COMMENT:

Back in May, Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford was talking up his Government's "bold" and "exciting" urbanisation project, while admitting that "to be honest, government doesn't have much capability in this area".

He told delegates to the 2018 Urbanism NZ Conference that: "One of my jobs is to build capability and expertise in the public service for urban development, urban design and the built environment."

What he could offer was "the political will to work with you - the private sector ... design practitioners, local government, academia, the campaigners and advocates".

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Four months later, all this lovey-dovey talk seems over. It's time for the boxing gloves.

Auckland Council and its key planning document, the Unitary Plan, has failed to produce enough new housing.

The council, said Twyford, is "too close to the vested interests, like Nimbys. When it came time for tough and necessary decisions to create the Unitary Plan, too many councillors headed for the hills".

Twyford's solution to Auckland's housing crisis is to set up an Urban Development Authority to mastermind major housing developments. The UDA will become "the planning and consenting authority" for those developments.

It will "be able to override the Unitary Plan" and will "have access to all the planning and consenting powers" currently held by council for those development areas.

So much for his pledge, a few months before, to work in partnership with local government, the developers and even the dreaded bogeymen, those "not in my backyard" Nimby neighbours.

Then, he'd suggested an eminently sensible solution to the so-called Nimby problem.

"Good design," he said, was not just "the key to doing density well ... it's probably the only thing that will ease the fears of the Nimbys".

But now, without even trying out this "good design" pill, Twyford is resorting to the tired old Wellington-knows-best line - even though he'd admitted in May his public servants knew very little on this subject.

Don't get me wrong. An urban development authority is a great idea. It's a shame one wasn't set up in Auckland 10 years ago when the dying Labour Government contemplated the idea. A shame too, that Prime Minister John Key, while interested, did nothing about it when developers suggested it to him, or when the NZ Productivity Commission pushed the concept in its 2015 report.

The closest we got seems to be the Hobsonville Land Company, set up by the Labour Government in 2006 to redevelop the old air force base. Set up as a subsidiary of Housing New Zealand, it was to create a showcase "sustainable mixed community".

Built by private enterprise, it was to house a cross-section of society, with a third of the 3000 homes either "affordable" self-owned or state rentals.

The state rentals were an early casualty when local MP John Key fought the 2008 election arguing that housing the poor in this "very upmarket area" was "economic vandalism".

He duly won and quickly abolished state housing from the plans.

The Hobsonville development demonstrated that local and central government can work alongside each other in partnership with private enterprise in a UDA-type model to achieve, what most would say, is an excellent outcome.

If, in a time of a housing crisis, development at Hobsonville moved at a snail's pace, that was not the fault of local government, the governance model or of Nimbys. It was because central government politicians refused to acknowledge Auckland had a burgeoning housing crisis.

Now that we have a government prepared to tackle this crisis, it's a shame the minister has chosen to fill in his downtime by making cheap shots at the Unitary Plan, Auckland Council and Nimbys.

The 2016 Unitary Plan opened up building sites for more than 400,000 new dwellings - 10 times the estimated current short-fall. Yet the minister seems obsessed with a 102-apartment development on inner-city Dominion Rd, which has just been turned down by planning commissioners.

With at least 399,898 building sites to be going on with, it's hardly the calamity Twyford makes out. Or justification for central government declaring itself above Auckland's planning laws.