We reap what we sow. And in planning and development, Auckland is about to reap the consequences of its absurdly inadequate planning processes. The Government is taking over.
Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford has a proposal heading to the cabinet that will allow a new government agency to override the Unitary Plan and take building consents away from council control.
Not everywhere: The proposal will apply to those parts of the city designated as special urban development projects. It arises because, fundamentally, the Government does not believe the council has the ability to deliver good planning outcomes in an efficient and timely manner.
And after this week, with the fiasco on Dominion Rd and the other fiasco over misunderstood heritage provisions, who could blame them?
Twyford made the Government's intentions clear in a talk he gave at the University of Auckland on Wednesday night, when he explained how his proposed new Urban Development Authority (UDA) will work.
His intention is to get 12 to 15 major housing developments underway in Auckland, controlled by the UDA. The first is on the Unitec/Wairaka site, where 3000-4000 homes will be built on 29 hectares. Dominion Rd, along the proposed route of a light rail line to Mangere, is also on the list. So are the developments currently under the wing of the Tamaki Regeneration Company.
After the talk, Twyford confirmed that the UDA will become "the planning and consenting authority" for the parts of the city it has under his control. It will "have access to all the planning and consenting powers" currently held by council, for those development areas.
"The UDA will be able to override the Unitary Plan," he said. There will be "a mandate to consult with the local authority", which is the Auckland Council, but it's clear the UDA, not the council, will be in charge.
For each development, he added, the UDA will set up an entity that includes the council, or a council agency like Panuku Development Auckland, and probably iwi and private sector companies.
It's not a done deal: the proposals are still to be signed off by the cabinet. But Twyford does not appear to be anticipating any problems.
"The UDA's job will be to get the best urban development outcomes possible," he told an audience of architects, planners and students. He said that included building warm, dry homes, providing a high-quality public realm with parkland, safe streets and good transport links, and putting in place all the shops, recreational facilities and services needed by a well-functioning community.
"Local government has demonstrated that it can't do this," he said. "It's too close to the vested interests. When it came time for tough and necessary decisions to create the Unitary Plan, too many councillors headed for the hills."
The Unitary Plan is the planning blueprint for Auckland. It allows for denser housing in many parts of the city than was previously the case, but it's a compromise document that enables some very peculiar outcomes. Best recent example: The Dominion Rd/Valley Rd development, of which more in a minute.
"We have to do this," Twyford said, "because if we don't our kids will never be able to afford to live in this town."
Legislation to establish the UDA and a new Ministry of Housing and Urban Development should be in parliament later this year, but implementation is not expected until some time next year. It's not clear yet how that timing will affect the Unitec project or the light rail project for Dominion Rd, both of which need to move at speed.
Twyford said mayor Phil Goff has been "thoroughly briefed" and "I think he's comfortable with the plan".
Goff himself told me that "in principle we've got some sympathy" for the UDA proposal, but clearly there's real concern at council. Goff believes the number of new houses is rising fast and well, and does not want to see the Unitary Plan sidelined. This could turn into the first real battle council has had with Government since Labour came to power.
Meanwhile, the decision to reject Panuku's plan for an apartments-and-commercial development on the Dominion Rd and Valley Rd is ridiculous beyond belief. The site wraps around the Dominion pub on the corner, leaving it intact but spreading three- and four-storey buildings along both roads.
Dominion Rd is the busiest bus corridor in the city and when light rail replaces those buses it's going to get busier.
It's the perfect place to build densely. In fact, it's inevitable that within a decade or two there will be mid-size apartment and commercial blocks dotted all down that road, on both sides. They won't destroy the character of the tree-lined suburban streets behind them, or make the roads dangerous.
Together with the light rail line, and – I really hope – a good cycleway, they will allow Dominion Rd to grow and prosper. More customers for local businesses, and more homes of all kinds, especially affordable homes, so that more Aucklanders can afford to buy a house in the city.
Developments like this one, on arterial public transport routes, are the foundation of good urban planning.
But planning commissioners turned it down. Why? There were 34 objections, mostly from locals who do not want medium-scale development on Dominion Rd. Astonishingly, Auckland Council itself opposed the proposal, in what was presumably the rogue action of an employee or employees, because it should have totally fitted the council's strategic goals.
The commissioners agreed with the objectors that the proposal was not compatible with the character of the adjoining suburban streets, was too bulky, and would adversely affect the "special character" of the business area.
They also noted that while Dominion Rd is zoned for this kind of development, the Unitary Plan has a "special character" overlay that reduces the scale of what's allowed. That is, it was possible to argue that because a single heritage building of middling quality would be knocked down, the whole proposal was unacceptable.
But Dominion Rd is not a great "character" part of Auckland and that overlay is one of several elements of the UP that undermines its general intent.
To be clear, it was not the commissioners' job to say if it was a good plan. They were tasked with deciding if it fits the rules, or if it's reasonable that it be allowed to exceed them (which has its own rules).
That goes to the heart of the problem. We need a lot more houses, especially on transport corridors, but despite all its fancy words the council has a Unitary Plan that does not allow them to be built as readily as it should.
So the Government will step in. The question is no longer whether this should happen, but whether it will do a good job. We'll find out with Unitec. That's the test case, the exemplar on which all else rests.
Unitec is a beautiful site with great transport links. There's no good reason it can't become a magnificent new suburb. So let's hurry up with that UDA, so we can see if the Government is up to the job of making it so.