Why not Auckland?
I grew up in Auckland. I love Auckland. My partner and I would like to live in Auckland. As it stands, I can’t see it happening for the foreseeable future. I’m sure some of you are rather relieved, but it makes me sad.
Auckland doesn’t stack up as a place to live. Sure it’s nice, but having spent the last few years living in Brisbane and Amsterdam — and with the option to live in either of those cities — I’ve slowly and begrudingly come to the realization that the cost of housing in Auckland detracts too much from overall quality of life. I can’t honestly say to my partner that Auckland is a better place to live. And we’re the fortunate ones; we have a choice. When you see people — families even — living in cars and/or on the streets, then you start to realize the long-term socio-economic problems that are being caused right here, right now.
In this post, I want to talk about Brisbane, and other strategic planning matters, which may — in the medium to long run — help to resolve Auckland’s high housing prices. I own property in Auckland and I benefit directly from the status quo. However, I am not comfortable with people suffering simply because of poor policy settings, and nor am I particularly pleased with being economically exiled from the place that I call home. Before we talk about that home, however, let us cast our mind slightly further afield …
We need to talk about Brisbane
I want to begin by talking about Brisbane, which is actually where my partner calls “home”. In Brisbane, “winter is never coming” and housing is remarkably affordable.
In fact, Brisbane is *the* stand-out city across Australia and New Zealand when it comes to housing affordability. No city that I know of has achievd sustained growth in population for so many decades, while also maintaining housing affordability. This excellent (albeit largely unrelated) article by The Guardian’s excellent Greg Jerico includes the following graph, which highlights the gap between Brisbane and Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney (NB: As far as I understand Auckland’s prices currently lie somewhere between Melbourne and Sydney).
From some recent work with central and local government agencies in New Zealand I’ve also noticed that — when thinking about Australia — Kiwis tend to focus on Sydney and Melbourne. Now don’t get me wrong: Both Sydney and Melbourne are wonderful cities that I love visiting, and from which Auckland could no doubt learn a lot. They’re also much older and prettier cities than Brisbane, in many respects. But Sydney and Melbourne haven’t delivered affordable housing either. If we want to learn about affordable housing, then we need to look elsewhere.
How has Brisbane managed to succeed where other cities haven’t? Well, I’d wager no city in Australia or New Zealand has built as many apartments as Brisbane has when measured on a per dwelling basis. The boom started in 2014 and continues to the present day. The following figure presents data for the whole of Australia (which is also fascinating), but the trend is even more pronounced in Brisbane.
The result? Apartment buildings have popped up all over the city. Not just in inner-city suburbs, but also in places like Sherwood and Oxley, which are nice town centres located more than 30 minutes to the city centre. In terms of prices, you can rent spacious two bedroom apartments for $500 per week. Building lots of new apartments doesn’t just mean that apartments become more affordable: The increase in supply spills-over into related housing sub-markets, deflating prices in more broadly. Some households, like mine, really do sit “on the margin” and would be happy in either an apartment or a unit or a house.
In this way, Brisbane’s apartment boom has kept the lid on property prices in general. For example, here’s a nice four bedroom, two-storey house located 35 minutes walk from Brisbane city centre, which is going for $1,000 per week. From what I can tell $1,000 per week doesn’t buy you anywhere near as much house (and I mean that in a quality sense, not just a size sense) in Auckland. While Ponsonby is nice, it isn’t really a match for the funky inner-city edge vibe that exists in the West End, which is considerably more alive and diverse (possibly because it is more affordable?).
