Fran O'Sullivan on business

Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Right plan for nation's only global city

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There's feedback to come but it seems Auckland Council won't be bullied out of its compact vision

The CBD and adjoining suburbs could do with a massive injection of more people to add vibrancy to the city's heart. Photo / Steven McNicholl
The CBD and adjoining suburbs could do with a massive injection of more people to add vibrancy to the city's heart. Photo / Steven McNicholl

The so-called debate on Auckland's draft Unitary Plan has become disconnected from the big-picture narrative that it serves: that contained in the overarching Auckland Plan, which aims to transform Auckland into the "world's most liveable city".

Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse admitted as much when I challenged her about this at a lunchtime discussion on the plan this week. Hulse was adamant the council would respond to the formal consultation when the plan is notified around September-October.

"It's simply the first draft, or a draft draft plan," are the words Hulse and Mayor Len Brown are using as they explain there is a great deal more formal feedback to come this year before the Unitary Plan is finally bolted down. And even then there will be an evergreen aspect to it, as the plan must be responsive to changing conditions in years to come.

But Hulse is also pledging to be "robust". I read this as shorthand for not allowing the council to be bullied by the ill-informed and those spreading misinformation into backing down on plans for Auckland to be a compact city and caving in to the lobby that advocates for increasing urban sprawl by pushing the city's limits to gobble up more prime farmland.

Good stuff. After weeks of listening to and reading self-interested Nimbyism masquerading as objective concern, it was a relief to hear some common sense from Hulse.

This is Auckland's chance to get it right.

Yes, the council will give way a bit on the margins to accommodate more housing. But there is an additional infrastructure cost to this which proponents overlook: more roads, more rail links, more sewerage, water, electricity and phone lines and more schools. It's not simply a matter of plopping down new cookie-cutter houses on vacant farmland.

And sure, the council could have done better selling the story of what the plan aims to do: provide for the major impact of at least one million more people in the next 30 years.

It is a plus that people have engaged with the plan. But much of the contentious argument has been about wanting to preserve wealthier established neighbourhoods from further encroachment of infill residential housing - or horror of all horrors - the dreaded fear of multi-storey residential housing being injected among their own dwellings if they live in "mixed housing" or terrace and apartment housing zones.

The great irony is that much of what the Nimbyists complain about can already take place under Auckland's existing planning rules.

As a CBD dweller, I welcome the added vibrancy Auckland will enjoy as more people make the city their home in coming years. The CBD and inner suburbs in particular could do with a massive injection of people. Auckland needs a beating heart. It would be terrific if there were more inner-city dwellers - young and old.

There are three issues that concern me: first, the insane way that central Government continues to throw roadblocks in the path of Brown's CBD rail loop plan. Brown could settle it once and for all by flicking council shares in other assets and reinvesting the equity in the new rail kit and borrowing the difference.

Second, the available room for business growth seems light.

Third, surely the plan could step up to provide for much more intensification within the CBD and inner suburbs than seems to be the case.

The Generation Zero lobby group leaders are running a sharp campaign on this score. I first met them at the Power Shift conference at the University of Auckland last December, where I took part in one of the panels. And while I am more at the big science end of the spectrum when it comes to achieving a sustainable low carbon future, I do respect their vision for Auckland. They make a compelling economic argument which concentrates on Auckland's role as New Zealand's only truly global city: world-class education institutions, moderate population and businesses.

Their spiel goes this way: "If you want to create a start-up or you want to enter the New Zealand market and invest in New Zealand, Auckland is the first port of call. It is a place where entrepreneurs meet investors. Where engineers with ideas can find both the manufacturing and the connections to access global markets. And it is possible because of scale. Innovation and startups happen when talented people bump into each other, share ideas and form partnerships.

"Vibrant, liveable neighbourhoods where people can meet, collaborate and have shared experiences are not just a great place to live, they are also great places for entrepreneurship to blossom."

Their argument for intelligent density and against sprawl is compelling. Couple that with their insistence on giving the urban design rules statutory weight and Auckland would be on to a winner.

- NZ Herald

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