Hallelujah! The Auckland Council has signed off the Unitary Plan, the crucial rulebook for the city’s future. But there remains plenty to fight for, write Hayden Donnell and Toby Manhire
The biggest battle of the War for Auckland has been won with barely a teaspoon of blood spilled. In a stunning, gravity defying moment the Auckland Council has voted to support the Unitary Plan, a blueprint paving the way for as many as 422,000 new homes in Auckland by 2040.
In four days of hearings debating the version of the plan returned by the Independent Hearings Panel, and the recommendations of Council staff in response, councillors went a long way to destroying their reputation for haplessness, with Mayor Len Brown leading largely efficient, constructive and good-humoured meetings of Auckland’s governing body. Yes, there was a fair bit of BS along the way, mainly from Mike Lee, and, yes, it was kind of pathetic that there was no overarching moment when each councillor was obliged to vote in support or opposition to the plan, but, look, today we make peace with the 20 men and women of the Auckland Council. We’ve even begun to learn to love Dick Quax.
The council has rubber stamped the vast majority of the plan as sent back by the independent panel. There are a few changes, including the reinstatement of minimum sizes for apartments, a reduction in the threshold where developments must apply for resource consent from five dwellings to three, and rejection of residential zoning at the volcanic cone Crater Hill and near the Okura estuary.
There are some good changes councillors failed to make. Most notable was their decision not to reinstate protections on 2213 mana whenua sites across Auckland. The sites are not vital to the future development of the city, and protecting them would have been an important symbolic move to suggest that we, as a city, are at least vaguely aware that the majority of us were here second at best.
But the plan is passed, and it’s mostly good – even those disenfranchised by removal of the mana whenua protections will benefit from the good which comes from a vastly increased housing supply. Though there remains a sense of inevitability about legal challenges in the Environment Court, with 20 working days for limited appeals to be lodged after it is publicly notified on Friday, for all intents and purposes, this is over.
Why did the dragging feet of the council all of a sudden start busting out moves worthy of Parris Goebel? A combination of reasons, probably: the concentration of minds around the problem of housing as the issue dominated headlines for most of the year; the overwhelming signals of consensus from parliamentary politicians and the knowledge that blocking the plan would invite central government intervention; the mind-focusing impact of an election heaving into view; the fact that “leafy suburbs” were, comparatively speaking, unaffected by increased intensification in the final maps; and sheer fatigue – no one was so bloody minded as to want to run yet another lap.
And on top of all that, where were the other lot? Plucky little websites, for example, hellbent on mounting faintly hyperbolic bellicose campaigns in support of a modern, compact Auckland, emitted a warbly war cry, charged over the hill and found a battlefield full of apartment-loving peaceniks. There were a few nimby howls, some garden-variety letters to the editor, but an almost complete absence of any coherent opposition to the plan. Was it because Welsh acting legend turned Auckland 2040 figurehead Richard Burton was over in France when it came out? Had the villa-owning Boomer army lost their passion for kidnapping Auckland and returning it to the 1950s?
One thing’s for sure: they lost. The plan is passed, and for the first time in its existence, Auckland has a sensible, coherent growth plan that covers the whole region.
But it’s too early to start popping the corks. Actually, forget that: pop as many as you like, just get to bed at a reasonable hour because the War continues tomorrow. The local body elections are just around the corner, and there are only around 1.6 candidates standing. Bill Cashmore – a hero of the plan hearings – has happily already been elected unopposed. But at the moment it looks as though the council will be comprised of Phil Goff, Cashmore, Quax, and a series of cardboard cutouts of Mayor Robbie. They may perform better than the last lot, but a sparsely populated field is not necessarily a recipe for competent, pro-density local government. If voters don’t turn up, we could end up with a bunch of under-qualified councillors voting down many of the gains the outgoing council has made in the last few days.
We’re going to be campaigning hard during the local body elections. We want to back councillors who will support the objectives of the Unitary Plan; who don’t want to leave the city’s younger and poorer residents locked out of the market, struggling to pay for poor quality rentals, or even living in cars.
Then there’s central government. It doesn’t have any more excuses. Nick Smith has got his wish for more land supply. Bill English can’t deflect to council when asked who’s to blame for the housing shortage. Council has passed a plan that allows for an oversupply of houses in Auckland. Now the government has to make sure those houses get built, while at the same time reining in rampant property speculation across the region. No pressure or anything, but how it performs on these matters may shape the next election and, in all likelihood, its legacy.
To the barricades.