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WellingtonJanuary 31, 2024

A simple guide to Wellington’s District Plan and why you should care about it


The Spinoff’s War for Wellington is exploring the creation of the Wellington’s new District Plan, the rulebook for housing in the capital. How will it all work? 

Welcome to the battlefront. This is the War for Wellington, the fight that will determine what kind of city we want to be. Specifically, will there be enough homes for everyone?

This war is not being fought on a battlefield. It’s being fought over hours and hours of council meetings, in thousands of pages of regulatory documents, and in a long campaign to lobby councillors for critical votes. 

Wellington City Council is writing a new District Plan, which we have described as the single most important document for this city in our lifetime, and a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the housing crisis by embracing density and allowing for more apartments and townhouses.

The next two months will be critical. Here’s everything you need to know to follow the War for Wellington.

What is a District Plan? 

Let’s start with the basics. The District Plan sets the rules for all land use and development within  council boundaries. It’s incredibly specific stuff; how tall the buildings can be on each street, what those buildings have to look like, and where different kinds of businesses are allowed to set up shop. There are rules about subdivisions, noise controls, heritage, light, views, notable trees and flood plains. Almost anything you can imagine about what your city looks like is in the District Plan.

The District Plan will decide the future of Wellington’s housing. Photo: Getty Images; additional design Tina Tiller

Lots of this stuff is important for protecting people’s quality of life. You might not want a loud factory to open next door to your house, or a high-rise to block out your sun. But when the rules are too restrictive, it can make it difficult to build new homes and lead to a housing shortage.

What’s the deal with the government’s new density rules? 

There are two fairly new policies, set by central government, that will have a tremendous impact on the new District Plan:

  • The National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD): Passed in 2020 under the Labour government, the NPS-UD forces councils to allow a minimum level of housing density. The most important part to know is councils must allow six-storey apartments anywhere within a walking distance of the city or town centre, or a mass rapid transit station.
  • The Medium-Density Residential Standards The bi-partisan housing policy created the “3×3 rule”, which lets property owners build three, three-story townhouses on most sections. However, the National-led government is writing a new law to give councils the option to opt out of the policy. If that law passes before the District Plan is done, Wellington city council will have to decide whether it wants in or out. 

What are the big issues? 

Many of the rules in the District Plan are minor stuff that no one really cares about. But several of the issues at stake are controversial, and make a big difference to the way our city will look. 

Some of the big ones are: 

  • Centre city height limits: What should be the maximum height for office buildings and apartments in the middle of town? Should there be any maximum height at all?
  • Residential height limits: How tall can buildings be in residential neighbourhoods? Should different suburbs have different height limits?
  • Character protections: Right now, most of Wellington’s city-fringe suburbs (88% of land parcels in the inner-residential zone) designate as “character areas”. In these areas, demolishing pre-1930s homes without resource consent is prohibited. It is almost certain that the new plan will reduce the size of character areas. The question is: by how much?
  • What is mass rapid transit? The NPS-UD requires councils to allow six-storey buildings within a walking distance of mass rapid transit station. But what is a mass rapid transit station? Some people have argued the Johnsonville train is too slow to count as “rapid”. And what about Newtown and Island Bay, the site of the now-cancelled light rail, and the busy Number 1 bus route?
  • What is a walking distance? The NPS-UD doesn’t specify how big a walking distance is. It could be anywhere from a five-minute walk to 20 minutes. The council will have to choose its own definition, and it could make a huge difference to the amount of land that is zoned for apartments. 
  • Heritage buildings: Any building listed by Heritage New Zealand only becomes protected once it’s added to the District Plan. This plan will decide if any heritage protections get added or removed. 
  • Viewshafts: These are rules which prevent tall buildings in certain areas if they block views of certain landmarks. Like heritage and character buildings, viewshafts contribute to the city’s aesthetics but restrict the construction of new homes. 

What has happened so far? 

Wellington has had the same District Plan since 2000. Rewriting it has been a very long process, beginning in early 2020 with a document called the Spatial Plan.

The Spatial Plan is like the blueprint for what the council wants the city to look like. It’s a starting point, but the District Plan is the official rulebook. 

The Spatial Plan kicked off a heated fight in Wellington (or at least, among people nerdy enough to care) about what the future of the city should look like. It was a precursor to the War for Wellington, with many of the same issues at play.

It went back and forth, but in the end, Wellington city council passed a pretty ambitious Spatial Plan, which would have enabled about 30,000 more homes. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a huge step forward, and housing advocates were generally happy with the outcome. 

The Spatial Plan was then used to form the basis of the new District Plan. However, during the draft stage, former mayor Andy Foster and a group of conservative councillors made moves to undo some of the most significant gains.

What will happen next? 

Since February 2023 the District Plan has been in the hands of an Independent Hearings Panel. Imagine a small group of people in ill-fitting suits struggling to stay awake while they listen to thousands of hours of ranting from some of the most opinionated and least reasonable people in Wellington. The panel heard hundreds of submissions during a gruelling 36 days of hearings. The “summary of submissions” document is 2,071 pages long – and that’s the shortened version.

Starting on February 7, the Independent Hearings Panel will release recommendations to the council over the course of six briefings. However, councillors are not bound by the panel’s decisions. They can make amendments to the plan, as long as they can win a majority vote at the final meeting on March 14. This is the crucial battleground to watch. Expect to see a lot of wheeling and dealing as councillors try to put their stamp on the plan and get the outcome they want. 

That is still not the end though. Once the council has passed its District Plan, it still needs to get the final sign-off from the minister for the environment, who can approve or reject any change the council made to the independent panel’s recommendations. 

How to follow along

If you want to stay on top of everything that happens throughout this process, subscribe to The Spinoff’s War for Wellington newsletter. Every 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, perspectives from experts and activists, and the best reporting from other media around Wellington. Sign up here

Keep going!