Back in August, the Herald ran an article on the “Grammar zone squeeze: 1800 new apartments to put pressure on school rolls”. I helped the author with the numbers for the article, using info from the RCG Development Tracker. Based on that, I said that “more than 1,800 apartments will be completed in the Auckland Grammar zone in the next three years, with 600 of those also falling in the Epsom Girls Grammar zone”, excluding student accommodation, projects completed before August 2015, and the proposed Boulevard Hotel redevelopment in Newmarket.
So those were the stats, and they were pretty reliable, probably even conservative. The Herald was quite right to point out that new homes will put pressure on inner-city schools to expand. However, the occasion also gave David Seymour a chance to get up on his soapbox. As per the Herald:
Act’s Epsom MP David Seymour said he was opposed to zone shifts – he headed a campaign when two nearby schools proposed overlapping their zones into the area last year – and to intensification.
One idea was to make a rule so that students in new houses would not be included in the zone, he said. There was a need to balance the needs of people who lived in Epsom with the “interests of developers who want to develop property and sell an education with that property”.
He also went on to air his views in greater detail at Interest.co.nz. I’ve just highlighted a few comments below, mainly where I think there’s tension between them and what the ACT Party ostensibly stands for (and which are outlined in section 3 of its Constitution).
Seymour on protecting privilege:
“Seymour said the risk was that the Grammar Schools may eventually have to restrict admissions, which could affect the entitlements of those who had already bought into the Grammar Zone for their children.
“That’s the sort of investment that a lot of people have put in and you have to have some empathy for that,” he said.
“You have to protect the expectations of people that bought into a neighbourhood with a certain community character”.
Of course, you could apply the same argument to any kind of existing privilege or benefit, and say that we can’t change any rules, ever. Think SuperGold fares, the welfare system, tax-free capital gains etc. Almost all policy decisions involve tradeoffs. It’s very hard to find policies that benefit every single person in society; those quick wins have already been made. All policymakers can do is try to find policies which, in aggregate, make society better off.
Seymour trying to use the language of economics:
“Owners and tenants of new apartment and townhouse developers in the zones were effectively free-riding on the benefits of being in the zones, which could ultimately hurt the rights of those already in the zones”.
Seymour’s “obvious” solution:
“Seymour said the most obvious solution was to stop the densification of the Grammar Zones, either by allowing existing residents to block development, or by using the school’s admission rules to block the residents of new buildings from being eligible for admission”.
Seymour said he favoured allowing residents in the zones exercising their property rights to block adjacent development. “I’m in favour of people being able to protect the level of noise, traffic, shading and basic things that directly affect their property,” he said.
Further economics jargon:
“The moratorium would be on new dwellings over and above the current number. What you’re really rationing here is the bundled good, which is access to a certain school zone, and you see that in how they advertise their developments.”
“This would prevent the cycle we currently have where people are incentivised to build as intensely as possible in the zone, but as they do that they’re inevitably going to destroy that very (public) good that they’re building to partake of.”
Seymour predicting the future:
“I don’t believe in 50 years time when we’re a society with vastly more sophisticated transport that people will be as attracted to living so intensely,” he said.
“As transport technology improves, as it has for the last 200 years, people will say that’s great and travel farther and faster and we’re going to consume more space,” he said.
Seymour casting doubt on other people’s ability to predict the future:
“[The Auckland Council] simply don’t have the information about how technology will change the way people work and get around.”
Seymour’s thoughts on how much value the developers get from building in the Grammar zones:
“You have to wonder how many of those projects would pass the stop-go point were it not for the value and the premium people are prepared to pay for access to school zones,” he said.
I note that at the time I gave the Herald these stats, the Development Tracker was also showing another 5,000 apartments and terraces underway in other parts of Auckland, outside the Grammar zones (so we’re talking 600 in the EGGS zone, 1,200 in both the AGS and the EGGS zone, and 5,000 in neither). So Mr Seymour’s wondering is hardly conclusive. At any rate, I’d expect that most of the ‘value’ of being in a Grammar zone is already capitalised into the land, so while developers can sell units at higher prices, they also have to pay a higher price themselves at the start. This means that the actual benefits to the developer are fairly minor.
Seymour attempting to impose his preferences on others, and then trying to cast that as the council trying to impose its preferences on others:
He preferred development happen on the fringes around Auckland and he opposed Auckland Council moves to impose metropolitan limits.
“What I’m opposed to and why I believe the RMA requires reform is the kind of macro level planning where a group of urban planners at Auckland Council say ‘we know what the correct amount of density is and we’re going to draw a line around the city and we’re going to tell you how you’re going to live and get around 30 years into the future,” he said.
Entertainingly, you’ll find that it’s easy to substitute “a group of urban planners at Auckland Council” for “the ACT Party” in that second sentence. It probably helps if you also switch out “we’re going to draw a line around the city” for “we’re going to encase the Grammar zones and Epsom in a bubble”.
So, long story short, the ACT Party has suggested that new homes in the inner city, if they’re allowed to be built at all, should be marooned in a schooling no-man’s-land – excluded from being able to go to the nearby, high quality schools. On the other hand, Bernard Hickey has suggested a range of other options, including privatising some of those schools (“Perhaps the free market ACT party could get behind such a public asset sale?”, heh), changing their zones, etc. Plus, of course, the schools themselves also have at least some ability to grow.
In completely unrelated news, the ACT Party “will not support National-Maori RMA tinkering“, also noting that “compliance costs and delays on developments large and small are slowing business and choking housing supply” and that we have “a land use planning regime that has left New Zealand building fewer houses in 2015 than 1973”.