The capital is facing its most important decision in decades, one that will define the future of the city. Wellington editor Joel MacManus explains what’s going on – and how you can help ensure the council comes down on the right side of history.
Today, we are launching a special editorial project: The War for Wellington. For the next two months, The Spinoff’s Wellington coverage will focus intensely on one issue: the new District Plan, the rule book for housing in the capital city.
Wellington has the most restrictive housing rules of any city in New Zealand. For decades, height limits, character protections, and other strict zoning have made it far too difficult to build new homes. The result has been an enormous housing shortage, skyrocketing rents and house prices, old mouldy flats, urban sprawl and young people being priced out of the city.
In 2024, we have the chance to change that. For the first time since 2000, Wellington City Council is rewriting its District Plan. It’s an enormous opportunity for Wellington to tackle its housing crisis head-on. It will decide between two starkly different futures: In one, Wellington embraces apartments and townhouses, builds tens of thousands of new homes, and grows into a thriving, liveable and equitable city. In the other, the city becomes a museum filled with villas owned by retirees, while young people flee for Auckland (or worse, Upper Hutt). We are unapologetic about our perspective: we believe density is absolutely necessary for the future of Wellington.
The new District Plan will be the single most important document for this city in our lifetime, but it risks flying under the radar, anchored down by layers of impenetrable council bureaucracy (the draft plan is 1266 pages long and filled with technical jargon). Our goal at The Spinoff is to fight back against that. We want to turn this into a story that ignites the entire city, so every Wellingtonian has at least some idea of what is happening, why it matters, and has the chance to call their local councillor and demand change.
This crucial decision comes three years after Wellington passed its Spatial Plan, an ambitious document which hugely expanded the areas which allow apartments, and shrank the character zones, where rules make it almost impossible to tear down old homes and build new ones.
But the Spatial Plan is just a blueprint; it has no statutory power. The District Plan is the document that will make the change official. To throw a spanner in the works, there is no requirement for the District Plan to match the Spatial Plan. As soon as the process started, former mayor Andy Foster and a group of conservative councillors made moves to undo some of the most significant gains.
Starting next week, a panel of independent commissioners will release their District Plan recommendations in a series of council briefings. It will all culminate in one mega-meeting on March 14, where councillors will vote on changes and decide the plan’s final form.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because it is. In 2016, The Spinoff ran a pop-up section called The War for Auckland, when our biggest city was debating the Auckland Unitary Plan.
That was a once-in-a-generation moment when Auckland up-zoned the entire city. It has led to an explosion of new townhouses and medium-density apartment buildings. Research from the University of Auckland suggests the changes led to an additional 43,500 homes being built, almost doubling the rate of construction. As a result, rents have increased less in Auckland than Wellington, and the median income-to-rent ratio dropped in Auckland while it increased across the rest of the country. The average rent for a three-bedroom home in Auckland is an estimated 26-33% lower now than it would be if the Unitary Plan hadn’t passed.
Now, it’s Wellington’s chance to up-zone. If you’re a renter, this matters to you. If you hope to own a home in Wellington someday, this matters to you. If you already own a home and want to be free to develop it, this matters to you. If you care about Wellington and the people who live there, this matters to you.
The War for Wellington is about more than just the nuances of zoning regulations. It’s about the future of Wellington. It’s a chance to have a grown-up conversation about what kind of city we want to be. We’ll do that through in-depth coverage of meetings, explainers, satire, features, and interviews with the key players. But we also want to open this discussion up to the entire community, so you’ll hear from experts, activists, and all sorts of passionate people. If you want to contribute, you’re invited to contact me on: email@example.com.
If you want to stay on top of everything that happens throughout this process, subscribe to The Spinoff’s War for Wellington newsletter. Each week, we’ll send a roundup of the most important stories about the District Plan process and the future of housing in Wellington. It will include highlights from our own coverage, as well as the best reporting from other media in Wellington. Sign up here.
The War for Wellington is being funded entirely with support from Spinoff Members. We’re asking for support to help us with this specific project, from both businesses and individuals. If you think it’s important that Wellington becomes a modern, fit-for-purpose city that can live up to its potential, we would love you to become a member and help us out.
Joel MacManus, Wellington editor.