Tony Garnier: Stronger Auckland - stronger New Zealand

An artist's impression of a possible future Queen St with a light rail/tram system. Photo / Supplied
An artist's impression of a possible future Queen St with a light rail/tram system. Photo / Supplied

As the country reels from one disaster to another, critically important issues the Auckland Plan focuses on to help the city lift its game get more urgent by the day.

In world terms, Auckland is among a handful of cities which account for more than a third of their nation's wealth creation (Gross Domestic Product). As a medium-sized Asia-Pacific city of 1.5 million people - a third of all New Zealanders - how we use the Auckland Plan to improve our attractiveness to be a great city to work in, invest in, live in and visit deserves to be closely watched by the rest of New Zealand, especially Wellington.

Auckland's role in New Zealand is simply too important for the city to be allowed to fail.

Our main competitors are the Australian cities. Projections suggest that by 2040, Auckland could reach a population of between 2.2 and 2.5 million.

As the draft Auckland Plan sums up, Auckland's future lies in being a globally competitive city that maintains the qualities of its unique environment and inclusive community. This includes respecting the special place of tangata whenua, acknowledging we are the world's largest Pacific city with an increasingly diverse population, and recognising Auckland's interdependence with the rest of New Zealand, including the critical role it has to play in building the national economy to support the rebuilding of Christchurch.

Acknowledging global trends showing that increasingly it is cities that generate a nation's job opportunities, wealth and living standards, the draft Auckland Plan identifies what it describes as five critically important transformational shifts:

Dramatically accelerated action to reduce Auckland's high rates of youth unemployment compared with other OECD cities.

A strong commitment to environmental action and green growth; more sustainable buildings, infrastructure and a transition to a low carbon economy.

A sustained increased use of public transport over the next 30 years - integrated ticketing, the City Rail Link, rail to the airport, an additional harbour crossing, busways and bus feeder services - and a shift to create an integrated transport system.

Radically improved quality of urban living through adoption of international best practice urban design.

Substantially raised living standards for all Aucklanders. The Plan and supporting draft Economic Development Strategy (EDS) sets out bold economic targets over the next 30 years to grow the "economic pie" by raising productivity, exports and GDP growth, and calls for collaboration and action from stakeholders across the board - central and local government, business, education and research institutes, and the wider community.

This shift will require a structural change in the Auckland economy, from being import-led and domestically focused, to being more export-driven. It also requires a shift to 'new economy' industries and long-term sustainable growth, and substantial improvements in educational achievement and skills. As well as the draft EDS, the draft Auckland Plan is supported by two other draft plans - the draft City Centre Masterplan and the draft Waterfront Plan. The four sets of draft plans total at least 800 pages, which is one of many challenges facing Aucklanders' efforts to fully understand the package and decide whether what's really important will be identified and implemented in a timely way.

The draft City Centre Masterplan is a 20-year vision to bring new life and colour to the city centre. Proposed initiatives include turning Quay St into a boulevard, two-waying Hobson and Nelson Streets, making Queen St increasingly pedestrian-focused, and creating a green walking and cycling link connecting Victoria and Albert parks and the Domain.

The draft Waterfront Plan has four goals linking the working waterfront with improved public access, increased residential, business and visitor activity.

The heart of the draft Plan is a development strategy containing policies to maintain our rural and urban distinction. It promotes urban intensification and carefully managed peripheral growth.

A high growth scenario of an extra 1 million people living in Auckland in 30 years, means an extra 400,000 dwellings. Of these, 300,000 dwellings can be accommodated within the 2010 Metropolitan Urban Limit (MUL) through intensification. This equates to a 75:25 split between growth in existing urban areas and growth in new greenfield land (currently classified as rural land) and rural satellite towns.

The release of greenfields land will be staged within the rural urban boundary to meet market demand, and is supported by policies to ensure:

There is always 5 years' available land which is zoned for residential development and serviced for water and waste water.

There is a forward supply of unconstrained business land capacity, earmarked for particular purposes (especially Group 1 industrial land).

According to the draft plan, future growth and development will be supported by a suite of tools to enable the desired change and ensure delivery is timely and well-executed.

Two major challenges are immediately apparent. Firstly, it is clear that a fairly significant number of additional dwellings - around 130,000 - will need to be provided in the proposed greenfield areas over the next 30 years. That is, despite what some commentators have been saying, the draft plan does provide for a "significant" extension of the metropolitan area, albeit in a managed process but which in turn will require planning for additional roads, pipes, schools and other community infrastructure.

Second, Auckland will need a significantly expanded construction sector in order to achieve these targets. The 400,000 additional dwellings required over 30 years equates to around 13,000 new units per year.

During its golden building boom years Auckland managed around 10,000 units a year. Currently we are managing around 4000 new units a year.

There are other critical challenges that suggest the development of the final plan is going to be a complex and difficult process. There is no funding strategy, and in transport alone a funding gap of between $10 billion to $15 billion is identified. Across all areas of the package the different investment priorities of central and local government are not clearly identified, if at all. Work will be needed to sort out what is really needed now - to help Auckland's growth contribution to itself and New Zealand - and what is aspiration.

Part of the debate ahead will include the outcome of promised council investigations into the appropriate use of new funding tools as they apply to particular projects and delivery mechanisms (such as Tax Increment Financing, Value Uplift Levies, Network Pricing and Congestion Charging).

Another aspect that will get submitters' attention will be the extent of focus on the CBD compared to other parts of Auckland, where most people actually live. The southern initiative centred on the four local board areas around Auckland Airport will partly address this.

One positive at least is the fact that there can now be a coherent plan for Auckland. Under eight different councils, this was impossible. The new council doesn't guarantee that the plan will be a good plan, but it does give Aucklanders the opportunity to develop a good plan for their city.

There will be argument aplenty about the plan, good or bad, and part of the debate will be the concern of many Aucklanders that they have only until 25 October - two days after the end of the Rugby World Cup - to make their submission. But one of the certainties is that Auckland's preoccupation with planning - over moving action into the fast lane - is destined to continue a while longer. The four draft plans together with the recently approved - but also unfunded - local board plans will go forward to help inform two critical yet-to-come plans that will help implementation. They are the Unitary Plan, which details how we design, develop and grow the city and the Long Term Plan which prioritises funding to deliver the Auckland Plan (and its supporting plans) on a staged basis.

Ultimately it will be up to Auckland councillors to decide what the priority projects within the Auckland Plan and its many contributing plans should be. Very likely budget realities - and a conversation with the next central Government to decide what is affordable and feasible - will become the determining factor.

* Tony Garnier is an Auckland-based business consultant and writer.

- NZ Herald

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