Over the last two decades Brisbane’s growth has exceeded Auckland, Sydney, and Melbourne. How has this growth been accommodated? Well, 53 percent of recent development in South East Queensland (NB: This is like the upper North Island between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga) has occured via infill development. And that figure is expected to increase to 60 percent in coming years, as set out in the rather impressive strategic planning document ShapingSEQ. That’s actually quite a lot of intensification, given the scale of the region. In Brisbane City the figure is closer to 94 percent intensification. Let us dive into ShapingSEQ in a bit more detail …
ShapingSEQ: Three things that matter
As mentioned above, one of the reasons housing in Brisbane is more affordable is because they’ve built so many apartments. It’s obvious Auckland needs to do more on this front. And reading through ShapingSEQ, I noticed three strategic planning matters that I really like, and where Auckland may learn a few tricks.
The first thing is that ShapingSEQ locates South East Queensland in a global and national context, as noted in the up-front discussion about mega-trends. This discussion makes it clear that — even though SEQ is a major urban region — SEQ remains a small fish in a big pond. Large changes, such as climate change, are happening all around and on many different levels. Some of this change will inevitably affect us, whether we want it to or not. Notwithstanding this inevitably, ShapingSEQ focuses on how strategic planning can empower communities, providing a way for them to have input into how change happens. Input doesn’t mean getting exactly what you want for neighbourhood, or even having it stay exactly the way it is. Choice means being made aware of real trade-offs, such as how climate change will make some low-lying areas uninhabitable. Such as how an ageing population will create unique demands. ShapingSEQ seeks to elevate people’s thinking to a higher altitude, focus on the bigger picture, and pull their head out of the vocal, yokel, parochial local weeds.
The second thing I like about ShapingSEQ is that — even though it is a strategic planning document — it still manages to convey some important details. Perhaps the best example is the emphasis on the “missing middle” density (NB: The image below contains my new favourite Australian word “Fonzie”, which seems to be what we would call a granny flat).
ShapingSEQ defines middle-density housing to include anything up to 6 storeys. This seems reasonable to me, as it’s the height of buildings that can be found across all of Auckland’s inner-city suburbs, and aligns with the height of tall trees. During the recent debate on the Unitary Plan, I feel like some people in Auckland — especially those who opposed intensification — tried to redefine what middle-density actually means. I own an apartment in a one-hundred year old building in Auckland that is 7 storeys high. We’ve been building buildings to this height for over a century, and it’s balderdash and poppy-cock to pretend otherwise. ShapingSEQ goes to some length to distinguish between middle and high density housing, and I think we’d do well to do the ssame in future iterations of the Auckland Plan and, then, the Unitary Plan. Language in important, and in Auckland we’ve allowed the language to be set by those who opose intensification. Say after me: Six storeys is not high density; it’s the type of density your grandparents would have seen in the city in their day.
The third thing I like about ShapingSEQ is simply that it’s a statutory document. And this gets to the heart of some of the issues with the Auckland Plan, which I talk about below. ShapingSEQ is necessarily better than the Auckland Plan, but rather becaise it carries with it a lot more statutory weight:
ShapingSEQ is the statutory regional plan for the SEQ region. ShapingSEQ … is the region’s pre-eminent strategic land use plan made under the Sustainable Planning Act 2009, and given effect by the Planning Act 2016. It was given effect on and from the day the making of the plan was published in the Government Gazette. ShapingSEQ is a state planning instrument providing a framework to manage growth, change, land use and development in SEQ. It does this by reflecting state policy and informing a range of other more detailed local planning instruments responsible for delivering good land use outcomes …
There’s many areas where Auckland does better than Brisbane, in particular, and South East Queensland, in general. In terms of strategic land use and transport planning, however, I think issues with our spatial policy have led to some recent warning signs …
Strategic Policy in Auckland: Three warning signs
Three events have, over the last few years, got me thinking about governance models and strategic policy in the Auckland context. I’m sure other people here will be able to offer more insight than I, and perhaps even offer up better examples, but what I would like to do here is get some discussion going by discussing three issues that I found particularly perturbing.
