The new Minister of Transport, Housing and Urban Development – Phil Twyford – has certainly hit the ground running across his portfolios. But in one area it seems as though he’s either poorly informed or is potentially embarking on a pretty dumb and unnecessary path. This is his push to remove Auckland’s rural urban boundary.
The NZ Herald picked up the story on Saturday following his interview on The Nation:
New Housing Minister Phil Twyford wants to scrap Auckland’s regulated urban boundary to let the city spread.
He told Lisa Owen on TV3’s The Nation today that solving Auckland’s housing crisis will require “fixing” both the system of financing new infrastructure and the rural/urban boundary fixed in the current Auckland Plan.
“Given the shortfall of housing in Auckland and the population and growth projections, this city is going to have to go up and out,” he said.
“We want to build most of the development we can in the city around the transport network. We want to do density well and build great urban communities for people to live, work and play, so as far as I’m concerned it’s got to be up and out.
“On the question of the Metropolitan Urban Limit, we are going to build affordable houses, we are going to tax speculators, we are going to do all those things.
Looking at the interview transcript itself provides a bit more detail:
So, when you talked about – when we started this conversation – building in new areas, are you talking about outside the Metropolitan Urban Limit?
My view is that, given the shortfall of housing in Auckland and the population growth projections, this city is going to have to grow up and out. So I said the other day I was very interested in work that had been done by Infrastructure New Zealand on a large new development in the south of Auckland there, Pukekohe. But there are massive opportunities for us–
So, are you going to ditch it, the Metropolitan Urban Limit? We’re going to spread out in Auckland, absolutely.
Let me just finish what I was saying, Lisa. So we want to build most of the development we can in the city, around the transport network. We want to do density well and build great urban communities for people to live, work and play. As far as I’m concerned, it’s got to be up and out. On the question of the Metropolitan Urban Limit, we’re going to build affordable houses. We’re going to tax speculators. We’re going to do all of those things, right? But if we want a lasting solution to this problem, we have to make reforms that will allow the market to deliver better outcomes on its own, and the two really big things that we have to fix there are the broken system for financing infrastructure that stops the city from growing, and the highly restrictive planning rules like the urban growth boundary. But you can’t get rid of the urban growth boundary without fixing the infrastructure financing issue. So this is going to be a major priority.
There’s a lot of different terminology being thrown around here and distinguishing between them is pretty crucial here. A quick reminder:
- Urban Growth Boundary – this is a general phrase that is mainly used in America to describe some sort of regulation that either prevents or regulates where urban areas can expand outwards
- Metropolitan Urban Limit (MUL) – this is the boundary the old Auckland Regional Council enforced to constrain sprawl. It was in most places hard up against the existing edge of the urban area and was expanded piece by piece through fairly tortuous processes. The MUL no longer exists, because in the Unitary Plan it was replaced with the…
- Rural Urban Boundary (RUB) – this is an entirely different concept to the MUL and is included in the Unitary Plan as the outside edge of the areas where urbanisation is expected to occur over the next 30 years. A good diagram of the RUB is included in the Auckland Plan:
Looking at the Unitary Plan maps, the RUB is the black dashed line sitting outside all the Future Urban Zone. Essentially it distinguishes between the areas likely to change from rural to urban over the next 30 years and the areas likely to remain rural over the next 30 years.
Reading through the Auckland Plan and the Unitary Plan, it seems like this approach was taken for a number of reasons:
- To provide certainty about what rural areas would stay rural over time
- To provide infrastructure providers with some certainty around where growth would be focused, so they could develop plans for where new roads, railways lines and pipes should go
- To focus urban growth in areas with fewer environmental impacts
Importantly, there is a lot of land that has not yet been developed that sits inside the RUB – generally in the areas shaded yellow in the Unitary Plan maps (the Future Urban Zone). This is highlighted in the Future Urban Land Supply Strategy – which details how the timing of developing this “yellow land” will be integrated with the provision of infrastructure. $20 billion of infrastructure.
So just to summarise, there is capacity for around 137,000 dwellings in “outwards urban growth” in these future urban zoned areas – which are all still inside the Rural Urban Boundary. At the desired split of around two-thirds of growth occurring in existing areas and one-third through expansion, this is more than enough capacity for 30 years of growth. If nothing else, removing the RUB seems entirely unnecessary given how much development capacity there is within it.
Furthermore, in the Unitary Plan it is possible for the RUB to be changed (i.e. expanded) through a private plan change process. This means that if a good argument can be mounted to – for example – fill in the gap between Whenuapai and Kumeu to make the most of infrastructure investment, this could be possible. This is the “soft RUB” argument that was a core part of the Unitary Plan hearings process.
So what are the implications of “getting rid of the RUB”? Answering that question requires us to go back to the key reasons for putting the RUB in place – certainty about which areas will stay rural (which is important for Auckland’s rural economy), certainty for infrastructure providers and investors and avoiding urban development in the most sensitive environmental areas. Therefore you’d probably see the following impacts from getting rid of the RUB:
- Greater uncertainty for rural areas. With all rural areas theoretically having the possibility of becoming urban in the future you’d be likely to see less investment into the rural sector (why invest in new processing plants when you might sell up to urbanise in the future?) Furthermore with no way of encouraging urban development to “clump together” you’d be likely to see many small and disconnected urban areas across rural Auckland. These would be extremely difficult to become anything other than extremely car dependent settlements.
- Slower infrastructure investment. With urban development theoretically possible anywhere, it will become impossible for NZTA, Auckland Transport, Watercare and other infrastructure providers to plan for where they need to expand their networks. As large “trunk” infrastructure can take many years to plan, design and then build, this uncertainty raises huge risks of misalignment between where the growth happens and where the infrastructure gets built. Given we don’t have billions of dollars to waste on infrastructure that’s built in the wrong location, the most likely result will be a slowing down on investment – which ultimately will probably lead to less greenfield development (not necessarily a bad thing, but hardly what Twyford is trying to achieve).
- Further environmental degradation. While Twyford has been at pains to emphasise urban development will be kept away from environmentally sensitive areas, at the end of the day highly dispersed sprawl is terrible for the environment. As I discussed earlier, without a RUB that encourages the “clumping together” of urban areas, it’s highly likely we will see little bits of urban development spread across vast rural areas. These will be very car dependent. Just take a look at the edge of Houston to see how it looks:
I’ve noticed that many of those who advocated against the MUL in the past don’t seem to have understood the key differences between what that was and the new RUB. I wonder if Twyford has fallen into this trap too, so it makes me wonder whether this is a policy designed to fix a pre Unitary Plan problem where the urban growth limits truly did prevent pretty much any outwards expansion of Auckland. However, the Rural Urban Boundary actually now does a very different job. It’s much more about providing certainty than about actually restricting growth. Undermining this certainty, through getting rid of the RUB, is actually likely to slow growth down and make it much more expensive.
That makes it a pretty dumb idea.