Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

Revolt in the suburbs

Plans to allow two- and three-storey buildings in some of Auckland’s wealthiest residential streets have prompted a voter backlash and talk of a council backdown. Super City reporter Bernard Orsman explains what is going on.

What is this all about?

Auckland Council wants to move away from the quarter-acre pavlova paradise to offering Aucklanders different types of housing at different points in their lives.

To do this, a new planning rulebook is being written to shape the way Auckland grows for generations to come. It is called the Unitary Plan.

READ MORE: Is it time to quit high rise plans?

The plan divides housing into the following zones: the traditional "single house" zone of one property per section, "mixed housing suburban" with a two-storey height limit, "mixed housing urban" with a three-storey limit and "terraced housing and apartment buildings" with five- to seven-storey limits.

By manipulating zoning and other controls the council hopes to increase housing density, but design controls are meant to ensure attractive results.

When the process kicked off in March 2013, deputy mayor Penny Hulse said: "The Unitary Plan is extremely important.

"It affects every Aucklander and we have to get it right."

Why are some people up in arms about it?

At a very late stage of the process, council changed its position to rezone about 20,000 houses in mostly garden suburbs without telling people, who have no formal right of reply. Large areas of Glendowie, St Heliers, Orakei, Westmere, Blockhouse Bay, Panmure and Takapuna were affected. The changes were made behind closed doors and approved by a committee of nine councillors and two unelected Maori Statutory Board members.

The council decided not to notify affected property owners of the changes, nor advocate for them to have a late say in the Unitary Plan process. It said the final decisions on the Unitary Plan would be made public once it received recommendations from an independent hearings panel.

Last week, about 660 people attended a meeting in Kohimarama to hear about the changes - one of the biggest public meetings on a local issue in the past 20 years.

Auckland 2040 spokesman Richard Burton said the "radical changes are undemocratic and indefensible". It was not about intensification, he said, but an abuse of process.

University of Auckland law school professor Ken Palmer said the urban renewal process was not subject to a sound comprehensive plan promoting sustainable use and wellbeing of the community.

"The legality is open to question," he said.

What do most think of the plans?

Opinion is split along generational lines and haves and have-nots. Youth climate change movement Generation Zero is lobbying for a quality compact city with vibrant neighbourhoods, affordable housing and good access to public transport. Auckland 2040 and resident and ratepayer groups argue it is the process, not intensification, that is the problem. They are naturally hesitant to change and have not been actively engaged suburb by suburb on the benefits of going a "little bit up".

The council is deeply divided on the issue with 11 of the 21 councillors (including the mayor) wanting to withdraw the changes.

Skyrocketing house prices and pressure from Government to build more homes, and fast, is putting pressure on council to act. Peter Jeffries, who works to provide housing for people on very low incomes, said councillors must support intensification to ensure the city is affordable for its citizens.

Isn't this just a Nimby (Not in My Back Yard) argument?

That is how some supporters of the changes paint it. At the height of an earlier debate in 2013 on intensification then councillor Michael Goudie posted an anonymous blog on social media labelling Nimbys as "selfish, arrogant, narrow-minded and parochial people who only think me, me, me and to hell with the needs of others or the future of this city". Others believe it is young people who are the "me" generation, by demanding a city pad as a first home.

If the plan enables greater density, developers believe the cost per unit will fall and they will be able to build more affordable housing.

This is possible in suburbs like New Lynn, Avondale and down south but intensification hasn't yet brought prices down in the central suburbs. In Ponsonby/Grey Lynn two-bedroom apartments are selling off the plans for $800,000-plus. On council-owned land at Wynyard Quarter luxury apartments are selling in the millions of dollars.

So will the council back down?

It remains to be seen. A majority of councillors want to withdraw the changes, but every effort will be made by the minority and senior officers to keep the changes before the Unitary Plan hearings panel. Following growing dissent this week, Mayor Len Brown called an extraordinary meeting for next Wednesday which will hear from interested parties.

Councillors are being lobbied furiously with possible flip-flopping on both sides.

Auckland 2040 is planning to campaign at October's local body elections against councillors who support the changes. Housing Minister Nick Smith this week said he had made it plain to council it needed to finalise the Unitary Plan by September or risk breaking the supply of new housing to get on top of affordability issues.

- NZ Herald

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