The first event that caused me concern was when some organisations, such as Auckland2040, and even some councillors, tried to argue that the Unitary Plan didn’t need to give effect to the growth anticipated in the Auckland Plan. They effectively tried to argue that while we know a certain quantum of growth was going to occur, we don’t need to enable sufficient development capacity to accomodate that growth now. This led to the disconnect that Peter discussed the other day, and which I mentioned above. What’s the point of having an understanding of strategic issues, such as growth, if you don’t plan for this to be reflected in the details thinking?
The problem with this is two-fold. First, we go to the hassle of engaging with people on strategic objectives, which can then effectively be disregarded when deciding on the details. Second, it creates a vaccum where un-elected (albeit well-informed and well-meaning) technocrats and consultants have to substitute their values in place of the wider population, who are not well-represented in the arcane hearings processes associated with the Unitary Plan. Future generations aren’t represented at all, and are — in my experience — frequently ignored.
As a consultant and a human, I don’t think this is OK. I think the pre-eminent strategic spatial plan for Auckland should directly inform the Unitary Plan. Thankfully the Hearings Panel did not buy this line of reasoning, but it never have been an option.
The second event was when AT tried to relitigate the Linear Park on Victoria Street. The Linear Park was a key project identified in the City Centre Master Plan, which in turn was a key element in achieving the strategic objectives set out in the Auckland Plan for accomodating rapid population growth in Auckland’s city centre. The Linear Park is a perfect example of the sort of tension that often exists between land use and transport outcomes, tension which should be resolved through strategic planning exercises. Not traffic engineering metrics like “level of service”. That, from what it appears, is exactly what AT tried to do, and I think that is a big problem.
I say this not because Council necessarily know more about transport than AT, indeed the latter may well have more technical knowledge. The reason I am concerned that AT would try and challenge a strategic project is because AT is not democratically elected, and broader community engagement is not a core part of their remit (I do accept that AT engages with the community on specific projects, but that’s a different matter). AT simply doesn’t seem to be the right organisation to say “actually, we want to prioritise movement rather than place in this corridor”. Thankfully, Council rebuked AT’s atempt to re-wite their strategic policy objectives on Victoria Street.
From where I’m sitting, and for what it’s worth, AT should never, ever try to redefine strategic transport and land use objectives set by Council. Instead, AT’s role — and I do think it’s an important one that does need to be separate from Council — is to try and deliver the strategic goals that have been set by Council as effectively as possible given the money available (NB: I want to emphasise that issues with current arrangements are definitely not a one-way street: Parnell Station is an example of what happens when Council gets too close to technical decisions, which should be left to AT). Thankfully it seems that both AC and AT have begun to recognise the mutual benefits of sticking to their respective corners, and letting the other do the job to which its organisational structure is best suited.
The third event was ATAP. While it’s great that the Council, AT, and Central Government all got together, had a cuddle, and gained some agreement on how to align their respective transport and land use plans, I was concerned that we even arrived at this point in the first place. Given that it seems likely to be something that needs to happen again in the future, why don’t just formalise the process so it has some statutory weight? That is, why not have a formal strategic transport and land use planning process that aligns central and regional transport plans? And why not have such a process apply nationally, at least to the major urban regions? What about Christchurch? Don’t they want to be aligned too? Or are they just so pleasantly amenable that everyone just naturally aligns? The fact we needed ATAP at all is, I think, cause for pause.
And given all the work that went into ATAP, how do people feel for Central Government to turn around and randomly announce massive investment in transport in Auckland? Regardless of your political stripes, and Labour do this too, do we really want planeloads of new transport projects to be dropped on us from up high every three years? Projects that could drastically change our long term ideas of what will be built, and which depend on the outcome of the election? Projects that could influence where developers look to buy land? Given the time-frames involved in formulating land use plans etc the “you get a highway, everyone gets a highway” carpet-bombing approach comes across as less than ideal. One of the key roles of Government, I think, is to provide certainty to citizens and firms. Can anyone honestly say that Central Government’s involvement in regional transport issues is leading to more certainty? I find it extremely concerning that ATAP can so quickly and flippantly be circumvented by Central Goverment, who is supposed to be one of the partners.
