Saturday, June 14, 2014

Planning on a Wing and a Prayer

Shaken beliefs
The Minister for the Environment’s submission on Auckland’s proposed unitary plan is only a surprise insofar as it was a long time coming.  The development gap resulting from relying heavily on residential intensification to cater for growth, the contradictory nature of the heritage provisions, the equity issues raised by backing off intensification in more desirable middle class suburbs, and the procedural challenges raised by over-complicated overlays all point to a plan that will make Auckland a lot less liveable for many more people.

And a history of artificially driving up the price of land for employment by rationing it in the hope that demand can be met by higher densities looks like being compounded by unrealistic rules that will further boost the cost of investment in Auckland, prejudicing output and productivity.

These are just a couple of examples that reflect the increasing unease expressed from various quarters over the proposed plan.

The historical record
The problem is not so much that the unitary plan is deficient in one or two areas and can be patched up by an amendment here and there.  The two deficiencies cited are critical in their likely impact on Auckland’s development (or un-development as the case may be). The more fundamental problem is the expectation that one plan will miraculously resolve Auckland’s development issues.  How did we reach this station?
It’s a belief that goes back in time, and has spread throughout the land.  It was first articulated about 15 years ago with business lobby Competitive Auckland suggesting that development was impeded and competitiveness undermined by having seven territorial councils, and seven different district plans.  Worse, these councils were regularly at loggerheads with a regional council which intruded on their land use mandate as a means of fulfilling its environmental responsibilities, with development mired in an unwieldy and litigious planning process as a result.

This belief that eight fiefdoms was seven too many was codified through the deliberations of the regional council-sponsored Metropolitan Auckland Project in 2006.  An international panel was invited to work through the plethora of documents assembled for that project, and explored the cross currents behind it by talking with key figures.
The panel decreed that One Plan for Auckland should pave the path ahead, over-riding differences in development within the region, in its physical and human geography, and in the contrasting and often conflicting ethnic and cultural values as these influenced local plans and practices. 

The reformation
The government then summonsed a Royal Commission to enquire into options for Auckland’s supposedly fractured governance.  As a result of its deliberations the Commission delivered an intelligent design for the super city, declaring that the only way to the fulfilment of one plan was with the one true council, a council that must be directly responsible for the fulfilment of its edicts across the land.
This was endorsed in a more grounded fashion by central government, in an act that effectively reversed the logic behind the 1989 local government reforms.  These had been based on the principle that transparency is served by separating responsibility for regulation from responsibility for operations, and the crafting of environmental rules from the practice of development.

The same reforms promoted modest amalgamation as the basis for administrative efficiencies, carefully avoiding the diseconomies and loss of local democracy associated with super-sized councils.  Operational efficiencies could be sought through the provenance of quasi-commercial council controlled organisations for service delivery.
The 1989 model did not set out to suppress the controversy and debate that naturally surrounds contentious development.  Indeed, in the seeds of administrative competence it sowed the capacity to articulate and debate differences and potentially moderate outcomes improved, potentially lifting the quality of decisions.  

The Conceit of Goliath
Internalising conflict in ever-bigger, centralised organisations like Auckland's super city does not resolve it.  Rather, it hides it, and allows dissonance to grow – as many now defunct corporations have found out.  Large organisations become uncoordinated, slow witted, and slow moving.  They are vulnerable to manipulation, even corruption.  They drive dissatisfaction onto the streets (or the social media), favouring the activists, the articulate, and the well-heeled in the battle for favour.

And that seems to be what’s happening in Auckland. Why stop there?  The ultimate in effective government if we believe bigger is better is one government, with power concentrated among the political and executive elite of a single central regime – or party – increasingly remote from its citizens.  Autocracy as government, however, must eventually fail. 

The Book of Rules
Let’s set that grim vision aside and return to the immediate issue. This is the belief that we can assemble a comprehensive set of rules that will in some way anticipate, regulate, and manage all forms of land use activity and development in what is, in fact, a diverse and constrained physical environment settled by diverse peoples in divergent circumstances and holding to a variety of values and beliefs.
Our planners and politicians as scribes are over-ambitious not just in what they seek to achieve, but in what they think they can achieve in the face of human multiplicity.  The proposed unitary plan looks increasingly like a sub-national canonical treatise – a set of laws that take us well beyond those mandated or intended by the state.  The irony is that in its sprawling complexity, this plan will be dissected, debated, and litigated by believers and non-believers for years to come.  And all the while the promised land will remain an illusion.