Unlikely friends: Greg O’Connor, Cameron Luxton, Tamatha Paul and Chris Bishop (Image: Tina Tiller)
Unlikely friends: Greg O’Connor, Cameron Luxton, Tamatha Paul and Chris Bishop (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsFebruary 9, 2024

A rare moment of unity: MPs trash Wellington’s housing panel report

Unlikely friends: Greg O’Connor, Cameron Luxton, Tamatha Paul and Chris Bishop (Image: Tina Tiller)
Unlikely friends: Greg O’Connor, Cameron Luxton, Tamatha Paul and Chris Bishop (Image: Tina Tiller)

From the Greens to Act, MPs from across parliament are criticising the independent hearings panel’s restrictive recommendations for Wellington’s new District Plan.

Politicians from across the political spectrum have united to criticise Wellington’s independent panel reports on housing.

The first two reports from the independent hearings panel took a heavily restrictive view towards new housing; expanding character areas, reducing walking catchments and high density areas, and ruling that the Johnsonville train did not count as “mass rapid transit”. 

Experts have criticised the panel as economically illiterate for its claims higher density would not improve housing supply or affordability.

Greg O’Connor, the Labour MP for Ōhāriu, said some of the panel’s decisions “fly in the face of basic economics” and would fail “any third form economics class”.

“Echoing in my ears are the words of John Key in 2013 about Wellington being a dying city,” he said. “When I look at this report, I get concerned there isn’t much in there about ensuring the population growth we need to ensure Wellington survives.

“I’m not sure if any of the panellists have children, like I do, who are flatting in Wellington, but they would understand just how difficult the flatting situation is.” 

O’Connor said he was particularly concerned that expanded character areas would stifle development in the centre city and push growth into the outer northern suburbs.

three houses with sky behind them. they are pretty victorian terraces but looking at them you feel almost certain that they are cold, expensive, and damp. it's just a vibe
Photo: Getty Images

Cameron Luxton, Act’s infrastructure spokesperson, said the panel “seemed to not even identify the basic economics 101 stuff that is causing a shortage of housing in Wellington”.

He said Act generally didn’t want to tell councils how to zone, but that “something needs to happen in Wellington”.

Green MP for Wellington Central Tamatha Paul, a former city councillor who holds a masters degree in planning, was particularly critical. 

“They’re not recommendations that I think appropriately respond to the scale of the housing crisis in Wellington,” she said. “The crisis demands us to build as much housing as we possibly can. That’s the only outcome I would find acceptable, and that’s not what this report is recommending.”

Wellington city councillors will be able change any of the panel’s recommendations via an amendment vote at a meeting on March 14, but Paul said that didn’t go far enough – she wants the council to reject the entire report and send it to the minister to be rewritten. “I don’t know that a piecemeal approach will get us the outcomes that we need,” she said. “We are monumentally failing right now, and the result will be homeless and poverty on a scale we have never seen before.”

National’s Chris Bishop said he was reading the panel’s reports. “Wellington has a housing crisis and restrictive zoning rules are a big part of the problem.”

“I will be making further announcements on this soon,” he said. The Spinoff understands Bishop is positioning himself to be involved in the sign-off process, which would typically go to environment minister Penny Simmonds. 

Stu Donovan, a housing economist for Motu, said the panel had “misread the room” on housing reform. “I genuinely don’t think they appreciate just how much their social licence to operate has changed in the last decade,” he said. “The planning profession in New Zealand has become extraordinarily politically and socially isolated.”

“My view is that the independent hearings panel is made up of commissioners who are stuck in the old mindset that we must only enable urban development where we can be absolutely certain that it doesn’t have negative effects. That’s the old framing, that development is a bad thing that must be managed. The NPS-UD replaced that framing with a positive approach to urban development that you must enable as much housing as you can unless you have very, very clear evidence of the negative effects.”

However, just because there is a consensus emerging in parliament doesn’t mean the same is true around the council table. There is a narrow split between pro and anti-density factions, and the vote could be decided by the winner of the Lambton ward by-election, voting for which closes on February 17. 

Wellington city councillors will get their first chance to question members of the panel about their decision at a briefing on Wednesday February 15. We got a little taste of what to expect at another briefing this week – no panel members were present, but council staff explained some of the panel’s decisions. A group of progressive councillors laughed when staff described the panel’s conclusion that census data didn’t prove how many people walked to work from each suburb, because it didn’t ask how people got home. 

Councillor Ben McNulty couldn’t resist an early dig at the panel’s ruling that enabling more housing wouldn’t lead to more housing, asking: “Is it the view of the panel that if there was a shortage of bread rolls at KFC Johnsonville, supplying more rolls at KFC would not have any impact on the shortage of bread rolls?”

Sean Audain, the council’s strategic planning manager, answered diplomatically: “Our job is to impartially put before you the advice of the panel, absent of the views of officers. Given the panel didn’t actively discuss KFC, we cannot possibly consider it.”

The independent hearings panel released its third report on Wednesday evening, focused on the centre city. It was less dramatic than the first two – the most significant recommendation was to replace the 42m central city height limit with a “height threshold”, which developers could go over if they met certain criteria, a potential win for housing supply. 

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