Simon Wilson: The battle to make the housing bill better

Is this the beginning of the end for suburbs as we know them? Or an essential step to resolving the housing crisis?

Are minimal regulations and a permissive system the key to building more homes quickly? Or do we need good design standards and planning rules to prevent poor-quality homes being built in the wrong places?

What if the answer to all those questions is yes?

The Government’s new housing bill, supported by National, proposes sweeping changes to the regulations governing what homes can be built where in our major cities. It’s been through a very hurried select committee process and will be back in Parliament on Thursday, possibly with some changes. It’ll be law by Christmas.

The Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Bill creates a single housing zone for Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch, overriding the existing district plans (and Auckland’s Unitary Plan) and their various zones in those cities.

Any section will be able to have up to three dwellings, each up to three storeys high. Buildings can be higher close to the boundaries than at present and cover up to 50 per cent of the property. There is no minimum section size, no minimum landscape requirement and no protection for trees.

Projects that conform to a very basic set of standards about size and location will not need resource consent and no one will be able to object.

THERE ARE three main strands to the debate. One says density, especially as proposed, is an attack on “established” suburbs. Growth should be accommodated in new subdivisions, the city centre and places where land is cheaper. Put your density in Manukau and Henderson, not Remuera and Grey Lynn.

This is commonly known as the Nimby argument: not in my back yard. The bill explicitly rejects this, particularly by eliminating the “single house” zone, where development is very limited.

The second strand says density shouldn’t be forced to the outer suburbs. It belongs in all of them but should be focused on transport corridors and around town centres. Adherents of this strand say they support the aims of the bill – more housing, especially affordable housing – but believe it’s a poor way to achieve those aims. They want substantial revisions.

Submissions to the select committee show this group includes most professional planners, urban designers and architects, along with their professional bodies. Also, the Property Council, a good number of Resource Management Act (RMA) lawyers and many councils.

A third strand says planning rules slow up things, so density should be allowed everywhere. This is the view of some urban development groups and also of the “pro-market think tank” the New Zealand Initiative (NZI). These groups strongly support the bill, although they have also suggested improvements.

If you’re in the first group, the accord between Labour and National is not good news. It signals the debate has moved on: the two parties agree we need more homes, fast, and that fussy councils and Nimby complaints should not be allowed to slow this.

The real debate now is between the two other groups: they both want more density but disagree about how to get it.

It’s a very tough debate, because in a lot of what they say, both are right. Fewer rules probably will speed things up, and fewer rules probably will also lead to a lower standard of housing and urban development.

Eric Crampton, chief economist with NZI, says the dispute is between “old conservatives, both left and right, who oppose, and younger liberal(ish) … both left and right”. Many would baulk at his terms.

TO BUILD more affordable homes quickly, does quantity have to trump quality? The bill introduces new “medium density residential standards” (MDRS) that strip away a range of existing design standards.

Christina van Bohemen, chair of Urban Auckland (UA), calls the MDRS is “a real sledgehammer”. Urban Auckland wants substantial changes to the bill.

No, says Scott Caldwell, from the Coalition for More Homes (CMH), the MDRS has the right approach. The first task is to create “housing abundance” and design regulations only slow that down. He thinks we will have to “grit our teeth” until we have lots of houses and therefore lots of choice about what to buy. Then, there will be a “blossoming of design”.

Besides, as others have said, people who fret about a lack of design standards are forgetting that for people stuck in a motel, or worse, any home is better than no home.

That’s true. But does it mean good design is a nice-to-have for the rich? That’s a curious idea to advance in the name of egalitarianism.

In its submission, Ngāti Whanaunga argued for design standards. The iwi’s environment officer, Nathan Kennedy, told the select committee they were already building “beautiful homes with Māori design”, but “those settlements will be diluted in the rush for development”.

He said the Government had underestimated the amount of construction already underway, because it was not listening to its treaty partners.

Urbanist Ben van Bruggen has a similar view. He reckons we could learn from Germany, where they have created the concept of “Baukultur”. This is “the production of urban environments that are worth living in”.

“The current challenge,” says the German Government, “is to build housing quickly that is not only affordable, but also of good quality. This is where Baukultur plays a key role. Germany needs decent housing in attractive neighbourhoods where people enjoy living and getting together. Despite the current housing policy challenges, we must not lose sight of the goal of balanced and sustainable urban development.”

Construction is for keeps: what we build, we’re stuck with. There’s no golden age to come when the problems we create now will simply disappear.

THAT MIGHT sound obvious but, again, it’s not so simple. As Caldwell says, “making bad design hard is hard”. He means that when councils try to create high standards, the whole consenting and construction process gets slowed down and sometimes the regulations prevent any progress at all.

“We shouldn’t block the good,” he says, referring to quantity, “because it might be bad.”

Caldwell would prefer to see good design encouraged in other ways, such as through subsidised materials, tax law reform and identifying a set of preferred ingredients.

