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Summer reissue: Revisiting the Spinoff’s ‘War for Auckland’ adventure

In 2016 the Spinoff launched the humbly titled ‘War for Auckland’ campaign. Here we republish the editorials, from June and August, that bookended the bellicose, unruly crowd-funded enterprise

Announcing the War for Auckland

Originally published June 27, 2016

War?! We know, we know. But what else would you call the vastly differing visions for Auckland presented by Auckland 2040 and Generation Zero? We feel like the next few months will define this city’s future, and will thus cover the Unitary Plan and the subsequent election with a rare fury. Read on to hear our justification – and to find out how you can help.

Today The Spinoff launches a new pop-up section. For the next three months, alongside Television, Sports, Politics and all that, we will also have an unashamedly campaigning new part of the site called The War For Auckland.

The name is a little provocative, sure. But we think it’s what we’re living through. Today Auckland Council will receive a final set of recommendations from its Independent Hearings Panel on the Unitary Plan. That sounds like a wonky, impenetrable thing. But we think it happens to be a pivotal moment for the Unitary Plan – the single most important publication for this city in our lifetime. Potentially the most important it will ever know.

Too many of our high rises exist solely for business. We think far more should be built for housing, too. (image: Getty)

Does that sound far-fetched? We base that claim on two crucial facts:

1. We are enduring an epic housing crisis that has forced our most vulnerable onto benches and into cars and garages, and left hundreds of thousands more living in sub-standard accommodation, with no prospect of ever owning an adequate home in the city they grew up in.
The median house price in Auckland is now around 10 times the median household income. Before 1990, that figure was around four times the median income. This city is now the fourth-least affordable major housing market in the world. The average Auckland house earned $83,000 last year The average Auckland worker earned $46,800. This has calamitous flow on effects for a whole generation, and for anyone hoping to pursue a career that’s not real estate or mortgage broking in this city. It has a huge impact on business, too.

2. The most important solution to this era-defining challenge is building a new city within the boundaries of the old. One that grows up gracefully. Some movement on the city’s fringes is desirable and inevitable. But the greatest need and opportunity is a massive increase in the quantity of good, warm, dependable and affordable housing, served by fast and efficient public transport and within its current footprint.

The Unitary Plan, this blueprint which sets out the next 30 years of Auckland’s evolution as a city, leaps a crucial hurdle today. For the next month or so, it will be fought over. One side are well-funded, wily and incentivised to ensure that any calls for increased density close to the city are watered down or overturned.

The other are largely poorer, browner, younger and far less well-resourced to fight the calls to freeze them out of the housing market. It terrifies me and everyone in this office to think of what might happen if the Nimbys and their allies win this war. The city they’re fighting for is one that essentially remains the same. That would suit them. Many already own quarter acre museum piece villas. But it would essentially erect a NO VACANCY sign above the city, beaming directly into the eyes of the young and the poor; anyone who doesn’t already own a home here.

What I’m saying is: if we lose this fight, we might as well all leave. We think that’s a deeply depressing thought. We don’t want it, and won’t give up the city without a fight. That’s why we’re getting worked up and belligerent in naming the section.

AN ABANDONED STATE HOUSE BOARDED UP READY FOR REMOVAL ON APRIL 8, 2016 IN AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND. (PHOTO BY HANNAH PETERS/GETTY IMAGES)

AN ABANDONED STATE HOUSE (PHOTO BY HANNAH PETERS/GETTY IMAGES)

Over the past few months we’ve published a number of pieces calling attention to some of the more egregious nonsense being carried out by certain councillors and propagated by certain public figures. We’ll be doing more of that, much more. We’ve had it with the false dichotomy of intensification versus sprawl. The argument, as far as we’re concerned, is settled: the Nimby agenda – leafy suburban opposition to planned and managed density – sounds the death knell for young, future-minded Auckland. Of course we welcome alternative points of view on our site. But we’re not pretending that these are different paths to the same outcome. One way lies the future; the other a giant retirement village. We know which one we want to live in.

Between now and election day on October 8, we will watch the campaign closely. We will run interviews and serious economic analysis of policy. We will assess the issues and the arguments. We will applaud those candidates who run on platforms that will help this city evolve and grow. And we will be calling bullshit as loudly and often as is required.

We’re aware that there are problems elsewhere in the country. We won’t ignore them by any means – but Auckland will be our focus. Both because we’re a comparatively tiny platform that happens to be headquartered here, and because Auckland’s fate matters. If we screw this up and let the forces of darkness/this evil cat win, then the city is essentially ruined until the Unitary Plan’s opponents finally wheeze out their last angry council submission and shuffle off this mortal coil.

Ockham-designed apartments in Eden Terrace of the type which should rationally carpet our transport corridors (Image: Ockham)

Apartments in Eden Terrace of the type which should rationally carpet our transport corridors (Image: Ockham)

So this post is to announce our intention. But it’s also to say that, if you believe this is important too, then we’d love your help. We’ve funded every part of our coverage of this election and the housing crisis ourselves to this point – from satirical takes to deeply reported features. It’s part of how we give back to the community which raised us. But it’s also exhausting, and expensive.

So for the first time we’re opening up the opportunity to contribute to The Spinoff financially via our PledgeMe campaign. We’re asking for money for this specific project, from both businesses and individuals, to chip in either publicly or anonymously. What we’re saying is: if you think it’s important that we live in a modern city which is fit for purpose into the future, then we would love your help to cover this election with that in mind.

The money we get will be ploughed into paying contributors, increasing the social reach of election-specific posts, creating collateral, developing election-specific parts of the site, paying fact-checkers, creating video – basically anything we can think of to make the young and the interested care more about the election, and get them voting.

So if you’re a business that has an interest in a vibrant and growing city, or an individual who wants to see something done about our ongoing housing calamity, then consider making a donation. We’re going to do whatever we can regardless – but every dollar we get will help us do more, and amplify our work more loudly.

At the end of the process, just prior to election time, we’re going to do another thing not typically done in New Zealand. We will endorse specific candidates in every single ward. We’re going to say that if you want the kind of city that serves all Aucklanders – not just those lucky enough to have won a generational jackpot – these are the people you should vote for. Because part of the reason no one votes in council elections is that the candidates are essentially invisible.

No longer, if we can help it.

If you’re a candidate opposing a density shock and this irks you – good. Maybe get some better policies. If you’re in favour of a smarter, denser, more coherent city, then this should work out pretty well for you.

For everyone else, particularly the young people who vote less and get less out of their city, please consider filling out the ridiculous pen-and-paper voting ballot. This one matters a lot more than the flag, and probably more than the next national election, in Auckland at least.

We’re not guaranteeing we’ll succeed. But we are saying that we’re sick of pretending this is anything like a normal political situation. We don’t care which side of the aisle you come from – there are great policy solutions on both sides, and both Vic Crone and Phil Goff are saying the right things. But we do strongly believe that something must be done, and done now. So watch this space for election coverage like no other.

And click here to help


Spinoff editorial: The war for Auckland is over. Long live the war!

Originally published August 15, 2016

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 Sky Tower responds to news that Auckland could be OK after all. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

The Sky Tower responds to news Auckland might not be totally fucked after all. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty)

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?

This warpaint-wearing elder gang turned out to be a harmless crew of environmental crusaders. Photo: Hayden Donnell

This warpaint-wearing gang turned out to be a harmless crew of environmental crusaders. Photo: Hayden Donnell

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.