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Editorial: Planners must not limit city folks' choices

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Higher-density housing in Auckland should be balanced by establishing new suburbs and services on the uneconomic rural land on periphery

Auckland's outward growth should not be artificially constrained, but the city also needs more intensive development. Photo / Thinkstock
Auckland's outward growth should not be artificially constrained, but the city also needs more intensive development. Photo / Thinkstock

The Government has had no end of fun with the Auckland Council's plan to accommodate most of the city's next million people within the existing urban area.

The Prime Minister loves to mention that officials have looked hard for the 15,000 zoned sections that Mayor Len Brown once claimed were ready for new houses "right now", and cannot find them. Housing Minister Nick Smith poured more scorn on the plan last week.

This week, the mayor conceded that only 2,000 sections are ready for a building. The rest of the 15,000 have not been subdivided yet, let alone supplied with roading and services. It is simply land zoned for housing within the city boundaries. So score one to the Government.

Behind that semantic argument, though, there are two important issues: one of them for Auckland, the other for home-seekers in all cities.

The Government questions the wisdom of trying to constrain Auckland's sprawl in the way the council proposes, and more generally it blames these sort of constraints for driving up the price of new houses.

Aucklanders and home-seekers everywhere must be tired of this debate.

As usual, there is right on both sides. Auckland's outward growth should not be artificially constrained, but the city also needs more intensive development. Likewise, urban boundaries and planning procedures contribute to the high cost of new housing nowadays, but they are not the only cause and probably not the main one. The Productivity Commission identified several others.

With the formal publication of Auckland's Unitary Plan yesterday, it is time to settle the first question: does the city need to choose between intensification and sprawl? Intensification means apartments and multi-unit housing. The plan proposes a number of places where the council wants higher density development to occur.

Residents have resisted this sort of proposal many times before, notably at Panmure, Howick, Browns Bay and most recently at Milford. But the population is changing. It is getting older, with smaller families and more people living alone.

Auckland is becoming more Asian with migrants more accustomed to inner-city apartment living, and more likely to use fast, reliable rail transport.

But since this is so, there is no need to limit the supply of land for development on the periphery. The demand for housing close to the attractions of the inner city or to bus and rail services to the centre, should not need to be enforced by a squeeze on outward growth.

The council gives other reasons for its squeeze. It says extending services to new suburbs on the city edge is more costly than adding connections to existing lines. But that cost should be reflected in the house prices. More desperately, it argues that urban sprawl destroys valuable farmland.

But land just outside Auckland's built area is mostly "lifestyle" blocks, not economic farms. And the most attractive residential areas north of the city are not on the best soil.

With language like "liveability", the plan appears to reflect an unduly subjective vision of Auckland.

Many residents might share the planners' preference for a more "compact" city where they can walk or cycle from their apartment to their office, their coffee bar or the theatre.

But just as many will prefer to live near Auckland's extensive harbours and coasts, travel by car and bear the congestion. Urban plans should not restrict their choice.

- NZ Herald

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