Auckland has made heavy weather of its plain need for dense development. Reluctant as most residents have been to compromise their suburban space and single-unit sections, they know they live on the most desired land in New Zealand. A quarter of the country's population, and most of its immigrants, are crowding into this narrow neck of the North Island. The recommendation of the independent hearings panel on the Auckland Unitary Plan cannot be a surprise to anybody. The panel has confirmed Auckland needs to go up as well as out. More dense multi-unit developments will be permitted wherever they are within easy walking range of suburban centres and public transport hubs.
This makes sense. It is no more than the previous Auckland City Council proposed 30 years ago, until opposition from Panmure caused the council to lose its nerve. The new Auckland Council faced a similar outcry from the eastern isthmus and North Shore when it published its draft Unitary Plan, and again this year when the council tried to file a late submission to the hearings panel.
The council now has two weeks to consider the panel's recommendations but the time for public input has passed. The council has to come to a decision early next month, so that any procedural appeals can be resolved and the plan can be adopted by its statutory deadline of September 19.
It will be relieved the panel has produced a more finely honed map of permitted densities than the blanket zones proposed in some previous versions of the plan. The council elections in October should not be troubled by the plan in most wards. In any case, it ought to be clear to voters by now that the Government, not the council, has become the moving force for Auckland's residential development, up and out.
Auckland house prices are putting the country's economic and financial management under strain. While the Reserve Bank is trying to contain the demand for houses by imposing lending restrictions, the Government is putting all its hopes on boosting the supply of housing in and around the city. It has gone so far as to suggest it might appoint a commissioner to take over the Auckland Council's land zoning functions if the council does not approve an expansive plan.
It compares Auckland's needs to those of Christchurch after the earthquake when the Government took charge. If the shortage of housing is comparable, so is the scale of the potential calamity if Auckland prices crash. The Government believes an increase in supply will gradually slow the rate of increase, not reverse it. The Unitary Plan in the shape the hearings panel has recommended makes room for more than 400,000 additional dwellings, meeting Auckland's expected need over the next 30 years. Besides dense development around suburban centres it proposes to push the urban boundary outwards to increase the metropolitan area by 30 per cent. That sounds like much more sprawl than council planners would like to contemplate. But if it means the city grows more out than up, Auckland's spacious suburban character should survive.