Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Council must stay cool amid clamour to build

This document is not just about zoning land for housing. It is also to be the rulebook for creating the fabled "most liveable city" over the next 30 years. Photo / Peter Bromhead
This document is not just about zoning land for housing. It is also to be the rulebook for creating the fabled "most liveable city" over the next 30 years. Photo / Peter Bromhead

There's a cargo cult hysteria erupting over the magical cure-all abilities of Auckland Council's proposed unitary plan, as revised by the Government-appointed hearings panel.

A broad church of true believers, including such odd bed-fellows as the Sallies and property developers, seems convinced the panel has discovered the holy grail which will conjure up affordable housing for all. They're now ordering councillors to abdicate their responsibilities and tick the recommendations through unread.

Named the Coalition for More Homes, they've written to councillors thundering, "the time for deliberating is over, the process has been followed, it's time to get on with it".

At the risk of suffering elder abuse, dare I point out they are wrong. Like them, I'm shocked by the housing crisis. But I'll be equally shocked if our elected representatives suddenly panic and get swept along with the mob's obsession with housing at the expense of all the other ingredients that go into making a world-class city.

This document is not just about zoning land for housing. It is also to be the rulebook for creating the fabled "most liveable city" over the next 30 years.

No doubt the Government will be delighted that Auckland Council has again become the whipping boy for Wellington's failure to either avert or handle Auckland's burgeoning housing crisis. But you only have to look at the empty wastelands of the mainly undeveloped "special housing areas" and the glacial pace of redevelopment in Housing New Zealand's Tamaki and Hobsonville redevelopments to realise that land supply is just one piece of this jigsaw.

As the panel itself warns in its report, the unitary plan only "sets the stage to enable growth".

Unlike the coalition partners, I don't see the panel as infallible. Nor do I go along with its philosophy that market forces will be the key to producing sufficient apartments and homes fit for Aucklanders to live in. What makes the panel think this? Because, they tell us, they were convinced by the hand-on-heart submissions of the property developers who addressed them.

Much has been written about the provision for 422,000 new homes the revised plan will deliver. My concern is with the details.

The ghastly shoe-box apartments that erupted along Hobson St and elsewhere in the city two decades ago gave most of us a rather jaundiced view of developers and the market. But not the panel. It has, for example, rejected council's proposed 30sq m minimum size for a central city studio apartment, saying such restrictions force up prices.

The panel argues that size is better controlled under the Building Code or the ancient Housing Improvement Regulations 1947. It similarly rejected rules to promote liveability, such as requiring acoustic panelling in homes and classrooms adjacent to railways or major arterial roads. In its view, if the market ordains the poor should live in tiny, cheap, noisy new slums alongside the railway tracks, then so be it.

Coming in the same month as news that Auckland Council has budgeted $291 million for leaky building claims against it, this hands-off, leave-it-to-the-Building Code approach needs to be challenged. Nationwide, leaky homes repair costs could reach $22 billion. Auckland has the chance to set some minimum standards now, yet the panel says trust central government instead.

Also in for a clobbering is Auckland's unique volcanic heritage. In March this year, councillors rejected the panel's pressure and voted to retain all 87 volcanic viewshafts. Regardless, the panel wants eight dropped and another five downgraded to "local" status.

Like despoilers from another age, the panel has also rezoned precious Crater Hill, on the edge of the Manukau Harbour at Papatoetoe, as suitable for up to 575 houses, either inside this privately owned volcano or on its outer slopes. This, at the request of the owners.

Geologist Bruce Hayward says Crater Hill is the second best preserved of the southern mountains after Mangere Mountain. It is ranked eighth most valued volcano in a report supporting Auckland's attempt at World Heritage status for the volcanic field. Says Dr Hayward: "Welcome to the new world of more housing subdivisions, no matter what the cost."

It's up to our elected representatives to prove him wrong.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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