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Photo: Getty Images; additional design Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Images; additional design Tina Tiller

PoliticsJune 19, 2021

The shape of Wellington’s future is about to be decided

Photo: Getty Images; additional design Tina Tiller
Photo: Getty Images; additional design Tina Tiller

A draft plan that increases by 50% the amount of inner Wellington shielded from new dense housing is set to face a tough week in council, writes Justin Giovannetti.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of Wellington’s proposed plan to house tens of thousands of new arrivals over the coming decades, according to many of the capital’s residents, as well as members of its council.

While the city is seeking to deal with a housing affordability crisis amid projections of a fast-growing population, its draft spatial plan will shield swathes of the inner suburbs from denser housing. New development is being pushed out to the edges of the city, away from existing infrastructure.

In the days ahead the plan faces a vote at council that will shape the capital’s future for generations to come. And its passage in anything resembling its current form is far from assured.

Just a few years after Auckland passed its unitary plan, following a debate which saw younger residents and tenants face the scorn of wealthy homeowners, Wellington councillor Tamatha Paul is worried about what Wellington is in store for. The words “horrible” and “awful” come to mind, she said.

“The whole debate is what really worries me about local government in general, because it’s clear that the interests of current homeowners are constantly prevailing over those who can’t afford to participate in council processes and make submissions.”

At the centre of the debate will be 127.3 hectares. Spread across seven of the city’s inner suburbs, the hectares add up to the city’s proposed “character precincts” where demolition will be tightly controlled and construction above three storeys will be forbidden.

The precincts proposed for preservation are dominated by colonial villas. Many of the zones are not large contiguous areas, but small postage stamps shielded by regulation. Around them could come six storey buildings. The owners of those older homes, from the northern tip of Thorndon to flat stretches of Berhampore in the south, have banded together to ask the city to spare them from newcomers in townhouses and apartments.

The character precincts being proposed by the city snake along streets, covering some individual houses but not those across the road. In some suburbs the precincts suddenly stop for two blocks before starting again around a single road.

The draft plan increases the protected areas by nearly 45% from an earlier draft of the plan, which has been under development since 2017. Along with hectares of new land being added in each of the inner suburbs, the proposal also adds a new area in Kelburn that hasn’t been under the heritage banner before.

The debate over those areas has already underscored two conflicts in Wellington, one between neighbours and another within the municipal government itself. City staff acknowledges the conflict in a report to council that will be debated next Thursday, noting that the question of “intensification” was the most debated topic over months of public hearings and submissions.

While the majority of the capital’s residents want to build a compact city according to the report, adding density near existing infrastructure, homeowners in heritage areas warned density there “would result in loss of character”. Their opponents, often younger and renters, want the city to rip up red tape and allow development, especially in suburbs close to the central city.

In the draft report, the homeowners seem to have won, and that’s not unusual, according to councillor Paul. The decision highlights a history of reports overseen by council staff that protect existing homeowners at the expense of renters and younger residents, she said.

Only three weeks ago, council overturned a plan by municipal staff that sought to slowly add $120 million of new cycling infrastructure over the coming years. Facing an outcry from cyclists, council directed staff to be more ambitious and spend nearly 50% more money.

Could villas face the same reversal? Paul, who is the co-chair of the planning committee, says she expects a number of changes will be coming. 

“The staff bring us the plans, but as politicians it’s our jobs to think about the future, give expression to the national policy statement, and fight past the fear of backlash from those who wanting to protect heritage,” she told The Spinoff.

“We know that over-regulation by councils are what stop houses from being built everywhere. We need to be brave, bold and remove regulations to get houses built”.

The city needs to comply with a national policy statement requiring cities to zone enough land for expected demand. About 80,000 new residents are expected over the next three decades. The draft plan would house nearly half of them in newly built areas up the valley from Khandallah past Tawa.

The inner suburbs that ring central Wellington would only add about 14,000 new people — the least of the city’s three main areas. The central city, from parliament to Cuba Street, would add 18,000.

Incidentally, when the city announced plans earlier this week to remove cars from some streets in the Golden Mile, one of the main complaints from business groups was that too few people live downtown.

Grant Robertson, who is the MP for Wellington Central as well as holding another role or two, said he expects council will strike a balance. “I will take a close look at the plan and note that it still needs to go to council. I firmly believe we can intensify and build more housing while also protecting the character of the city,” he said.

Don’t worry too much about the draft plan, Paul said. It’s the product of a process that puts a heavy emphasis on submissions to the city. Areas with wealthy professionals and retirees who can write letters and attend meetings punch far above their weight, while those with people holding several jobs don’t. Staff tried to cut the differences in half. She’s more concerned about how fellow councillors vote. It’s unclear which way many are leaning.

Council’s vote won’t be the end of the debate. Beyond what parliament might have in mind over the coming years to increase density and development across the country, the larger regional council around the capital has projects of its own.

The Greater Wellington regional council will start working on its own spatial plan soon. The chair of the committee that will lead the climate aspects of that effort is councillor Thomas Nash. He wouldn’t comment on the city’s proposed plan because the two layers of government generally stay out of each other’s business in public. However, he’ll be watching the vote closely because Wellington’s decision will guide his work in the coming months and years as he helps write a 30-year plan to build the region.

“Questions about where to build homes, schools, hospitals and railways will all be on the table in our process. We’re going to make some choices here and face the climate reality along with our desperate need for new homes,” he said.

“We’ll need to face the reality that the interests of homeowners might not align, frankly, with people who need to buy homes now and into the future. The decisions we make now are going to be important for decades to come”.

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