Having said all this what is it that I want? Well the first thing is that — rather than focusing too much on the likes of Sydney and Melbourne — I’d recommend Auckland keeps a closer eye on Brisbane. House prices in our two cities really shouldn’t be that far apart, perhaps plus 20% higher in Auckland to allow for higher costs of land (due to physical scarcity) and construction (due to earthquake requirements).
One way Auckland might achieve more affordable housing is to re-examine whether our governance models and strategic policies are as effective as they can be. I’m not an expert in this stuff, but there does seem to be a need to link our land use and transport plans at a high level so that we can deliver more housing, more effectively. Remember that one of the major barriers to the development of housing in Auckland is the availability of transport infrastructure. We’ve got to get better at putting the transport infrastructure in places where it can support housing development. That goes for both greenfields and brownfields. No point spending a gazillion dollars upgrading Lake Road if The Kingdom of Devonport ain’t gonna take no intensification.
Oppportunities would seem to include but are not necessarily limited to:
- Giving more statutory weight to the Auckland Plan, and its strategic land use subsidiaries such as the City Centre Master Plan. It’s simply silly that people even tried to argue that the Auckland Plan should be given little weight when it subsequently came to formulating the details of the Unitary Plan. And it’s concerning that AT thought they could ignore the CCMP.
- Reducing the ability for Central Government to meddle so frequently and extensively in regional transport decisions. In my view, transport policy should be developed slowly, carefully and with clear statutory links/obligations to spatial and land use plans. As the latter are developed at the regional level, perhaps that is also the best place for transport policy decisions?
- Updating the Auckland Plan and the Unitary Plan. To take into account new information, and lessons learnt from the last iteration. For example, the next Unitary Plan might define middle-density housig more carefully, and note that it has existed in Auckland for decades. Similarly, the next version of the CCMP might include some more details on delivery, including a clear statement of respective roles and responsibilities of AC vis-a-vis CCOs like AT and Panuku (NB: We all need to engage in these updates, as per Generation Zero’s workshop). How much leeway do these organisations have? Let’s be specific to make their job easy.
- Re-structuring transport governance to foster accountability and exploit synergies. That may mean, for example, putting responsibility for rail infrastructure with NZTA so as to leverage economies of scale/scope. It might also mean MoT and NZTA not being involved in regional projects that relate to buses, local roads, and walking/cycling altogether.
- More explicit links between capital investment in transport infrastructure and household growth: I think we need to be clearer about prioritising investment in transport infrastructure in those areas that allow a lot of growth. To some degree we do this already, but I suspect the connection could be made clearer. The goal is to foster an understanding that saying no to growth is saying no to investment.
While Auckland has done quite well in recent years it seems silly to sit on our hands with regards to governance models and policy frameworks. Not only do we now know a lot more about the strengths and weaknesses of the current set-up, but so much has also changed: Auckland has a new mayor, the city has grown more than expected, house prices are much higher than expected, and we’ve recently won the America’s Cup. More broadly, the Paris Climate Change Accord has been signed; electric, autonomous, and drone technology is “taking off”; the CRL and New Networks are “in train”; and projects like NW Busway/LRT, electrification to Pukekohe, and even “Regional Rapid Rail” are starting to coalesce. At current trends, we’ll need all these things and possibly more — it’s simply a question of timing. It’s time for us to give our policy frameworks some grunt.
It’s an exciting time for Auckland, and New Zealand more generally. We’re wealthier than we’ve ever been, and we’re growing faster than any time I can remember; there is much to look forward to. The seeds for our next downturn, however, ave already been sown: Wounds from Auckland’s housing affordability crisis will cut deep, leave major social scars, and take time and money to heal. It’s foolish to pretend otherwise. So let’s make housing affordability a point of national pride, not shame. Unless of course you’d rather keep me out of the country ;).