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OPINIONPoliticsMarch 15, 2024

Housing wins the war


The War for Wellington is over, and there is one overwhelming winner: housing. 

There is no other way of putting it. The new Wellington District Plan is the biggest, fattest W in the history of the pro-housing movement in this country. For the Yimbys, the New City, the progressives, the urbanists, a City for People, for anyone who wants to own a townhouse or apartment in Wellington, this is an enormous, unprecedented victory. 

In the stroke of a pen (and a six-hour meeting with many tedious amendment votes), Wellington has moved from the most restrictive housing market in New Zealand to the most permissive. 

The Auckland Unitary Plan in 2016 kicked off an enormous boom of housing development across our largest city. It enabled tens of thousands of new townhouses and apartments, doubling the rate of construction and reducing the costs of rent in real terms compared to the rest of the country. 

The new Wellington District Plan is more significant and more ambitious than the AUP. It allows denser buildings, more townhouses and more buildings on each section of land. These new rules will allow Wellington to finally become the city it already thinks it is: urbane, inclusive, progressive and vibrant. This is the greatest urbanist achievement New Zealand has ever seen.

There were 26 proposed amendments on Thursday, and the Yimbys won every single one of them. Even watching from inside the room, it felt unbelievable, almost impossible. Wellington is a city that has been dominated for decades by the Old Town, a faction of powerful, wealthy residents who will do anything to prevent density and stop any change to the neighbourhoods they hold so dear. 

The room where it happened (Photo: Joel MacManus)

There’s actually very little to analyse here. The meeting wasn’t subtle. It wasn’t complex. The Labour, Green and pro-housing independent councillors romped home. The independent hearings panel’s recommendations were so anti-housing they inspired a backlash, giving progressive councillors political cover to push for even denser housing than would have previously been possible. It was an overwhelmingly one-sided affair. But there are a few points that are worth a deeper dive. 

There are two big obvious wins for housing. The first is the inner-city character areas, which have been reduced from 306 hectares to 85 hectares. This is huge. This is the most desirable, most density-friendly land in the city. The reason these suburbs have “character” is because they are old. They’re old because they’re the closest places to the city, so they were the first places anyone built houses. The character protections effectively prevented any development whatsoever from occurring in these suburbs. Thanks to Thursday’s votes, this land will be able to become apartments for thousands of new residents (which will also mean huge value uplift for current homeowners, whose land has suddenly become more developer-friendly). 

The second huge win is for the northern suburbs. By defining the Johnsonville rail line as “rapid transit”, the council has enabled thousands of new homes to be built along the train line. Anything within a walking catchment of a rapid transit station must automatically be zoned for six-storey apartments. A successful amendment by Nīkau Wi Neera took it even further, expanding the rapid transit walking catchment from five minutes to 10 minutes. Multiplied across nine train stations on the Johnsonville and Kāpiti lines, this adds up to enormous potential for new housing.

There are countless smaller wins. The Gordon Wilson flats will no longer be a heritage-protected blight, staring over The Terrace menacingly like a diseased predator. Finally, (finally!), Victoria University of Wellington will be free to demolish the building and do something better with that land. Hopefully, that means more housing for students. But even if it means offices and research facilities, it’s better than an abandoned relic kept empty as a historic tribute to how the city used to build low-cost social housing in the centre of town.

There is one bit that could be slightly overlooked, but I think it is possibly the most important change of the entire process. Rebecca Matthews successfully passed an amendment to remove front and side yard setbacks. This goes much further than the National Policy Statement on Urban Development, or the Medium Density Residential Standards. Put simply, it means people building new townhouses or apartments don’t have to leave a gap between the house and the front or side of a section (as is common with UK-style terraced housing). That means more of the land can be used for housing. In many cases, it actually means larger backyards, because you don’t have to leave an ugly, weird dark alleyway along the side of the flat. It’s a small difference on every individual property, but it will add up enormously across the scale of the city. It will mean larger townhouses, or more townhouses per section, both of which are a win for density. 

Rebecca Matthews and Phil Twyford: War for Wellington MVPs (Photos: Supplied, Getty Images)

There are two MVPs in this District Plan process who deserve lifelong props for their contribution to Wellington:

  1. Rebecca Matthews. The second-term Labour councillor from the Onslow-Western ward represents and defines the Yimby movement more than any other elected official in New Zealand. From the moment she set foot in the political area, housing has been her first, second and third priority. She deserves credit for her ability to build relationships and find allies across political lines. Her amendments to reduce character areas and expand the centre city walking catchment passed with a surprisingly large majority, thanks to her backroom dealing. This is what has made the Yimby movement so successful: they’re willing to work across the aisle, and see the final outcome as the most important goal, rather than some impossible idea of ideological purity. Matthews has managed to hold both positions. She is beloved by the young, activist left, and still pragmatic enough to win broad support. In the general election, Labour will eventually need a replacement for Greg O’Connor in Ōhāriu, and they could do a lot worse than recruiting Matthews. 
  2. Phil Twyford. The former minister for housing is now relegated to deep in the backbenches of opposition, but his contribution to housing policy might prove to be the most significant legacy of the sixth Labour government. The National Policy Statement on Urban Development and the Medium Density Residential Standards are both incredibly boring-sounding pieces of legislation with long, forgettable names, but the impact they will have on the future of New Zealand cities is indescribable. The NPS-UD was meant to merely set a minimum standard for councils to meet, but both the council and the IHP showed reluctance (and possibly fear) to go above what the law required. It’s scary to imagine what kind of District Plan Wellington would have right now if Twyford had never passed the NPS-UD. There would certainly be some form of upzoning, but surely nothing anywhere near what was achieved on Thursday. 

Now that Wellington City Council has approved an ambitious, progressive, pro-housing District Plan, it will go to housing minister Chris Bishop for final approval. The law puts this decision solely in Bishop’s hands – he does not need the approval of cabinet, it is purely his decision. As an MP based in the Wellington region, who has talked a big game about the need for more density and bigger cities, this is his chance to finally prove he can deliver the urbanist vision he has promised

The next challenge will be the follow-up. Zoning allows housing, the next step is making it happen. The council needs to make sure it can deal with developers, treat them fairly, and encourage them to invest in this city. If they make that happen, Wellington will be the best urban centre in Aotearoa, without question. 

Wellington is no longer dying. We’re so back. This moment, this one meeting in a boring white conference room on The Terrace, has changed the course of this city forever. For the first time in a long time, there’s reason to have hope for Wellington. 

Keep going!