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Andy Foster and the plan for Wellington. Photos: Getty & RNZ
Andy Foster and the plan for Wellington. Photos: Getty & RNZ

OPINIONPoliticsJune 22, 2021

Wellington city councillors need to ask themselves: who are you really serving?

Andy Foster and the plan for Wellington. Photos: Getty & RNZ
Andy Foster and the plan for Wellington. Photos: Getty & RNZ

The consultation process for Wellington’s spatial plan has been captured nimbyism, argues Neale Jones. Will the council this week have the courage to put people’s lives ahead of the look of their houses?

This week Wellington city councillors will vote on the city’s spatial plan, which determines whether the council will allow enough homes to be built over the next 30 years to house the city’s people.

This should be a relatively straightforward decision. But with Council officers backing down to nimbyism and Thursday’s vote on a knife-edge, Wellington City Council is at risk of showing itself incapable of making even the most basic decisions about the city’s future.

It’s fair to say that until recently Wellington City Council planning processes had not been a subject of fierce public debate. The council would put out consultation documents, residents’ associations and a few local government anoraks would respond and nothing would ever change. Property values rose regularly, home owners’ views and amenity were protected. Capital gains were leveraged and property portfolios built. From the perspective of home owners, the system appeared to be working well.

But there was always going to be a bill to pay. The council admits the city is now 4,000-5,000 houses short of what’s needed. It expects population growth of 50,000-80,000 more people in the next 30 years, meaning another 32,000 houses will be needed just to stand still.

We all know what happens when there aren’t enough houses: prices rise, rents go up and people become homeless. Wellington is the worst offender, with data from Infometrics showing that over the last decade Wellington built fewer houses per capita than any other region, and as a result is now seeing the highest price increases in the country – up more than 20% in the last year alone.

For an increasing number of people facing eye-watering rents, mouldy overcrowded flats and no hope of ever owning a home, things have reached a tipping point. Rightly, they are no longer tolerating a system that prevents homes from being built in the midst of a housing crisis in order to appease nimbys.

It was to break the nimby stranglehold that Phil Twyford, fresh from being demoted from the housing portfolio, developed a policy that may end up doing more than any other government initiative this century to turn around the country’s housing crisis.

Under the National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD), Councils like Wellington’s are forced to free up density restrictions to ensure there are enough new homes built to accommodate the city’s projected population growth, plus a margin of 20% to ensure a competitive market. That means creating a situation where houses are competing for buyers, rather than the other way around.

The evidence around the world shows that local government is structurally unable to stand up to nimbyism. Low voter turnout heavily favours existing property owners, leaving councillors too exposed politically. Public consultations are dominated by vested interests: those who suffer the most from housing shortages are the most transient, the least engaged. The answer is for central government to simply force councils to allow more housing.

This might explain the entitled rage that has come from the nimby lobby in response to Wellington City Council’s draft Spatial Plan, which the council had to develop in order to satisfy the requirements of the NPS-UD. The draft plan significantly reduced pre-1930s character protections and loosened density restrictions to enable tens of thousands of new homes.

Things seemed to be moving in broadly the right direction, until news leaked last week that council officers had buckled to the nimby lobby and agreed to increase the area set aside for “character” housing in the city’s draft spatial plan by 70%. This means an additional 127 hectares of land in some of Wellington’s inner suburbs would be exempt from changes that would allow more density.

As has seemingly always been the way, the consultation process for the spatial plan was captured by nimbys. For my own submission, there was a table of 10 submitters. Every one of us owned our own property. The other nine all opposed more housing. Among the hundred or so people in the room, perhaps a handful were renters.

The council bureaucracy, which has a culture of at times thinly veiled contempt for elected councillors, reviewed this consultation and made a political call on whose interests to prioritise. Existing homeowners in special character areas won out, and elected councillors were notified via the media only days before they were due to vote on it.

Meanwhile, councillors who are already vulnerable to organised nimby pressure given the voter demographics in local body elections are weighing up whether they can risk voting for there to be enough houses for people to live in.

What better demonstration of how broken Wellington City Council is as an institution and why the NPS-UD was needed in the first place? 

Thursday’s vote is understood to be evenly split: Labour councillors, the independent left and the pro-development right support rolling back the council officers’ recommendations and restoring density, with the rest of the council largely backing the nimby position. It is likely the Green councillors, who have variously been on the fence or openly anti-development, will hold the casting votes.

The outcome of the vote will be instructive. Wellington’s woes are well-documented: Broken pipes that cause poo to run down residential streets. A transport plan going nowhere. Increasing concerns about inner-city safety. An eye-watering earthquake strengthening bill. The climate crisis. And of course, the worst housing crisis in the country.

A failure by the Council to agree a spatial plan in compliance with the NPS-UD will almost certainly be challenged in the courts. Central government would of course need to consider its options, up to and including installing a commissioner. But it raises broader questions.

If Wellington City Council is incapable of making even the most basic decisions to ensure the future of the city, how we can trust it to deal with the city’s many other serious crises?

And what does it say about a city if its leaders value the look of its buildings more than the people who live in them?

Neale Jones is director of public affairs firm Capital GR. He is a former senior adviser to the Labour Party and is involved on a volunteer basis with the pro-housing campaign group A City for People.

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