PoliticsApril 3, 2024

What Tory Whanau really thinks about the independent hearings panel


Wellington mayor Tory Whanau sits down with Wellington editor Joel MacManus to reflect on the council’s new District Plan and the independent hearings panel’s recommendations. 

Tory Whanau says the new District Plan is “at the top” of her list of achievements as mayor. The plan still needs sign-off from housing minister Chris Bishop, but as it stands, it’s an enormous change to Wellington’s housing rules – allowing more density, taller height limits, with fewer character protections preventing development. 

The Spinoff covered the District Plan throughout the War for Wellington series, which kicked off when the independent hearings panel, released a series of controversial recommendations to reduce zoning for density and overall housing capacity compared to the council’s proposed plan. 

Whanau, and the council’s left-leaning majority, managed to pass a series of amendments which undid most of the IHP’s changes, and in some cases went even further in favour of more housing. 

But throughout the entire War for Wellington series, the mayor and councillors were unable to speak publicly about the IHP or the District Plan, because of strict rules around the “quasi-judicial” process.

Now that the council has voted on the final version of the District Plan and sent it to the minister, Whanau is finally free to speak her mind about the IHP. We sat down in her office to reflect on what happened.

The Spinoff: What did you think when you saw those first couple of IHP reports with the recommendations to reduce housing capacity and density? 

Look, they did their job. They did what they were hired to do. I just strongly disagreed with it. Those reports, their recommendations, were just not something I could support, which is why we came up with the alternative amendments. 

Beyond the recommendations just being things you don’t agree with politically, there were some pretty questionable economic claims, for example, that intensification doesn’t affect supply and demand. What did you make of that? 

I just thought it was completely wrong. When the majority of our major parties in parliament, including the Act Party, are all looking at that claim and saying “well, that’s just not true”, that’s saying something. I was as baffled as other people. 

A lot of the evidence was dismissed or downweighted, including the census data on walking, and most of the submissions by Waka Kotahi and the Ministry of Housing. Do you think that was done in good faith?

It’s hard to know, and I know some of us have made assumptions about their intentions. But in terms of the evidence that they chose to downweight, again, I was baffled, just like many other people. I was surprised, and disappointed, but I’m glad we’ve gotten back on the right track.

Was there any particular recommendation that stood out to you? 

The walking catchment was pretty wild. I actually live a 30 or so minute walk from council and I walk home and vice versa every day. So that claim about people not being able to walk 15 minutes home, because most people don’t like walking uphill, was laughable. 

The IHP members were appointed by a council vote, although you weren’t on the council at the time. Would you have reservations about appointing any of those members to a future commission?

I think, in future I would like to see maybe a bit more diversity, whether it’s age or cultural or so forth. In terms of appointing them to a future commission, they could very well have the expertise for that. But for housing in particular, I’d like to see a wider ranging mix of people. 

From top to bottom, Robert Schofield, Trevor Robinson, Jane Black, David McMahon, Heike Lutz, Rawiri Faulkner, Liz Burge and Lindsay Daysh, the independent hearings panellists for Wellington’s District Plan

The panel members are obviously qualified and experienced. But should the way this process was done, and all the ways it was flawed, play a role in deciding whether the council trusts these people with an important decision again? 

No, not at all. They went through the process, they went through the evidence, and they had their views. They’re entitled to do that. I, and many councillors, disagreed with them. In my view, they did their role, but thanks to this robust process, we were in a position to be able to disagree with them. 

What kind of reactions have you had from people since the meeting? 

It’s been wonderful actually. I made an assumption that the District Plan is so nerdy that no one’s really paying attention. But they are. I’ve had all these people, who I would consider the future of Wellington, coming up to me saying thank you, that they’re looking forward to an affordable house in a few years’ time. 

You have the people who argue at council, but actually the community, our diverse community, our youth, our rainbow whānau, our artistic whānau, this is what they want, and this is why they elected me. Sorry, I get really passionate about the last few weeks, it’s just been insane. 

There has already been some pretty strong backlash from some of the residents’ associations around the decisions to reduce character areas. What role do you think character areas should have? 

Some parts of the city are protected. And that’s fine, because it does give some sort of vibe to the city. But I would never want to extend more than that. For me, the choice is simple: You either have a single dwelling house that holds one family or you have six. I will always go for the six. If we’re to grow as a city, we need to accept that it’s gonna take a lot more building to become a future focused city. 

I respect heritage, I respect history. I’m tangata whenua. There is a place for it, but we have to move forward. People complain about the city dying, and it’s because we’re not growing. We’re not investing in that beautiful stuff that makes us Wellington. We’re trying to hold on to the past. If we do that, we will remain a stale city. 

Planning changes the rules, but beyond that you need to actually get the houses built. What are you doing to get this construction going? 

I’ve had interactions with Willis Bond, Stratum and The Wellington Company. They have been saying for some time: “Can we just get on with it? We want to build.” So the desire to build is there, but the consenting process and the bureaucracy made things really hard. Now, we can remove some of those barriers. 

What about developers from outside Wellington? Are you trying to recruit? 

I’ve asked my team to connect me with that developer for Auckland, Ockham Residential. And we’ll go a bit wider, as well.

In an interview with The Post, you mentioned the Soho Apartments and said you didn’t want to see more developments like that. The Soho Apartments have a lot of homes. They’re smaller, but what’s wrong with that?

I’ll reframe that, actually. What I meant to say is: I do want to encourage developments that have outdoor community spaces and green spaces, with really good design standards. And if we have the odd building like Soho, that’s fine as well, because it leads to more affordable housing. 

Wellington’s Soho Apartments. Source: Urban Outcomes.

What conversations have you had with Chris Bishop about the ministerial sign-off?

Nothing yet. I know publicly he has said very favorable things about high-density housing. So I’m looking forward to seeing where he lands. 

Are there any amendments you’re concerned won’t get through? 

I wouldn’t put a bet on it. I don’t see any of them being overly controversial. But look, we’ll wait and see. I don’t know where he’s going to, but I think they’re all great.

The final decision on the Wellington District Plan is expected to be made by Chris Bishop in mid-late April.

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