Reading through the two Herald articles last week that related to the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” really got me wondering why the government is so utterly determined to ram through this road. It’s very unpopular, with only 24.8% of Aucklanders and 19.2% of non-Aucklanders supporting the project, plus the Warkworth to Wellsford section of the road appears to have exceedingly difficult geotechnical issues to resolve. What’s particularly difficult to understand is why the government is so unwilling to look at a ‘staged’ way of improving the road – along the lines (but obviously informed by more technical analysis) of the Campaign for Better Transport’s “Operation Lifesaver” alternative. After all, solving the majority of the road’s problems for a fraction the price would seem to be very consistent with the government’s stated objectives of getting better ‘value for money’ from transport spending – or does that requirement only apply to non pet projects?

It is quite challenging to try to put myself in Steven Joyce’s shoes and comprehend why he’s so determined to push forwards with this project. One possible reason is that he thinks that in the long-run his role in creating a “real inter-city motorway network” for New Zealand will be celebrated – a king of ‘monument building’ complex that most politicians seem to suffer from. Perhaps he also truly believes that a road which slices a mere 10-15 (and I am very skeptical of the higher figure) minutes off a trip between Auckland and Whangarei will truly revolutionise the Northland economy. It’s a pity for him that earlier work on the project pretty much ruled that out.

But to look deeper at the reasons behind the obsession with this project, one must start to consider the issues of “who benefits”? And an interesting article from a newsletter Transit NZ put together back in 2000 when the Albany to Orewa motorway had just opened, sheds some interesting light on that matter: Now I’m generally not one for conspiracy theories about campaign contributions from property developers, so I’m not suggesting anything direct like that. But it is interesting to note the surprisingly great interest that Steven Joyce took in critiquing Rod Oram’s suggestions that the spatial plan needed to curb sprawl, with projects like Puhoi-Wellsford undermining those attempts.

In the end, I think that perhaps Steven Joyce sees a huge benefit of Puhoi-Wellsford being the ‘opening up’ of North Rodney to further urban development. This would have both the effect of enabling development in a potentially pretty huge area while also having that development ensure the road is well-used and isn’t considered a ‘white elephant’.

Environmental concerns (and there are pretty big ones) aside, I’m doubtful whether massive future development in North Rodney is in Auckland’s best interests. Not only does it require this enormously expensive and destructive motorway to ‘enable’ the development, but it seems to completely undermine efforts to create a quality compact city, it requires hugely expensive infrastructure (providing sewerage services in this area is eye-wateringly expensive, for example) and it further entrenches Auckland as an auto-dependent city. Not really my reason for building a hugely expensive road, but clearly Joyce seems to think differently.

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  1. The issue of sprawl vs compact which is essentially the secret fuel (pun unintended) behind this motorway is a debate that will be had for a while yet given the competing and sometimes spurious issues played out in the media on where Auckland should be headed in this regard. Whilst fellow urbanists clearly understand the need to contain sprawl I can’t help but think we need more of a carrot approach to the density argument – i.e be more demonstrable of its many advantages – that intensification if well planned and executed and promoted can appeal to the non-urban consumer. A term like eco-density, the preservation of quality public green open spaces within human scale mixed use environments that are family friendly etc starts to potentially paint elements of that so called lifestyle choice people make and think they cannot get central to the city. An interesting stat’ would be how many of those punters moving to the fringes end up moving back into central areas after a period of time because they have underestimated travel times/demands, lack of ease in keeping friendships going, tiring of what is a nice but non-changing amenity etc. That said I respect that for some that will always be the aspiration and thats the joy of having the freedom to choose. My issue then remains that SJ and Co are actually denying lifestyle choice to many because we currently have a disproportionate offering of bad suburbia and all the Puhoi motorway will promote is more of it. As a person with a family interested in living inner city – their are currently very few quality options – If Auckland hypothetically produced only quality compact living for the next 20 years, there would still be no danger of undoing the suburban choice.