“Early villas were mass-produced,” he says. “How do we do that today?”

He thinks perhaps we’re already doing it. “Suburban apartment blocks tend to look good when they have brick with black features. I know that’s crude, but you get the idea.”

So, instead of design standards, just specify brick?

But as van Bohemen points out, the reason we have regulations – for anything – is to stop “the worst possible cases”. You don’t rely on goodwill, you have rules to keep in line the people who lack goodwill.

And what about tax? The NZI says housing is a financial burden on councils so they create reasons to slow it down. But if councils could receive the GST on property development, that could change. Councils have long argued for this; Caldwell and van Bohemen both agree.

SUPPORTERS OF the bill say the current rules mean sites zoned for density are worth more to developers, so they carry a premium, which is passed on as an extra cost for the new homeowners. But when all sites are zoned the same, there will be no premium. Housing should therefore be a bit cheaper.

Opponents say the new approach will invite developers to buy easier sites, which will focus them more on the outskirts of the city. There’ll be more urban sprawl.

Besides, there are always reasons why one part of town is better for density than another. Shouldn’t they be considered? David Turner, from the Unitec School of Architecture, told the select committee: “The one-size-fits-all, build-anything-anywhere concept? We’re saying, ‘Where in the world, in a modern city, does such a plan operate?’ And we can’t find one.”

Having more than one zone allows a more nuanced and “appropriate” response. No, say the bill’s supporters, all that does is allow councils to “give in to Nimbys”. More density requires fewer rules.

But, say the bill’s opponents, the single zone and the MDRS will together make it easier for developers to build imposing, ugly blocks on suburban streets. More density requires better rules.

COUNCILS HAVE been among the stronger critics of the bill. In Auckland, there’s frustration the years of debate that produced the Unitary Plan will have been for nothing, even though it established a blueprint for a denser city. In Wellington, they’ve just come through their own fierce debates with a plan for more density.

And all over the country, residential construction is at record levels: 50,000 homes consented in the last year, 20,000 of them in Auckland – and 70 per cent of those Auckland new builds are multi-unit dwellings.

Most of them are going up in the city centre and along the Western railway line, as well as in Hobsonville-Massey, Northcote, the East Coast Bays and Onehunga.

This all suggests the system is working, at least moderately well, although in the northwest and elsewhere, it’s obvious public transport isn’t keeping up.

But councils are not the champions of change they might like to think. Auckland has a whole lot of pernickety regulations that frustrate property owners.

Scott Caldwell, from the Coalition for More Homes, says councils should “focus on managing the public realm well and forget about trying to micromanage the private realm”.

He says any council serious about quality, safety and preserving the good in our suburbs would recognise how dangerous our streetscapes and transport systems are.

In a post at Greater Auckland, he writes, “Council and Auckland Transport need to roll out a safe cycling network, a new programme of street trees and better footpaths, and an efficient, prioritised bus network over the entire city. But this isn’t something that needs to happen just where new development is happening, or just because development is happening. These networks are required now, to transform the whole city.

“A council more serious about the converging climate, housing, and congestion crises would not be so dismissive [of the new bill], but would rather be attempting to mould the new rules to correct past mistakes and ensure quality on the pathway to housing abundance.”

Six ways to make the bill better

An expert working group

Several groups, including Urban Auckland, the Urban Design Forum, the NZ Institute of Architects and the Housing Coalition, have proposed that a working party be set up to help draft a national planning framework. They say it should include built environment professionals, developers and government officials.

The job would be to turn the “sledgehammer” of the MDRS into a set of rules more in tune with community and environmental needs – without allowing them to slow the whole planning and construction process down.

Build on the Auckland Unitary Plan

The MDRS has some blunt similarities with the terrace housing and apartments zone and the mixed-housing urban zone, established in Auckland’s Unitary Plan. Those zones are a good place to start the process of refinement.

But a focus on transport corridors and around town centres is also important. The new framework could allow even greater density in those areas than now.

Heritage protection

The bill removes “character overlays”, which currently protect a lot of inferior housing hiding behind a picket fence. But as the Coalition for More Homes says, we still need stronger heritage protections.

Regulations not primary law

The national framework should not be enshrined in the act, as is currently proposed, but should be a set of regulations that can be updated as necessary without having to change the law.

Keep the Environment Court

The bill proposes that matters of “national environmental significance” be resolved by the minister. Why dispense with the Environment Court in this? Its limitations now are caused largely by the technical demands of the RMA, not the role of the court as such.

A national design agency

Ben van Bruggen says a national design agency for Aotearoa is long overdue. “The Government has a Chief Science Adviser with her own department. Why not a Chief Design Adviser and a Prime Minister’s Aotearoa Design Office? The quality of the built environment impacts so much of our daily lives that it warrants attention and investment. We can see what happens when it goes awry: leaky homes, climate degradation, urban sprawl, inequality, wasted resources.”

Auckland Council abolished its own design office in early 2020. That should be reinstated and empowered at a senior level.

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