 

By contrast, with the jettisoning of social housing by councils their role has been confined to one of regulation to mediating what’s done rather than doing it.  That’s the model Auckland was following in its planning.  Unfortunately, it’s mediation looked like exacerbating rather than resolving the housing issue.

Through the Tamaki initiative, the council can once more become a contributor and not simply a gatekeeper in the housing sector, playing a direct role in shifting the city up a gear.

Collaboration: the way ahead?
The Government had hoped that combining councils struggling to collaborate would lead to more decisive and better directed policy in Auckland.  In practice, the one council model so far seems no more enlightened than the eight councils it replaced. 

At least when we had alternative local councils within the wider metropolitan area we could see where the strengths and weaknesses of their various policies lay and rely on differences and debate among them to lift transparency and engagement.  Consequently, we got policy diversity to match our social diversity, rather than a single (and singular) plan and policies over-ambitiously intended to reconcile the variety of needs of different communities in a comprehensive set of rules. 

Under the new model, the search for super policies is beginning to look a little too lofty, and fraught.  And if the council is not prepared to work much more closely with local boards to resolve local issues in practice rather than in principle, then collaboration has to be taken to a whole new level, with central government.

It is positive, then, that the Tamaki project looks set to be delivered by collaboration at two levels: between central and local government in planning, processing, land consolidation, and development initiatives to get the project off the ground; and between the public and private sectors (including social and commercial providers of housing) to put it all in place.

A better council, putting citizens’ needs up front
At least now we have some action, and an opportunity to learn from it.  We can put the Housing Accord to the test, and put the commitment and capacity of a range of agencies together towards achieving a common goal – a better Auckland for more Aucklanders. Through it we can put people back into politicians’ visions and planners’ pictures.

But Auckland Council will have learnt nothing if it continues to dictate terms to communities, to ride roughshod over the concerns of current citizens and the needs of future ones in pursuit of a single vision that doesn’t fit our city.

By participation in the Tamaki initiative, the council should be strengthened to pursue more such initiatives in other localities, to achieve better balance between principle and practice, and step up actions and delivery relative to promises.

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