    1. Good points AdG. Changing demographics are a key here too. We are getting smaller households, yet weirdly bigger houses at the same time.

      Is this a market outcome or are planning rules unwittingly forcing such illogical results? An interesting thought…

      1. I remember reading somewhere that had we done a census this year childless households would have outnumbered houses with children for the first time.

        I think a big house has become a status symbol. People also justify having houses that are much larger than they need because they occasionally have people over to stay. Personally now I’ve lived in an apartment I don’t know if I want to live anywhere else. Low maintenance, close to town, there’s a park, pub, supermarket and restaurants within walking distance. I spend $15 a week on my commute. It’s paradise.

      2. “Is this a market outcome or are planning rules unwittingly forcing such illogical results?”

        It is a market outcome caused by the high cost of land. Developers make their profit from their added value (ie. the house) rather than the land it is built on. Say a house costs the builder $200k to build and they can sell it at $250k, then that is a reasonable profit if it is built on $100k worth of land. But not if it is built on $500k worth of land. If the developer is going to take on the risk and the interest penalty of having $500k tied up in land during the development, then they need to build a more profitable house on it. That generally means a bigger house.

        Some of my ancestors settled in Auckland in the 1860s. They lived on Hobson St. A few years later they moved to College Hill in an example of early sprawl. Their descendants were all sprawlers too, with one being mayor of One Tree Hill at one stage. With the virtue of hindsight, at what stage would you have limited Auckland’s growth? Was the Harbour Bridge a bad idea?

        1. I would expect the exact opposite: high land cost leads developers to want to maximize the amount of capital they can extract from it, which means more houses per hectare. That’s why apartments in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and other high-cost cities are so small. What you say about increasing the worth of housing is done in those cities through building to luxury standards, i.e. raising prices without occupying more land.

        2. Alon, the problem in Auckland is that the natural process of having more houses per hectare is not allowed by the planning rules. So it becomes essential to build massively oversized houses in order to make money from a land development.

        3. Do the planning rules prohibit multi-unit buildings? If so, then what you and Obi say becomes more natural. But in New York, zoning rules in the desirable parts of the city limit floor area ratio rather than the number of dwelling units, and as a result developers maximize profit by building small apartments.

        4. The rules are based on a square metres per unit basis. The typical zone density controls is one unit per 375-400 square metres.

      3. I guess my point Obi is that are our planning restrictions forcing the cost of land per unit to be so high. Let’s say I have a 600 square metre section and the land is worth half a million, I really need to build a massive house on that to make it worth it. But surely putting three terraced houses on the same lot could also make a good return…

        …problem is that our planning rules prohibit putting more than one unit on the site.

        1. Okay… Got your point now. I think NZ has a cultural tendency towards detailed planning and development rules, the same as it does for rules in other areas. If you allow people to make their own choices then that is considered “deregulation” and a bad thing.

          Think of the fuss about tiny apartments in the CBD. Obviously someone buys them otherwise the developers would all go bankrupt. They’re a useful option for some people, such as students and people who need a city “pad” while their main residence is elsewhere. But a lot of people seem to think that their own judgement regarding taste and apparent concern for the longevity of the asset mean that someone (government or the council) should regulate to prevent development of these apartments. Some people like telling other people what they should do and how they should live… It’s just a NZ thing.

        2. There’s a reason that deregulation is considered a bad thing in NZ, and that’s because we’ve got so many stunning examples of how badly it can go wrong. Leaky buildings are, in large part, down to deregulation. Pike River sounds like deregulation was a significant factor.

          Deregulation has not been good for NZ, so is it any wonder that people see what’s happened and then swing to the opposite extreme?

          Toss in the rorting of the national economy in the 80s and 90s by those robber barons of industry, and there’s a well-earned distrust of capitalist developers in unregulated markets.

        3. “Leaky buildings are, in large part, down to deregulation. Pike River sounds like deregulation was a significant factor.”

