There has been a hypnotic quality to the years-long process to create a new rulebook for the burgeoning city of Auckland. And by hypnotic, I mean likely to induce a deep sleep. The very description of the milestone moment this week - "the report of the Auckland Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel, containing its recommendations to the Auckland Council on the proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (the Unitary Plan) and the submissions made on it" - is a surefire insomnia cure.
But for all the soporific plannerspeak and bureaucratise, there is a sense that Aucklanders are increasingly awake to the implications of the whole exercise. Yesterday morning's Herald recorded that its coverage of the Unitary Plan redux (which is what I'm calling it in a desperate attempt to add a lick of glamour) was among the most read online stories the day before - behind "Backpackers' real life horror story", but I mean who can resist a bit of backpackers' real life horror stories?
Essentially, the government-appointed panel, after two years of exhaustive hearings, has returned the council a turbo-charged upgrade of its plan. Most of the core principles for growing the city remain from the council's document, but the scale and ambition go a long way further, recognising the reality of what is required to accommodate a rapidly swelling population. The redux paves the way for more than 400,000 new homes over three decades, around a third in the next seven years. In the panel's own words, that amounts to "a doubling of feasible enabled residential capacity relative to that of the notified plan". It heralds a city that goes up, especially in the centre and around the inner city, town centres, transport hubs and corridors, and modestly in suburbs, as well as outwards as much as 30 per cent.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing is the response to this week's publication. On the whole it's been incredibly positive. Not universal, and not without reservations. There have been reasonable concerns aired, for example, about the removal of the obligation on large developments to include a small quotient of affordable housing, with the panel having been, remarkably, "persuaded" by the Government via MBIE and Housing NZ to leave it to the market to take care of that. There are reasonable concerns about the deletion of the "mana whenua overlay", which would scrap requirements for cultural impact assessments on about 3600 sites of potential cultural significance to Maori (though the panel indicate similar protections based on more reliable data might be reasonably introduced down the road). There are a bunch of other reasonable concerns from homeowners and business groups.
But there have been only the faintest and unconvincing pockets of outcry from the Nimbyist Tendency. Of course, there's a decent chance there will be legal challenges, attempts to extend the process and all that, but there seems nothing resembling a groundswell of objection. Much of the reason for that is the dramatic way the story has changed in the five months since the last spectacle moment in the adventures of the Unitary Plan: that weird and interminable extraordinary council meeting in which a group of the property owning classes disgraced themselves by booing and jeering young Aucklanders who were politely making the case for a more compact city in which they might have at least an outside chance of one day owning a home. That feels like a different age, somehow, a simpler time, when the weird chimera of three-storey tower blocks was taken seriously. In the intervening months it's as if Auckland's entire volcanic field has erupted with housing-related headlines. From the Herald's excellent Home Truths series to The Nation's homelessness exposs and steadfast reportage from RNZ and pretty well everyone else, the housing crisis has been unavoidable. The runaway train of house prices. Daily snafus as the Government struggled to appear to be doing something on the homelessness "challenge". The extraordinary story of Te Puea marae. A parade of business doyens joining - better late than never - the chorus of complaints that the status quo on housing is unsustainable.
Whether it's a generation of young Aucklanders being locked out from the aspiration of owning a home, or the most vulnerable Aucklanders being literally locked out from shelter, it is all part of the same molten plasmic mess: inadequate provision for homes. And all of that hinges on the Unitary Plan.
It will take a while for the wonks and the advocates to make their way through the millions of sleepy words the panel has returned, and devils will always spring from details. But the plan is good, really good; pray that after all this it doesn't get sabotaged by any remaining human handbrakes on the Auckland Council.
Kudos for caring drivers
I was deep in sizzling preparatory reading for a council briefing on the new Unitary Plan when a scuffle broke out at the front of the bus on Wednesday morning. We'd stopped at the Grey Lynn shops, and a clearly disturbed woman had just thrown several punches at the driver, apparently upset at a delay in receiving change for her fare. She then jumped off the bus, lashed out at various other people waiting to board, before hitting the driver again and scarpering.
The driver, John, his hands shaking and blood dripping from around his eye, was mostly concerned about the passengers. The police having been called, John flagged down another bus and made sure everyone could carry on with their days while he waited for the cops to arrive. The driver of the other bus, hearing the story, shook her head knowingly. "Yeah, we get everything out there," she said.
With luck the assailant will be held accountable, and given whatever help she needs. But to John, and all the bus drivers, thanks a lot. New Zealand isn't the only place in the world where we thank the drivers as we jump off the bus, but it's far from commonplace. Keep doing that. Bravo to the bus drivers.