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OPINIONSocietyMarch 11, 2024

The story of Wellington’s housing panel


Even if we assume everything Wellington’s independent hearings panel did was perfectly well-intentioned, the results are still egregiously flawed and inaccurate. Their recommendations must be rejected.

This Thursday March 14, Wellington City Council will make its most important decision in a generation. The final vote on the District Plan will change the future of housing in Wellington. Councillors will have to choose whether to accept or reject the recommendations of the independent hearings panel. 

The panel has proposed an unambitious vision for Wellington. It recommended much less density and less housing capacity than the draft plan, and rejected dozens of requests to raise height limits.

Throughout the War for Wellington, we’ve published detailed analysis of the recommendations, with data visualisations, and lots of expert commentary. We’ve looked into the members of the panel, the evidence they relied on, and the city-shaping political ramifications. I’ve personally read all 1,472 pages of the panel’s reports (plus hundreds more of supporting documents), watched hours of council briefings, and received advice from an unofficial team of planners, economists, and lawyers. Our goal was to understand not just what the panel had decided, but how and why they made those decisions. 

There’s a rule of thumb called Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” It’s generally a good approach to journalism. Most things that go wrong aren’t some grand conspiracy, but simply a result of human error. 

Even when the panel’s reports included easily provable falsities, it’s better to first assume it is a mistake rather than jump to a nefarious conclusion. 

I, and a number of our contributors, spent six weeks analysing all the publicly available information to try and understand how the panel had reached its regressive – and often bizarre – conclusions. 

Using the principle of Hanlon’s Razor, this is the most charitable possible explanation I’ve been able to piece together that still makes sense…


The entire process was destined to fail from the start, because of the rules the panel used for what evidence it could and couldn’t consider. The District Plan is a “quasi-judicial” process, which has a higher bar of evidence than a typical council decision. But the panel created a standard that was so impossibly high, it effectively blinded itself to the reality of the world around it.

It dismissed or down-weighted mountains of evidence, including the studies of Auckland upzoning which were used to create the National Policy Statement on Urban Development, the law that governs the District Plan process. The panel said it couldn’t consider any of the peer-reviewed research, because “the authors of those studies were not before us.”

When deciding how large a “walking catchment” is, the panel said the census data on how people got to work wasn’t good enough, because it didn’t ask how they got home. Nor was it convinced by the council’s walking analysis, which included 50 pages of statistical modelling on average walking speeds and Wellington’s most common Strava routes. 

When it had to decide whether the Johnsonville rail line counted as “mass rapid transit”, the panel was given guidance documents written by the Ministry for the Environment to help councils apply the NPS-UD, which included the line: “Examples of existing rapid transit stops include train stations on the commuter rail services in Wellington.” Panel chair Trevor Robinson told councillors it was “entirely inappropriate” to rely on MfE documents. 

Robinson said the panel couldn’t give much weight to anything the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development said, because their presentation was led by a senior financial analyst who didn’t “comply with the code of experts” – even though their submission was full of writing by some of New Zealand’s leading housing experts.

The panel wasn’t allowed to consider any outside information. Eliminating so much empirical evidence didn’t make the panel’s decisions more accurate. Instead, it left them with an incredibly narrow frame of reference which left them open to errors. For example, the walking catchment decisions were made mostly on a handful of anecdotes from locals about how far they typically walked, rather than any rigorous data. 

The panel removed almost all the mainstream economic evidence, which opened the door for a charismatic presentation from Dr Tim Helm and the Newtown Residents’ Association, who convinced them additional upzoning would make no difference to housing supply or affordability. The panel probably didn’t realise just how fringe that position was (a survey showed not a single member of the New Zealand Association of Economists agreed with it).

In fact, it appears the panel didn’t give much weight to any written evidence at all. The panel chair Trevor Robinson told councillors he hadn’t even read Helm’s written submissions, which cited self-written blog posts. 

It was the same when Wētā and Victoria University asked the panel to remove heritage protection for the Gas Tank and the Gordon Wilson flats, respectively. Robinson said the two organisations provided no evidence against the heritage listings. “Absolutely zip,” he told councillors, “The submitter did not appear, and did not give us any evidence on the heritage value.” That isn’t entirely true. Both organisations provided detailed written submissions – they just didn’t present them in person. 

When they were hired by the council, the panellists were told to run an inclusive process, avoid unnecessary formality, and “provide all parties with the opportunity to be heard, whether they are presenting verbal or written submissions and/or evidence.” The rules did say evidence can be given greater weight if the submitter showed up to be questioned about their claims – but it never said written evidence was worthless without an oral presentation. 

The process was so strict that even a billion-dollar movie company, the city’s leading university, and the government ministry literally responsible for housing and urban development didn’t understand how to meet the panel’s high standards. 

On top of a flawed evidence process, the panel also made several sloppy, amateurish mistakes. In two separate instances, the panel misrepresented statements by climate change advocacy group Generation Zero. In the first report, it said the group provided “no details or analysis” for the benefits of upzoning, when it actually presented several studies. In the second report, it claimed Generation Zero gave evidence that upzoning wouldn’t lower rent prices in the inner suburbs, when it actually argued the exact opposite, that rent prices would go down. Both of these are serious failures and difficult to hand-wave away, especially because the panel’s report included a joke about “an inconvenient truth” at the group’s expense. But applying the most generous interpretation possible, we have to assume this was just an unintentional error from a panel member who got mixed up or took bad notes.

Lastly, why did four panel members fail to declare their own property ownership as conflicts of interest, even though it was clearly required in the rules, and they were making decisions which could directly affect their property values? Again, applying the most charitable interpretation possible, we have to assume this was a genuine mistake – they either didn’t realise it was required, or simply forgot.

Even if we assume everything the panel did was perfectly well-intentioned, the results are still
egregiously flawed and inaccurate. The recommendations are filled with spurious logic and decisions which fly in the face of the economic consensus and basic common sense. 

The eight panel members, Trevor Robinson, Robert Schofield, Heike Lutz, Liz Burge, Lindsay Daysh, Jane Black, Rawiri Faulkner, and David McMahon, were hired to run the District Plan hearings in a fair, transparent, and inclusive way. They completely, utterly, humiliatingly, failed. 

The panel’s reports are not credible. We can’t continue to pretend their advice is accurate or trustworthy. Their recommendations on housing density must be rejected.

Keep going!