          I helped a friend build a house back around 2000. Leaky buildings wasn’t an issue then… even the architect hadn’t heard of it until it cropped up in the media towards the end of the project and we discussed it. The building regulations filled a couple of ring binders and an inspector from the council came around every few weeks to decide if what we built was according to the regulations. If that is deregulation, then I hate to imagine what the alternative is.

          It’ll be interested to hear the results of the Pike River inquiry. But it strikes me that the company employed ex-miners in management, miners to do the mining, and most of them belonged to a union for miners. Collectively they must have had hundreds of years of mining experience and would have recognised a dangerous situation if they’d seen it. But if any of them had concerns about mine safety they didn’t sound enough of an alarm to persuade their colleagues to down tools and not go down the mine.

          There is an assumption that public servants and politicians have such wisdom that they can improve safety or quality in every industry. Even when the people involved in that industry have a vested interest in safety and quality already.

        4. Untreated timber, cladding without ventilation, those are the two primary causes of “leaky building”. And the industry got away with it because the last National government thought it’d be OK to let the industry decide what materials would be suitable and how to handle design without oversight. Having building standards is not the same as having regulation. We have competition law, too, but Sky has somehow leveraged the complete lack of regulation of the broadcasting market into a dominant market position verging on monopoly in the sports broadcasting sector.

          There’s an inherent conflict between safety and short-term profit. Safety costs, and if you think it might cost you your job you’re probably not going to squeak very loudly about potentially unsafe conditions.
          Saying that there are miners right through the structure also ignores the reality that if you’re in the middle of a situation you are quite possibly not going to recognise that something is dangerous.
          NZ Fire Service policy is that at a serious fire, the first person appointed to a role on the Incident Management Team, after the Incident Controller, is the Safety Officer. That’s a recognition that even though every fire fighter is absolutely interested in their own safety, and the safety of their team, when you’re working at the pointy end you’re not necessarily taking a holistic view of the safety of the entire situation.

        5. I realise that Obi, and I think imposing minimum unit sizes was a pretty dumb thing – great way to price people out of the housing market. My issue is that often planning is considered to work against a market that would normally promote sprawl – whereas in actual fact most planning regulations actively promote sprawl by limiting the type of development I discussed above. The apartment size issue is the same thing.

  2. Probably explains why the Government is so keen on Auckland to come up with its spatial plan, hoping that it can open up this area to developers. Auckland Council should turn the tables and drop all support for the project until it can confirm the Spatial Plan. It’s the “sensible” and “realistic” thing to do!

  3. At the “Plan Jam” a few weeks ago, Glenda Fryer maintained it is very obvious to her that “Auckland Unleashed”, reading between the lines, is constructed by/for the benefit of, property developers. Those of us who haven’t had the long experience she has of chairing property development hearings would not pick this up.

    1. I don’t really like the “let’s demonise property developers” ideology that sits behind some of that thinking. Auckland desperately needs many many many more houses, we just need them in the right place and built the right way.

      I think Auckland Unleashed has some great ideas on that matter, even if I don’t agree with everything it says.

  4. I think there are two issues, first is that construction is used as an indicator of how the economy is performing so I suspect the government is hoping that by building the road and supporting sprawl that they can force a lot of development to happen and thus making the economy look better than it might have otherwise. If this is part of the goal it reminds me of a story I saw about some places in China where they were building whole cities including extensive PT networks and motorways yet only had a handful of people living in them. Yet despite being empty they continued to build move as construction was positive for the regions GDP result and they were only judged on GDP. So in terms of this government I think it might be a way they can say “look our policies are improving the economy and delivering growth” even though in reality it is just an act.

