David Gibbs: Council needs to act faster on housing

If Auckland is to have 400,000 new homes the pace needs to be increased, writes David Gibbs.

Auckland Council's target of 400,000 new homes within the next 30 years requires an average of 13,000 a year. Clearly we need to increase the pace.
Auckland Council's target of 400,000 new homes within the next 30 years requires an average of 13,000 a year. Clearly we need to increase the pace.

The latest residential building consent figures published by Statistics NZ have been touted as heralding a national recovery. But a closer reading shows that while nationally consents for new houses in April hit a new five-year monthly high, much of it on the back of Christchurch's recovery, the figure for Auckland for the same month was down.

For the year ending April 2013 the result was even more disappointing: we built just 3971 houses compared with 4600 the previous year - which in itself was a 30-year low.

Auckland Council's target of 400,000 new homes within the next 30 years requires an average of 13,000 a year. Clearly we need to increase the pace.

The Government's concern is the overheated Auckland housing market will push our inflation rate higher. And, while we continue to undersupply the residential market, that concern seems justified.

The Government is rushing through the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Bill, which will commit Auckland Council to provide 9000 homes next year, 13,000 in 2015 and 17,000 in 2016. Under the bill, the Government has the ability to create special housing areas and issue consents within them should the council not hit the targets.

The big question is, how do we double the number of houses built in Auckland next year - let alone how we reach the even more ambitious targets for 2015 and 2016. A clue to why the development market is so underpowered is in the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment's briefing paper prepared for the Cabinet in February. It says there are 900 fewer firms in Auckland engaged in land development and subdivision than there were in 2000.

Clearly something is holding them back; we need to find out what it is and change it.

For starters we lack enough sections. The ministry's report says we have no more than 1900 ready to build on now. We are told there are 15,000 in the pipeline, but that pipeline moves painfully slowly: the average time to get a sizeable subdivision through the council is three years.

The housing bill has the potential to really make a change. The council can nominate the special housing areas; the Government has kept the right to approve them. Putting aside the rights and wrongs of this degree of central government intervention in municipal policy, when those areas are announced it will be a game-changer.

The areas need to have infrastructure ready to go, which will put the council under pressure, but the pressure won't stop there. A landowner within a special housing area will be able to apply for a subdivision or building project using the new more permissive Unitary Plan rules and demand that the consent is processed by the council within three or six months, depending on the nature and size of the development.

The nimbys won't be able to spoil the party - appeal rights don't exist if the proposal is for three storeys or lower.

The rest of us may have to wait up to three years to use the Unitary Plan, so the privileged people owning land within special housing areas should consider this option carefully - it's a valuable gift.

The Unitary Plan encourages subdivision of larger lots over smaller lots. The mixed housing zone, as currently drafted, provides for parcels of land 1200sq m or more to be developed without stipulating what the maximum density should be.

The most effective solutions will arise where neighbours agree to agglomerate their sites to achieve better density and quality. Two to three neighbours side by side could agree to develop their land, using the value of their land as equity, or sell the opportunity to a real developer. Either way it could be a rewarding opportunity.

Many of us are concerned that the council's carefully considered Quality Compact City policy could be threatened if the Government pushes it to nominate too many special housing areas outside the rural urban boundary. Provided the council can fend off the sprawl advocates and remain resolved on its policy to give priority to development within the boundary, it could work.

The housing bill could open the door for Auckland's housing to be made more intensive a few sections at a time, by you and your neighbours.

David Gibbs is a director of Auckland architecture and masterplanning firm Construkt, which has developed masterplans for several Auckland developments including Hobsonville Pt, Long Bay and Glen Innes.

- NZ Herald

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