This is the third installment in an ongoing series on the politics and economics of zoning reform. Last week’s post took a look at the outcomes from the Unitary Plan process, which included a mix of political decision-making and technical assessment. The data in this post raised a few interesting questions, including: Why did councillors take a relatively conservative approach to the notified Unitary Plan?
In his fantastic book Zoning Rules! The Economics of Land Use Regulation, which I reviewed at the start of the year, William Fischel argues that zoning decisions generally respond to demands from politically active “homevoters” who agitate to minimise risks to their own property values.
While this doesn’t necessarily hold true in all cases, it’s a useful heuristic for understanding councils’ decision-making. And it suggests that when seeking to explain zoning decisions we should begin by asking: Who submitted on the plan?
After notifying the Unitary Plan to the public in September 2013, Auckland Council received submissions from around 9,300 individuals or organisations, who made a total of 93,600 unique requests. The submissions are all available online if you want to read them in detail.
I didn’t want to bother reading them in detail, so I started with some simple statistical analysis. Approximately 5,900 submitters provided an address, which allowed Auckland Council to match them to one of the city’s 21 local boards. This allowed me to identify which areas of Auckland had more or less submissions. Here’s a map showing submissions per capita.
Interesting map. We can immediately see three things:
- People in rural areas – especially Rodney – submitted on the plan at higher rates than people in urban areas.
- Two urban local boards stand out as having high submissions per capita – Orakei and Devonport-Takapuna. They are both relatively well-off coastal areas.
- Submission rates in the west and south were much, much lower – as shown in the yellow band through the city.
All in all, people who lived in Rodney or Orakei were over ten times as likely to put in a submission on the Unitary Plan than people who lived in Henderson-Massey or Mangere-Otahuhu.
This is an extraordinarily large amount of variation, and it’s not matched by other indices of civic participation. For instance, voter turnout wasn’t ten times as high in Orakei as it was in Henderson or Mangere. So what factors are driving the differences?
Ideally, we’d be able to take a look at the decisions made by individuals – for instance, by surveying people on their decisions about whether or not to submit. But that’s a bit over the top for a blog post, so I’m going to take a quick look at some demographic factors that might underpin different submissions rates at a local board level.
More specifically, I want to investigate three hypotheses that are (loosely) derived from Fishel’s “homevoter hypothesis”. They relate to the time and money that people have to get involved in the process, and people’s sense of “ownership” over their neighbourhood:
- Hypothesis 1: Areas with higher median incomes are more likely to submit at higher rates
- Hypothesis 2: Areas with a higher share of home-owning households are more likely to submit at higher rates
- Hypothesis 3: Areas with a higher share of people over the age of 65 are more likely to submit at higher rates
All demographic variables were measured at the local board level using data from the 2013 Census. (NB: These weren’t the only factors I considered, but they seemed to be the most relevant ones.)
The following table summarises results from a simple OLS regression, which measures the correlations between multiple explanatory variables (the local board demographic variables) and a single outcome variable (Unitary Plan submissions per 1000 residents). The statisticians among our audience will find it pretty intuitive; for the rest, here is an explanation of the findings:
- At a local board level, a higher median personal income was associated with a higher rate of submissions on the Unitary Plan. This correlation was highly statistically significant (1% level). On average, every $1000 increase in median personal income was associated with another 0.51 UP submissions per 1000 residents.
- A higher share of residents aged 65 and over was associated with a higher submission rates. This correlation was also statistically significant (5% level). On average, every 1% increase in the share of seniors was associated with another 0.47 UP submissions per 1000 residents.
- After controlling for incomes and age, there was no statistically significant relationship between the share of households in rental accommodation and submission rates.
- These factors “explain” about 56% of the variations in submission rates between local boards. In other words, income and age are quite important to overall outcomes.
|Outcome variable:||UP submissions per 1000 residents|
|Explanatory variables||Model coefficients|
|Median personal income ($000s)||0.507***|
|Percent 65 years and over (%)||46.973**|
|Percent renting (%)||7.693|
|Residual Std. Error||2.455 (df = 17)|
|F Statistic||9.365*** (df = 3; 17)|
|Note:||*p<0.1; **p<0.05; ***p<0.01|
In short, areas with more wealthy people and more retired people tended to submit on the Unitary Plan at considerably higher rates. While there is an idiosyncratic story lurking behind every submission, demographic factors seem to have played a crucial role in shaping the submissions that Auckland Council received on the Unitary Plan.
This raises several questions:
First, how much stock should policymakers place on submissions as opposed to inputs gathered from other sources, like demographically-representative surveys? In asking this question I am not dismissing submissions entirely – the people who submit are also more likely to have relevant knowledge about the issue at hand. But is it plausible to think that people in wealthier and older areas are ten times more knowledgeable than people in poorer and younger areas?
Second, how should planning processes account for the preferences and needs of people who are invisible in the consultation process? If you care about the substance of democracy as well as the form, as I do, this is an important question. There are in fact many things that can be done to divine people’s underlying preferences for various things in cities. Perhaps we should invest more in this sort of research.
Third, to what extent did submissions on the Unitary Plan affect the process at different stages? For instance, were the areas that Auckland Council chose to “downzone” between the draft and notified versions of the Unitary Plan concentrated in local boards with higher submission rates? And what about the outcomes from the final Unitary Plan recommended by the hearings panel? These are obviously hard questions to answer in full without an extremely in-depth analysis of the 93,600 unique requests that people made. But there may be some simple insights we can get from a higher-level analysis; stay tuned…
What do you make of the data on Unitary Plan submission rates?