The new Government has made some giant leaps forward in transport policy since they were elected last year, most notably through the 2018 Government Policy Statement and the progress that’s now being made on light-rail. A lot of their housing plans are also excellent, with major developments planned in areas close to light-rail lines, like Unitec and Mangere.
However, there’s one area the government seems to be going in a really weird and pointless direction, and that is their outdated obsession with getting rid of Auckland’s Rural Urban Boundary. We’ve talked about this before, noting the high likelihood of this policy completely backfiring:
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.
The latest development in this space seems to be something the government is calling the “Urban Growth Agenda” (which does sound a bit sinister). There’s a cabinet paper laying out the details, which is jointly signed by Phil Twyford and David Parker in their roles as Housing and Environment ministers.
Most of the cabinet paper is the usual bureaucratic talk about “pillars” and “approaches” and so forth, with work being focused in five main areas:
Much of the detail makes sense, especially around shifting to a more ‘user pays’ approach to infrastructure provision and revealing the true costs of growth. But there are some really weird little nuggets in there which make me wonder whether the people drafting up the paper (and ultimately the Ministers putting their name against it) really have completely forgotten about the Unitary Plan. This is a classic example:
Maybe they missed the memo where the Unitary Plan opened up 15,000 hectares of land for greenfield development, more than 30 years’ worth?
This translates into vast swathes of land on Auckland’s urban edge that have been earmarked for future urbanisation. Like all the yellow around Dairy Flat and Silverdale.
It seems highly bizarre, just after the Unitary Plan has provided 30 years worth of greenfield land, to keep on having the argument over whether it needs to provide even more.
How much demand there is for greenfield land is further in question from the results so far of the Unitary Plan where most of the consents being issued are for developments in the existing urban area.
Further, some of the impacts of urban sprawl that would happen if the Rural Urban Boundary was removed are becoming clearer all the time. For example on food prices:
A report just released at Parliament this evening said letting market gardens around Pukekohe disappear under houses could push up the price of some fruit and vegetables by up to 58 percent, reduce jobs in the area and destroy a distinctive multicultural community…
…It said that the 4,359 hectares around Pukekohe contained some of New Zealand’s most fertile and productive soils, with a largely frost-free climate and close to transport lines and the population of Auckland. It is also the home of a flourishing population of Indian, Chinese and other ethnicity market gardeners.
The area accounts for 3.8 percent of New Zealand’s land under fruit and vegetable production but 26 percent of the country’s value of production of vegetables.
For a government that is otherwise doing great things when it comes to transport and housing, their obsession with wanting to sprawl beyond the huge areas identified in the Unitary Plan and despite the huge and obvious costs, is extremely strange.