Experts are at odds with former mayor Andy Foster’s last-minute amendments to Wellington’s new housing plan in which he made less land available for six-storey builds.
Their opinion has been revealed in documents published ahead of formal hearings starting over the city’s proposed district plan.
These hearings mark the next stage of the plan’s lengthy process and serve as a reminder that Foster, and the councillors who supported him last year, do not have the final say on housing density in Wellington.
In June, Foster successfully proposed the Johnsonville railway line should not be considered rapid transit for the purpose of the National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD).
This meant the requirement to enable buildings of at least six storeys within close walking distance of these train stops would no longer apply.
The NPS-UD is a Government policy that aims to increase housing development in urban areas under new rules for city councils.
Foster’s amendments also shrank the walking catchment area for the central city from 15 minutes to 10 minutes, thus reducing the area that could be densified there too.
The vote narrowly passed and walked back what had previously been agreed on in the spatial plan, which was the blueprint for how to accommodate the city’s growing population.
Opposing councillors said they were shocked and felt the amendments were disingenuous considering what had already been agreed on.
It was personally disappointing to watch the council backtrack on what had been a bold vision for enabling much-needed housing in the city.
I’ve recently been reminded of how acute this need is as the annual stories emerge of Wellington’s rental rush. People are facing up to 60 other rental hopefuls at some viewings, mouldy rooms, and high prices.
After the vote, the proposed district plan was notified and opened for public submissions.
A panel of independent commissioners will now preside over formal hearings starting later this month.
A report published ahead of these hearings said the Johnsonville railway line question and the central city walking catchment were “key resource management issues in contention”.
It turns out the expert advice on these two issues is very different from Foster’s successful amendments.
The report was produced by council officials in their capacity as the “Reporting Officer” to assist the panel of commissioners.
A council official with 17 years of experience in planning gave the relevant advice on the Johnsonville line and central city walking catchment.
They said the Johnsonville line fitted within the NPS-UD’s definition of a rapid transit service being frequent, quick, reliable and high-capacity public transport that operates on a permanent route largely separated from other traffic.
The official said other regional documents already refer to the line as rapid transit and Ministry for the Environment guidance lists train stops on commuter rail services in Wellington as an example of rapid transit.
Limited numbers of additional four-six storey apartments would actually be built in affected neighbourhoods - this could be around 278 apartment units over the next 30 years, the official said.
In other words, there’s a big difference between enabling housing and what will actually be built- especially in this climate when construction costs are so high.
Regardless, I think we should be doing every little bit that we can in a housing crisis.
The official said the central city walking catchment should be 15 minutes due to the number of people in this area who walk to work, as well as the high level of amenities and active transport improvements.
Councillors have been warned parts of this report will not fully align with decisions made by the council.
It has been stressed no senior manager has influenced the expert advice, that the report made clear where councillors had made a different decision, and the panel did not have to accept the report’s findings,
Both the Johnsonville line and central city walking catchment are being considered through a fast-tracked process, meaning the decisions cannot be appealed to the Environment Court.
About 60 per cent of the proposed district plan is going through this process, which is being used for decisions on housing densification.
Under this fast-tracked arrangement, the independent commissioners will report back to councillors with their recommendations in October.
If councillors reject recommendations or come up with their own ideas, the decision lands with the Minister for the Environment.
This is where it ends.
Neither Foster nor the new Wellington City Council has the final say, leaving the door open for more space for six-storey builds in people’s neighbourhoods.
Of course, we don’t know what the commissioners will say or how a council now led by a left-leaning mayor will react.
Some might think we have reached the somewhat boring part of the district plan process as the cut and thrust of politics is replaced by independent commissioners.
Actually, this is crunch time.
• Senior Wellington journalist Georgina Campbell’s fortnightly column looks closely at issues in the capital.