Allow more housing or get sued

A new policy statement on urban development is about a lot more than cutting carparks

New rules mean councils will have to green-light a lot more high-density developments that come across their desk or face developers in court. 

Voters won't have to wait till next election to see the changes. They're already here. Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford said the National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD) would influence Resource Management Act consenting decisions almost immediately.

"Actually from now the NPS has legal effect for consenting and planning decisions."

"Let's say someone has put a consent in to do a particular development somewhere and the RMA commissioners are going to assess that application next week," Twyford said.

"They will have to assess it in light of the NPS and the rules. In that sense it has immediate effect."

The main beneficiaries of it will be people like Women in Urbanism chair Emma McInnes who habitually uses the word "hard" to describe her quest to find a home in Auckland: 

"It's hard to find something that's affordable. It's hard to find something that's two bedroom. It's hard to find something that's still in the city."

She has struggled to find an affordable two-bedroom apartment because high density developments have traditionally been blocked by neighbourhood objectors or obstructed by council planning rules that protect heritage considerations and "viewshafts" (views of scenery). 

Now councils will have to change their district plans to align with a NPS-UD that prioritises housing over inconveniencing the neighbours.

Or, in the words of the NPS-UD itself: "[developments that] may detract from amenity values appreciated by some people but improve amenity values appreciated by other people, communities, and future generations."

Councils operating in Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch ("tier 1" cities) will have to produce regional policy statements that enable building heights and density to accommodate the demand for housing and commerce in a particular area, or make it easier to access commercial activities and community services by public transport, on foot, or by bike.

"The council will be expected to apply good sense with regard to the spirit of the rules. And if they don't they'll get taken to court by some developer."

District plan rules in "city centre zones" in these places will have to "realise as much development capacity as possible" and "maximise the benefits of intensification". 

And if those strictures weren't clear enough, the policy statement also specifically mandates that councils allow building heights of at least six storeys in "metropolitan centre zones" and within a "walkable catchment" of rapid transit stops, city centre zones, and defined metropolitan zones.

Only Auckland has a "metropolitan centre zone" in its unitary plan so Twyford said it would be up to other councils to adopt this terminology and define these areas.

However, Twyford said guidance will come out this week to help councils define what a "walkable catchment" is. This will most likely be based on the amount of time it takes someone to walk to a rapid transit stop or a metropolitan zone. 

"There'll be some guidelines provided and, as with all of these things, the council will be expected to apply good sense with regard to the spirit of the rules.

"And if they don't they'll get taken to court by some developer."

Varying definitions for walkable exist both here and abroad but broadly fall within 800m-1500m range. Councils will be asked to see walkable in terms of the amount of time it might take someone to walk a particular distance. 

Twyford said in this way the "walkable" definition can take the topography of an urban area into account. 

Whangārei, Rotorua, New Plymouth, Napier, Hastings, Palmerston North, Nelson Tasman, Queenstown, and Dunedin ("tier 2" cities) will have to set "housing bottom lines". In other words make sure there's enough land to realistically meet housing demand both in the short and long-term.

That means completing a Future Development Strategy (FDS) and a Housing and Business Development Capacity Assessment (HBA) - as tier 1 councils will be required to do - to assess housing demand and plan for the infrastructure to cope with it. 

Other urban environments that aren't on either list are defined as "tier 3" councils and "strongly encouraged" to comply with the mandatory planning requirements those in tier 1 cities face.

Either way all councils will have to be "responsive" to developer proposals to create more housing even if it's "unanticipated" by council planning documents or "out-of-sequence" with council plans to release land. 

And no council will be able to set minimum car parking requirements except for accessible car parks. They will also have to address the demand for car parking through "comprehensive parking management plans". 

Small retailers over big box giants

Twyford said the Government's aim in removing minimum parking requirements wasn't to prioritise smaller retailers over big box ones. 

However, in Auckland that would likely be one of its effects. Minimum parking requirements have already been removed on a lot of residential land in the city, but were still in place on commercial land and across some lower density suburbs.

Greater Auckland editor Matt Lowrie said big box retailers benefited most from minimum car parking requirements because only they were capable of purchasing and developing large enough plots of valuable urban land to accommodate free to low-cost car parking along with retail space. 

"Your likes of your Bunnings, and your Warehouses...all sort of came together and said we need to keep these minimum parking requirements in place. And what that is actually about is about anti-competitive behaviour."

"If you have minimum parking requirements in place it means that your small local providers - your shops and your town centres - if they're having to provide car parking it's just not viable for them to be able to do that."

"It then means that the only people who can do that big development, and who can afford to do that kind of activity, are the big players."

Twyford said the NPS-UD was about letting people choose how much parking they wanted and pushing back against valuable urban land being swallowed up by car parking that would only be fully used for a relatively small amount of time. 

"If I'm building a new home or a block of flats I'll make a commercial decision about how many car parks are needed rather than forcing people to pay (in Auckland) $50,000 a car park."

"You might be happy to lease a carpark in the building next door. Or have one car and not two and use more public transport."

'The blame will now be with the market

The parallels between Auckland's Unitary plan and the NPS-UD are not accidental. Twyford said the whole exercise was "inspired" by it and the new policy statement was effectively a roll-out of this plan across the rest of our urban areas.

"What we've seen [since Auckland's unitary plan] is a big increase in the proportion of apartments, townhouses..and we've seen a significant increase of residential buildings in rapid transit corridors."

