Before he handed in his ministerial warrant last month, Nick Smith announced plans for legislation that would redefine the role of local bodies.

His departure for the back benches has not changed the Government's resolve. It will amend the Local Government Act to require councils to keep out of matters of social and cultural well-being, and concentrate on "providing good quality local infrastructure, public services and regulatory functions at the least possible cost".

There are plenty of hard-pressed ratepayers who would applaud the idea that the council should be confined to dealing with the three Rs of local government - roads, rates and rubbish. In tight times, councils should not stray beyond the infrastructural basics into unaffordable flights of fancy.

So it would not be surprising if there were scant support for Auckland Mayor Len Brown's vision of a "compact city".


That buzz-phrase is central to the Auckland Plan, a document that was mandated by the legislation that established the new Super City and officially adopted by the Auckland Council at the end of last month. Its overarching aim is to create "the world's most liveable city", an idea that commuters stuck in traffic might find bleakly amusing, particularly if they have visited Vienna, Vancouver or Copenhagen.

There's nothing wrong with having a vision of the future, if only to avoid being steam-rollered by it when it arrives. But the "compact city" idea collided head-on with the present this week.

The latest QV statistics showed that Auckland house values had soared past the 2007 peak. Buyers who can bid half a million are by no means certain of getting a home of their own.

Simultaneously, the Productivity Commission announced the results of an inquiry into housing affordability, which found that planning emphasis on intensive urban development had limited the amount of land available for housing and recommended the council free up more space on the city fringes and in nearby rural areas for housing.

That's a pretty substantial slap in the face for the idea of compactness. In its draft plan, the Auckland Council had planned to contain residential sprawl by requiring that 75 per cent of the city's housing growth in the next three decades take place within existing urban boundaries. In the final plan they pulled back slightly to set the figure at "between 60 and 70 per cent". But that still amounts to about 280,000 dwellings within the city as we know it.

In short, the idea is that we should grow up, not out. But the Productivity Commission says that's making housing impossibly unaffordable.

Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse has described the commission's report as "ideological nonsense" and accused it of failing to understand "modern" urban development. But she risks being accused of failing to see how her "modern" city is developing right in front of her.

Residential development in Auckland is already intense: cross-lease sections have proliferated, as have apartment buildings in the CBD and inner suburbs. A profusion of shoddy apartments - including, but not limited to, those in the leaky-building fiasco - has hammered public confidence in intensive residential development. And any sober person who ventures into the Queen St valley after 10pm is either brave or foolhardy; stepping around puddles of body fluids and avoiding assault has become standard practice. If this is a vision of the high-density future, most Aucklanders would say you can keep it.

The fact is that the apartment lifestyle is not the Kiwi dream. We want to live in places where we can watch the kids play, keep a dog, and maybe dig a garden.

It's fine for the council to have a vision, but it needs to accord with that of the people who live here. It should devote itself to making public transport work - as it works in Hulse's "modern cities" - rather than trying to make Auckland into a dense urban jungle.