The government has just done away with one of the worst planning regulations in New Zealand. Why did National’s presumably free market-loving urban development spokesperson come out in favour of more council red tape?
National has billed itself as the party of the free market and limited government. That’s reflected in its language on town planning. Its leader Judith Collins wants to tear up the Resource Management Act (RMA), which she calls a barrier to “getting things built in this country”.
This week, the party received what appeared to be good news: the government announced it was abolishing some of the country’s most nonsensical and restrictive planning rules. Phil Twyford and Julie Anne Genter’s new national policy statement on urban development stops councils imposing minimum parking requirements for new developments, and ensures they can’t restrict building heights to fewer than six storeys in town centres of major cities. They’re essentially forced to enable taller buildings with no carparks around rapid transit. It’s a regulations bonfire. An unshackling of the free market. Of course, National’s urban development spokesperson embraced the policy with open arms.
Just kidding, she absolutely hated it.
In what seemed to be a full-throated defence of red tape, Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean called the government’s plan “madness”. She said its laissez-faire approach to parking would cause congestion, essentially claiming that incentivising car-free living will generate more cars.
Even though Dean appears to object to the rule of the free market, the national policy statement represents welcome, progressive reform. Minimum parking rules in particular have long had a suffocating effect on commercial and residential development. By forcing developers and businesses to provide carparks even if they don’t need them, they restrict new enterprise and create barriers to compact housing.
To see how the rules can screw up a city, look to Cohaus in Grey Lynn. The co-living development was almost denied resource consent in 2018 because it provided only 10 car parks for its 19 apartments. Auckland Council has repeatedly claimed it wants a compact city based around public transport and active transit. Cohaus was near a major public transport route, and its owners wanted to walk and cycle as much as possible. It almost didn’t go ahead because council planning officers decided it didn’t provide enough room for cars, which are actively making the city more congested and polluted.
Helen O’Sullivan, chief executive of Crockers Property Group and former chief executive of Ockham Residential, says minimum parking requirements stop affordable housing being built in central areas. Under the new policy, developers can still provide parking if they think it makes economic sense. But making them provide floors of basement parking, at at least $75,000 per space, ends up putting housing beyond the reach of anyone but the rich, she says. “You push the housing that’s provided in those places into the upper price echelons and you don’t get affordable housing. Full stop.”
The rules also have a constrictive effect on small business. Auckland Council’s planning committee chairman Chris Darby says he knows several potential small business owners who have had to cancel their plans because they couldn’t satisfy car parking minimums. “It’s proven to be an absolute killer to some businesses, and to some innovative development solutions developers have come forward with as well,” he says. “It really harks back to a 1950s or 1960s approach to planning that we’ve adhered to despite the dramatically changing times.”
Greater Auckland’s Matt Lowrie says the rules advantage bigger retailers. They have the resources to provide parking spaces, while smaller retailers can’t always afford that upfront cost, he says. “It was used by big box retailers, like Mitre 10 and Bunnings and the Warehouses of the world, to prevent competition.”
Eliminating minimum parking requirements and allowing dense development around rapid transit stops an all-too-common breed of council hypocrisy, Lowrie says. Local authorities can no longer say they want to prevent sprawl and then implement rules that enable it, he says. “It’s one blow against the Nimbys. Councils can’t hide behind those rules. They’ve got to enable that density. They can’t have a vision for one thing and then have rules that prevent it being realised.”
O’Sullivan says the new rules remove the temptation for councillors to pander to existing homeowners, who tend to be older and rich. “Local councils get caught between the voting base, which tends to be older land owners, and the wannabe home buyers,” she says. “The national policy statement just removes the ability to only look at the short-term interests of those who are speaking loudest in the conversation.”
These arguments seem to be winning over some skeptics. After Dean’s initial comments blasting the new policy, National’s transport spokesperson Chris Bishop said he actually supports it. Dean went on to clarify that her main concern was “accessibility for those who are less abled and also older people”. When she reads the policy statement, she’ll be grateful to see it explicitly excludes accessible car parks from the new parking rules.
Maybe National will come round on the new policy. It would be a relief if it did. There’s an election coming up, which it could still win if it doesn’t run out of MPs before the vote. It would be nice to know that the party wouldn’t start its reign by wrenching away some of the most promising planning reforms in years. Instead, it could pay to listen to its notoriously lefty friends at the Property Council and offer “cross partisan support” to the rules in an effort to “bring New Zealand’s urban planning into this century”. As good as government regulations are, National has to realise some aren’t fit for purpose any more. It’s time to let these ones go.