"Planning rules do make a difference and if you free them up the market will follow."

So has Twyford simply stepped in at the request of local politicians who are too nervous to confront voters with the choices they need to make?

Auckland would still see some changes though. Lowrie said the NPS-UD would likely see the removal of restrictions on housing development that had been attached to certain areas. 

"Panmure is a really good example of that. It's right on a train station where we want a whole lot of development to occur and we're putting a lot of money in there with the busway and we've upgraded the train station and all of that.

"And then it's almost impossible to build anything above two storeys because of all the viewshafts and all the other requirements that have been put in place that make it impossible to do anything."

"This [the NPS-UD] effectively bypasses a lot of that. It means that council will have to enable that density to occur."

Features of Auckland's Unitary Plan will now apply in centres like Hamilton and Tauranga. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

University of Waikato environmental planning professor Iain White said just because the plan was in place didn't mean dense developments would spring up everywhere. That would depend on the moves developers made. 

"It's basically taken a lot of power out of local planners' hands and local politicians to say: 'look you've got to go up to six storeys'."

"I think Auckland you're going to see a market reaction. In other places the change probably won't be that pronounced...developers might not want to build a six-storey [building]."

"The blame will now be with the market and not planners because if things don't happen all of a sudden [planners are] off the hook for the first time."

Twyford said a lot of councils were on board with the NPS-UD and had been consulted during its creation.

So has Twyford simply stepped in at the request of local politicians who are too nervous to confront voters with the choices they need to make?

"Let's say we're helping share the load," he said.

"As central Government it's our job to speak for everybody's right to have affordable housing. It's a bit hard for councils to do that because they're so local. That's the way the RMA was written.

"National Policy Statements, that's where central Government gets to say: 'hey this in the interests of the whole country'."

"Rapid transit"

The NPS-UD encourages denser housing developments within close proximity of "rapid transit". A term which has been broadened out under the policy statement to cover a wider range of public transport. 

"Those are the kinds of communities that serve women really, really well."

McInnes said city plans that didn't integrate housing with public transport did not suit the needs of women who used public transport more frequently than men and, as primary caregivers, also needed to access a lot more amenities. 

"When you have a really good transport hub with really dense, sustainable housing you create environments that are really good to walk around.

"Especially if that housing has a 'mixed' element to it where there's shops on the ground floor. Lots of eyes on the street. Lots of lighting. Big wide footpaths.

"Those are the kinds of communities that serve women really, really well."

Twyford said while rapid transit traditionally had a very specific definition that included grade-separated (set apart from general road traffic) public transport like busways on the North Shore of Auckland or heavy rail in Wellington - the NPS-UD had widened this.

"In the NPS we've kind of broadened it out to include high frequency public transport...a high frequency bus service on a main arterial [would] fit the definition in the NPS."

"What we're trying to do...is basically get development to be happening in transit corridors. This is how over the medium term we're going to reduce congestion."

The increased density requirements extend to planned rapid transit routes as well. Twyford said they would have to be set down in a plan like a district plan or a regional land transport plan.

Urban geographer Ben Ross said that opened the door to housing intensification along the Airport to Botany and City Centre to Mangere light rail corridors - both of which were seen as "planned". 

"The route [for light rail] has been set down in our official planning documents. So for Auckland that would be the Auckland Unitary Plan and the Regional Land Transport Plan.

"Once it's seen as planned the developers can then go for it."

Next steps

Councils governing tier 1 cities will have to integrate those new density requirements - including changes to height limits - by August 20, 2022.

Minimum parking requirements will need to be stripped from all council plans within 18 months of the NPS-UD's official commencement date of August 20 this year.

However, an HBA for housing will be the first thing most councils will need to complete. That's due by July 31 next year. The HBA for commercial land will have to be completed in time for inclusion within the 2024 long-term plans of councils.

"Congestion in cities is already a big issue and this will only exacerbate the problem as more cars jostle for fewer places. Public transport works for some but realistically it's not a suitable option for everyone."

The timeframes behind the car parking requirements appear to be the biggest area of disagreement between Labour and National when it comes to the NPS-UD.

National Party transport spokesman Chris Bishop has a history of critiquing minimum parking requirements and initially told Stuff the party supported removing them, but didn't agree with the timeframe involved.

However, on Twitter the Party's portfolio holder on urban development Jacqui Dean termed the entire policy statement "madness".

"Congestion in cities is already a big issue and this will only exacerbate the problem as more cars jostle for fewer places. Public transport works for some but realistically it's not a suitable option for everyone."

The apparent contradiction was later corrected:

"I should have been clearer, while I broadly support most of the provisions in the NPS as it relates to car parking, I still have concerns around the potential for congestion in the short term." Dean said.

White said one weakness in the NPS-UD was that it didn't have provisions for pairing good design, green spaces, and amenities with intensification. It could create pushback from the future residents of these developments.

"This does increase density, particularly around transport links, but you've got to create an environment that is good for people to live in.

"One of my first thoughts is how does this link to a national approach on what is good design? What kind of environments do we want to create for people?

"If we're going to increase the densities this needs to be allied with a strong policy on green spaces. On good quality design. On amenity. This is not just a numbers game. We're meant to create the kind of places people [want to live in]."

Twyford said councils had the ability to go into those aspects around design and green spaces themselves, but it would also be a priority for the next Government if he were re-selected for the urban development portfolio. 

"We've done so much in this term we haven't been able to get around to it."

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