The recent extraordinary urban flooding events in urban Auckland have revealed that an unholy legislative, administrative and planning mess has been created by Auckland Council and Central Government.
The Government has mandated that residential intensification in New Zealand’s largest city must occur in two ways. First, multi-storey apartment buildings are to be permitted around town centres, transport corridors and rapid transport nodes. Second, medium-density residential standards (MDRS) are to be imposed across nearly every residential suburb. The latter provision enables three houses of three storeys to be built upon current residential sites without the need for resource consent.
Auckland Council responded to the Government’s legislative requirements by notifying Plan Change 78 (PC 78). This change will enable the construction of six-storey apartment blocks on clifftops and blanket infill housing in suburbs where there are already significant wastewater and stormwater problems.
Auckland’s new Mayor, new Deputy Mayor and new Planning Committee have a chance this coming Thursday to respond sensibly to the current very serious flooding issues. The committee will receive a report from Officers covering a “Scope of work to investigate the regional and localised impacts of flooding and the implications for land use planning, regulatory, current plan changes to the Auckland Unitary Plan (including Plan Change 78), infrastructure and other policy settings”. The Mayor has requested that a petition from 30 community groups - seeking that PC78 be withdrawn - also be tabled at the meeting.
Section 101B of the Local Government Act 2001 requires all councils to prepare and adopt an infrastructure strategy which outlines how they intend to manage infrastructure assets. Regrettably, neither Auckland Council nor the Government appear to have done that homework. For example, the economic analysis undertaken by consultants to the Government has not adequately considered all MDRS-related costs. The substantial funding that will be required to provide wastewater and stormwater services for Auckland’s unusual catchments and volcanic/lava substrates has not been quantified.
To make matters worse, Council’s Section 32 report (prepared for PC 78) deals only with a relatively few properties which currently have stormwater servicing constraints, ignores the effects of intensification elsewhere, and wrongly opines that “the scale and significance of the issues is assessed to be minor”. That conclusion may come as a surprise to the large number of residents who have been seriously impacted by flooding.
Watercare’s new $1.5 billion Central Interceptor has not been designed to solve Auckland’s stormwater problems. It is primarily designed for wastewater and will serve only part of the city. A peer review of the project recommended that additional stormwater development should be undertaken to protect the major investment involved in building the Central Interceptor.
In the recent storm event there was flooding across the city including, for example, at Kāinga Ora’s new Māngere West development and alongside Mt Roskill’s new $25 million Te Auaunga Awa (Oakley Creek) stormwater upgrade. Flooding will only get worse for areas like these when housing is intensified further up their catchments, when events become more frequent, when installation of new pipes is technically impractical and when funding for underground infrastructure is finite.
With the prediction that a wetter Auckland will be the new norm, the devastation of flooding will continue to threaten many families and the consequential disruption will be felt citywide. Given the physical and funding constraints of building Auckland’s wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, Auckland now needs to develop much better growth and intensification plans. These need to be much better informed and include sound engineering solutions for stormwater disposal. By continuing to promote blanket infill housing across nearly all suburbs, by intensifying settlement at the head of catchments and by allowing apartments to be perched on clifftops, PC 78 has the capacity to worsen our position, not improve it.
While there is a need to develop more affordable housing and provide more social housing, there is no immediate reason for the council to push stubbornly ahead with PC 78. Indeed, recent demographic data indicates that Auckland’s current population growth is actually declining. The Unitary Plan of 2016 already provides the opportunity for 900,000 new homes to be built over the next 30 years. Indeed, there is currently no shortage of available dwelling sites in Auckland.
The cart is well before the horse and the current planning processes are fundamentally flawed. But there remains time for the council to re-engage with the Government, hopefully with the assistance of the newly minted Minister for Auckland. Future intensification plans need to be significantly modified and better focused on integrating land use (on a catchment-by catchment basis) with affordable and staged infrastructure development to yield a city more resilient to the effects of climate change. PC 78 should be withdrawn, or at a minimum put on hold, until solutions are found to our water infrastructure problems.
Emeritus Professor Dick Bellamy was formerly Dean of Science at the University of Auckland. Dick has held a long-term interest in water issues. He served for six years on the Works, Bus Transport and Parks Committees of the former Auckland Regional Council. The views expressed here are entirely his own.