Auckland councillor John Watson accuses Wellington bureaucrats of pushing what he considers poorly planned housing developments on to local residents. But a developer says his project will see millions of dollars spent on infrastructure. Ben Leahy investigates.
Plans to push a new 467-house Auckland development through a fast-track building approval have been described as a “Wild West” return to the “bad old days” of poor city planning, a councillor claims.
John Watson, Auckland councillor and chairman of the Transport and Infrastructure Committee, claims that should the new Ōrewa development 33 kilometres north of the city centre be approved, it will bring a “quantum leap” in extra houses to the site compared to what’s envisioned by city planners.
A residents’ group opposing the development also believes it will cause traffic chaos and overload water infrastructure.
But developers Shildon say the project, named Strathmill, will invest in a new road network, contribute $6.7 million in infrastructure to the council and create much-needed jobs and houses.
Furthermore, an advocacy group for more quality high-density housing argues it is unfair for existing residents to “lock out” potential future neighbours, and says such developments are needed to increase housing supply in desirable areas.
Councillor Watson, however, says he believes Strathmill should be heard through a traditional “public notification” process rather than through fast-track approval.
“I believe the fast-track system is just being used to circumvent the usual process that has checks and balances in it,” he said.
He said in his opinion: “It’s a bit like the Wild West, where we’ve returned to the bad old days where anything goes in terms of intensification.”
The dispute over the project comes as high-density housing projects are popping up across the city’s northern suburbs.
Large housing developments in Whenuapai, Wellsford North and Silverdale have all gained or are seeking fast-track building approval from a special panel set up by the Government during the Covid pandemic to speed up construction projects and boost economic recovery.
‘Squeezing as many houses in as possible’
Watson said Strathmill plans to build double the number of homes on its 24-hectare site than the number envisaged by the council’s Unitary Plan.
Introduced in 2016, the Unitary Plan is the council’s main planning document and has typically zoned larger land sections with fewer houses across the Hibiscus Coast to reduce pressure from stormwater runoff on unstable land in the area, Watson said.
The area also lacked critical water and public transport infrastructure.
Wastewater infrastructure was under such pressure that homes in some new developments were being sold with tanks to collect sewage because they could not yet be connected to the main system, Watson said.
Similarly, public transport was inadequate, with buses sometimes having trouble driving down narrow streets in new developments and huge traffic jams building at motorway entrances, he claimed.
Coalition for More Homes spokesman Oscar Sims has said increased housing in Ōrewa with a range of different sizes would allow more Aucklanders to choose the sort of housing that worked for them.
He said the coalition supported the provision of more housing supply, and thought it was unfair for Orewa residents to “lock out” potential future residents.
“The beach is a big part of Kiwi culture, and we don’t think it’s fair that existing residents can lock potential future residents out of living in desirable areas - not everyone can afford a large house,” Sims said.
He said housing developments in greenfield areas like Ōrewa were more infrastructure intensive, but the best way to relieve this pressure in the future was to support more developments that made better use of existing infrastructure.
Watson said moves were under way to try to exempt the Hibiscus Coast from increased housing density levels proposed under central government’s national urban planning policy because the coast’s infrastructure was so poor it simply could not cope with the huge influx of new housing.
Rob Matthews is spearheading a residents group opposed to the Strathmill project and said the neighbourhood had no issues with an earlier proposal for 201 houses.
But the developer then advised them “the current consent is not economically viable” and now intended to build 467 homes, Matthews said.
In his opinion, this was the developer’s problem, “and the fix should not be to squeeze as many houses as possible into the area”.
Andrew Fawcet, director of Shildon, said Strathmill “will boost the area’s infrastructure through the construction of a new public road network comprising 11 new public roads and two upgraded intersections”.
The roads will give cyclists, pedestrians and potentially buses a link between the streets of West Hoe Heights and Flavell Dr, thus providing better connectivity, he said.
The developers would also improve quality of life by investing in community infrastructure, “from stormwater enhancements, reserve developments, including significant regeneration of streams through riparian planting, and protection of large redwood trees”, he said.
An additional $6.7m development contribution would be paid to the council.
Fawcet also said geotechnical reports confirmed the Strathmill site was suitable for development, while in September 2022, the Resource Management Act’s medium-density residential standards for urban areas, including Ōrewa, aimed to create a wider variety of housing choices for “Kiwis desperate to buy quality, affordable housing”.
That was evidenced by 290 lots in Strathmill already being under contract to sell, which was an “extraordinary” demand in a flat market, Fawcet said.
He said the 2022 RMA density standards superseded the 2016 Unitary Plan.
“The extensive benefits that the Strathmill development brings to the area (from many jobs and increased community amenities) is the very reason why the Government wants applications like this to be fast-tracked all around New Zealand.”
Fast-track consenting to create jobs
Councillor Watson said his other major issue with Strathmill was its selection for the fast-track consenting process, arguing this took away local residents’ rights to have what he considers to be a fair say on the project.
Under the fast-track consenting process, only about 10 or so homeowners living directly next to the Strathmill development will have the right to make a written submission about it, residents say.
If Auckland Council had instead been responsible for considering the building approval, the development would likely have been “publicly notified”, giving residents the chance to appear at a hearing to speak in person and listen to the evidence being considered, Watson said.
He said the decision to approve Strathmill for the fast-track process was made out of Wellington, “which I would suspect has very little insight into what the repercussions are on the ground”.
Environment Minister David Parker granted developers Shildon the right to seek building approval through the Covid-19 Recovery (Fast-track Consenting) Act 2020.
It started in July 2022, aiming to create thousands of jobs and keep the construction industry ticking over at a time when it was feared the pandemic could bring on a recession.
It allows developers to submit their building consent applications to an expert panel convened by Judge Laurie Newhook, rather than applying through the Auckland Council.
The temporary law is due to end in July and is no longer accepting new projects.
However, 86 housing and infrastructure projects have been given a tick to seek fast-track consenting under the law.
As of January, expert panels had already approved 46 projects, while a further 16 are currently under consideration.
Strathmill is among 13 that are eligible to be considered but have not yet lodged their paperwork.
Eleven other projects are deemed “unlikely to proceed”.
The Herald asked Parker how much of an economic boost the projects were expected to give the economy, given the fast-track panel is set up in a way to promote economic activity at the expense of the public’s ability to have a say on projects.
But Parker said estimates of the costs and value of projects was not gathered, and in any case would usually be withheld to “preserve commercial confidentiality”.
When asked what results the process had delivered, Parker said it was put in place to promote employment to support New Zealand’s recovery from the economic and social impacts of Covid-19 and to support the certainty of ongoing investment across New Zealand.
“This is done, while continuing to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources, by the consenting panels, which have to apply the RMA [Resource Management Act] and plan rules.”
But Watson said in his view, the act should not be in place so long after the pandemic. He believed it was established to approve “shovel-ready” non-contentious projects - not as an alternative option for developers to push through what he considers contentious projects.
The council had been increasingly running into fast-track approved projects, and it seemed to him they offered residents a “total absence of any meaningful input”.
“This fast-tracking process also doesn’t doesn’t take account of the accumulations of developments,” he said.
“I believe these are going to result in perverse outcomes in the future on a whole number of fronts - transport, stormwater flooding and, eventually, quality of life.”