Environment Minister David Parker has given Auckland Council a year’s reprieve from the Government’s housing intensification demands after it sought a temporary backdown following summer’s storms.
An April 6 letter from Parker to council bosses acknowledges the challenges of flooding and landslides caused by extreme weather during Auckland Anniversary weekend and by Cyclone Gabrielle.
“I understand why, in these circumstances, a further year is needed. I note that this extension is to enable staff to investigate flooding impacts and its implications for land-use planning, infrastructure and other policy settings,” said Parker.
The council had sought a delay in publicly notifying decisions on an independent hearings panel’s recommendations on intensification planning instruments.
Developers aren’t happy about Parker’s move. Martin Cooper, the Property Council’s Auckland regional chairman, said the delay was disappointing and could slow or halt development decisions.
“Any delay runs the risk of increasing uncertainty for the property sector, which will create delays on decisions which can have a flow-on effect for investment and delivery of houses.
“While it is important to take on board lessons from the recent floods, we know that areas of high-quality intensification such as Northcote and Stonefields performed really well, as those developers invested in infrastructure to support new housing. We would encourage the council to release as much of the zoning in areas that were not affected by the flood to ensure consistency of pipeline work across some areas in Auckland.”
Council bosses wrote to Parker on March 17, requesting an amendment to the Resource Management (Direction for the Intensification Streamlined Planning Process to Auckland Council) Notice 2022 to get an extra year.
“I note that this extension is to enable staff to investigate flooding impacts and its implications for land-use planning, infrastructure and other policy settings. I expect this scope to include a review of the council’s approach to intensification in non-floodable areas and the development of blue green corridors in flood-prone areas,” Parker said in agreeing to the request.
“Taking a water sensitive design (‘sponge city’) approach to urban development will enable better management of local and catchment-wide flood risk, whilst having many positive health and environmental benefits in the form of recreation spaces, improved water quality, and increased biodiversity,” Parker wrote.
His letter was to planning, environment and parks committee deputy chair Angela Dalton and strategy chief Megan Tyler.
Plan Change 78 is a result of a Labour/National cross-party agreement two years ago. The parties demanded big changes to existing plans for the country’s major urban areas, over-riding the Auckland Unitary Plan.
The year’s reprieve comes after the Government demanded that residential intensification in New Zealand’s largest city must occur in two ways: multi-storey apartment buildings must be permitted around town centres, transport corridors and rapid transport nodes; and medium-density residential standards are to be imposed across nearly every residential suburb, enabling three houses of three storeys to be built on current residential sites without the need for resource consent.
The council responded to the Government’s legislative requirements by notifying Plan Change 78. That change will enable the construction of six-storey apartment blocks on clifftops and infill housing in suburbs where, as opponent Dick Bellamy noted in February, there are already significant wastewater and stormwater problems.
Bellamy said a reprieve was necessary after the floods and cyclone.
Parker’s letter reinforced that the change was only temporary and he wants better planning and greener areas among development.
“I would encourage the council to consider the findings of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment in his report titled ‘Are we building harder, hotter cities? The vital importance of urban green spaces’. I concur with the concerns raised about the amount and quality of reserve and open spaces being provided in both existing urban areas and greenfield developments.
“More integrated planning approaches such as master planning or ‘structure planning’ could guide development and protection of these areas to ensure more certain development outcomes that integrate reserves, housing, walking and cycling provision, network infrastructure and other urban development. This would occur alongside funding tools such as development contributions for the upfront provision of the blue green network, and required flood defence and other mitigation measures,” Parker said.
Better ways to handle water should be considered too, he stressed.
The council should consider using stronger Auckland Unitary Plan controls to prevent large impermeable areas such as driveways, car pads and terraces in new and existing sites. These controls should be used with non-regulatory measures to encourage more site permeability through private and community-based re-vegetation schemes, Parker told the council.
He expects the extra year will give the council time to prioritise planning decisions that improve housing affordability.
“This will enable more people to live and work in areas close to centres and public transport, and where density is supported by appropriate stormwater infrastructure to ensure communities are safe and resilient to the impacts of climate change,” Parker wrote.
Government officials have also been working with council staff to enable them to implement the intensification provisions in the Auckland Light Rail Corridor area, he noted.
He expects the planned variation to Plan Change 78 will be comprehensive to support the urban development outcomes that the Crown and council want to deliver through light rail.
“My approval to extend the timeframe should ensure this is possible. As improving housing affordability and resilience are both critical issues for the Government and for Auckland, I am granting the council the time extension requested. My officials will liaise with you as to any further clarification that may be desirable,” he wrote.
Greg Hill, chairman of the independent hearings panel, acknowledged Parker’s move.
“The Independent Hearings Panel has the letter from the Minister for the Environment granting the council’s request for a one-year extension based upon natural hazards, stormwater management and infrastructure provision. The IHP is unclear on how the council will now be addressing natural hazards, stormwater management and infrastructure provision; but it has advised the IHP in earlier memoranda the scope of work it plans to undertake and the time frame,” Hill said in a legal direction filed on the matter.
Some council chiefs, including Mayor Wayne Brown, believe flood and cyclone damage make it important to rethink building more houses in flood-prone areas.
Two Auckland councillors asked the Government and National to rethink intensification after the city’s infrastructure shortcomings were exposed in the flooding.
Christine Fletcher, a former National Party MP, said in February: “We must stop those who are determined to foist more and more housing in Auckland, well in excess of the provisions of the Auckland Unitary Plan. Their plans are flawed. Auckland cannot cope now.”
Councillor Mike Lee said then too that the ideology driving plans by the Government and National to allow anyone to build up to three houses up to three storeys high without resource consent and minimal green space just about anywhere in Auckland was facing a reality check from Mother Nature.
The new law needs to be withdrawn for a more considered and smarter approach to intensification, he said on February 3.
“We need to intensify where suitable, not intensify everywhere and every which way because that will only lead to more disasters,” said Lee, saying the approach needs to be grounded on wrap-around infrastructure, particularly when it comes to stormwater.
National’s housing spokesman, Chris Bishop, has said the party remains committed to the construction of more homes in large cities “and our belief in well-planned, functional cities designed to be resilient against natural hazards remains unchanged”.
“The bipartisan Housing Supply Act provides councils with the power to exclude areas from further development if they are prone to a natural hazard, such as in an identified flood flow path. The responsibility is on councils to use the powers they were given to ensure intensification is only occurring in places where it is safe to do so,” said Bishop.