Yesterday the Government released a discussion document on a “National Policy Statement for Urban Development”. This represents a pretty big shakeup to how our planning system guides urban development and the provision of housing.
A new approach to urban planning designed to allow our cities to make room for growth has today been released by Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford and Environment Minister David Parker.
“Our cities are failing. Restrictive planning is stopping our cities from growing, driving up the price of land and housing, and is one of the big drivers of the housing crisis,” Phil Twyford said.
“We need a new approach to planning that allows our cities to grow up, especially in city centres and around transport connections. We also have to allow cities to expand in a way that protects our special heritage areas, the natural environment and highly productive land.
“When overly restrictive planning creates an artificial scarcity of land, or floor space in the case of density limits, you simply drive up the price of housing and deny people housing options.
Phil Twyford said the proposed National Policy Statement on Urban Development would direct councils – particularly in the six high growth centres of Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown – to free up their planning rules while focusing on high-quality streets, neighbourhoods and communities.
“We know that it is possible to create high and medium density communities with good urban design and open spaces that will reassure the most sceptical NIMBY. We also know that with good planning and transport infrastructure, growth on the fringes of the city can avoid the pitfalls of sprawl.
The ‘case for change’ is pretty strong here. Over a sustained period of time our cities have struggled to build enough houses to meet demand and we’ve struggled to lay out our urban areas in ways that make it easy, safe and attractive to travel around any way other than by car.
National Policy Statements play an important role in our land-use planning system. They are the main way in which central government can influence what’s included in District Plans – like Auckland’s Unitary Plan. Because planning documents like the Unitary Plan determine what can be built where, they have a profound impact on shaping our future towns and cities.
Historically governments have been reluctant to get involved too much in land-use planning, leaving it to local councils. That’s changed quite a lot in recent years under both the previous government and now this government. The previous government developed a “National Policy Statement on Urban Development Capacity”, which focused on ensuring land-use plans provided sufficient capacity for future growth. The new NPS takes this substantially further:
There’s a lot of important detail in the specific wording of the plan that requires more detailed analysis from others, but the most important changes are those proposed within the “Making room for growth in RMA plans” sub-heading above. Some of the most important changes seem to be:
- A much more comprehensive definition of what a ‘quality’ urban environment is, including specific reference to how change over time can be good rather than just being a bad thing. This includes adjustments to how ‘amenity’ is defined that reflects how amenity values can change over time. I think that this is an important change to make as current planning guidance is very much on ‘minimising any harm from change’, which might make sense in a natural environment but is nonsensical in urban areas as change and development is essential in housing our population and enabling economic growth.
- There’s much more specific guidance about how councils need to provide for intensification in District Plans. A few different options are proposed, but the general thrust is to require areas close to good public transport and active transport infrastructure be rezoned for higher density development. This is potentially the most important and substantial change as it provides a key opportunity to do what the Unitary Plan should have done in upzoning more areas that are close to high quality public transport. Here are the options:
- Changes to how off-street parking is regulated, particularly through removing the ability of councils to apply minimum parking requirements. We’ve written a lot over the years about how these are terrible planning rules that undermine housing affordability, subsidise car dependency and make it nearly impossible to design quality urban environments. While the Unitary Plan went a long way towards reducing or removing parking minimums, the remnants of these stupid rules is still creating harm and nearly stopped a really innovative housing development in Grey Lynn from happening. A series of options are proposed, with the most logical one appears to be option 2 – as option 3 largely reflects the current Auckland Unitary Plan (so the policy wouldn’t achieve anything more in Auckland, although obviously still be useful elsewhere) while option 1 would ban parking maximums, which are an important demand manage tool in places like Auckland’s city centre where it’s critical we discourage car trips.
So far so good, and in fact a lot of these changes are pretty exciting and align strongly with what we’ve been pushing for over many years.
Unfortunately, quite a bit of this good work is then undermined by what the discussion document says about greenfield development.
We’ve been critical of Phil Twyford’s approach to greenfield areas for a long time now, highlighting how removing the Rural Urban Boundary in Auckland won’t actually help accelerate housing development, and also highlighting on many occasions the negative effects of sprawl.
Reading between the lines of the text above I get the feeling that the authors struggled to be convinced by the argument, outlining the importance of well integrated and coordinated growth plans and the need to avoid major environmental costs from how we develop – the very reasons why ‘out of sequence’ greenfield growth is a dumb idea. But then with a bit of vague ‘hand waving’ about being responsive to demand and reflecting dynamic and complex systems (without explaining what they mean by any of this) the National Policy Statement essentially says that it’s fine to go and set up sprawly neighbourhoods in the middle of nowhere. It’s a poorly developed and very disappointing policy that contradicts so much of what the government is trying to achieve, especially in relation to transport.
One possible saviour is that the criteria for approving an ‘out of sequence’ development are likely to be nearly impossible to meet, especially in terms of providing these areas with good transport choice and requiring that developers cover the full infrastructure costs of their developments, including wider costs on trunk transport and water infrastructure.
Despite this poorly developed policy about greenfield areas, the rest of the National Policy Statement generally seems really good and has the potential in Auckland to really set the scene for how we can build off the Unitary Plan and further improve our land-use plans to help fix our chronic housing and transport problems.