    The second issue is why push sprawl over more intensive development. I think the answer to that is, because its easier. By that I mean our planning frameworks are more used to dealing with greenfields development rather than brownfields ones. Most developers are used to putting up a few houses but only a very few have any experience in building more intensive developments like apartment buildings so why would they want to change a winning formula. What’s more, going back to the first point, greenfields development means more money is spent on services like roads, water, waste water, communications, schools etc. so in the economists eyes that equals more growth. Basically they see sprawl as good for the economy even though it means higher costs for things like rates and services etc. which is part of the reason why the council and the government see things differently

  5. Yes, I think that Joyce’s position is quite internally consistent actually. He has been quite open about the fact that he thinks that Northern Rodney is a nice place, people want to live there (particularly on the coast) and we should let them live there. A big road will obviously help with getting those people to and from their houses. And, however uneconomic a big motorway project is it does generate jobs in construction and that is a sector which the Minister listens to attentively.

    It is just that (Alas!) what is good for those who live in Northern Rodney is not necessarily good for the rest of Auckland. Or, indeed, the rest of New Zealand who get to subsidize the road to their houses.

  6. Why don’t both sides negotiate a comprimise in this argument? Allow the development, but on the condition that a new railway be built from Britomart to Wellsford alongside the motorway.

    1. Good point – consider the options:
      Warkworth-Auckland CBD
      Motorway 2-Hour peak capacity: 12,000; Rail 2-Hour peak capacity: 48,000. Motorway: 58km & 1.5 hours (peak) 45mins (off-peak); Rail 40mins.
      Rail ridership per day: ???????
      Mandurah-Perth CBD
      Motorway 2-Hour peak capacity: 12,000; Rail 2-Hour peak capacity: 48,000. Motorway: 71km & 1.75 hours (peak) 56mins (off-peak); Rail 50mins.
      Rail ridership per day: 50,000

  7. nz is essentially run for the benefit, primarily, of highly leveraged property developers and dairy farmers. oh, and road construction companies too. apparently, the needs of these groups totally outweigh the needs of the other 98% of the population.

    1. “nz is essentially run for the benefit, primarily, of highly leveraged property developers”

      You’re right. Building houses and selling them to people is completely unacceptable when there are many viable alternatives:

      1. Caves.
      2. Tents.
      3. People building their own houses using their 4th form woodwork skills and a borrowed hammer.
      4. Vast government housing developments, like Mangere.

  8. Originally posted: July 15, 2011

    “This is nothing to do with providing a link between Northland & Auckland, or a holiday highway, it is about converting $3b of farmland around Warkworth into $30b of housing subdivision – North Shore MKII. Unfortunately it will take $18b of rate payer/taxpayer money in infrastructure to achieve this. ”

    I can add that one farmer/developer was subdividing 700 sections up there but was knocked back by council to 70 “executive” sections as there was insufficient infrastructure to support the original size of the project.

  9. We have had over a decade of the compact city at the regional level in Auckland. But actually changing district plans to reflect this strategy has been extremely slow or non existent. In my neck of the woods in Birkenhead, there is already quite a bit of intensive development, and there have been ‘plans’ to change plans for quite a while (eg on part of the main streetin the town centre it is still zoned for ordinary low density residential). Meanwhile developers have tried and failed to get consents for multiple apartment developments on spurious grounds. If I were a developer in Auckland I would be advocating for sprawl as well. There seems to be so much uncertainty and risk around intensification projects I am surprised anyone bothers. We need to be putting pressure on the council to start seeing real change in planning rules, if we want to be able to avoid the political inevitability of further sprawl.

    1. Info from a retired town planner who lives there – not sure if it was in the public domain – or if he was doing private work on it.

      But here is one from the Rodney Times 23/9/10 even bigger:

      “The development on 616 hectares owned by Te Arai Coastal Lands was originally planned to involve 1400 dwellings, along with a boutique thermal spa, golf course, visitor facilities, coastal park and campground. It was later scaled back to 850 and then 180 homes. ”

      A taste of the pressures building there.

      1. Yeah that one’s fairly well known. I think even the 180 homes got declined in the end because the ecological experts thought that it would pretty much certainly result in the extinction of the Fairy Tern that lives up there.

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