This is a guest post by Francis McRae. It was originally published on his Substack.
The recently announced bipartisan housing enabling bill will free up planning rules to allow three storey development across almost all of the existing residential areas of New Zealand’s five biggest cities.
It has been met with howls of outrage from the well housed residents of the leafy inner suburbs, and has met resistance from a planning profession that has shown little interest in solving the affordability issues the bill is designed to address.
I want to debunk three myths that are being pushed by opponents of the bill:
- That the bill will lead to lower quality of houses and urban design.
- That the bill will disperse growth and consequently increase transport costs and emissions.
- And that the bill will increase the costs of infrastructure provision.
The idea that this bill will inevitably lower the quality of houses is wrong.
Our existing housing stock is of extremely low quality. The key way housing quality is regulated is through the Building Act which this bill does nothing to change. The Building Act now enforces higher quality standards than were in place when most existing houses were built. Improved building standards mean any new home is going to be warmer and drier than the vast majority of existing houses.
The planning rules that the housing bill proscribes also do not create quality dwellings or ensure good urban design. In fact they often do the opposite. Restrictive setbacks and height-to-boundary rules create ugly houses that are pushed to the centre of the site. This limits usable outdoor areas as space is taken up with pointless front yards. It also makes it difficult to achieve the well established urban design principle of houses fronting the street.
Existing restrictions on building such as height controls and density restrictions reduce the amount of floor space per person across the city, and force overcrowding into existing houses. Allowing more construction will mean more space per person overall and less overcrowding.
Greater quantity incentivises greater quality. When there is an overall shortage any shit will sell. The more housing supply there is overall, the more developers are forced to compete on quality. This doesn’t require a naive view of the goodwill of developers. And this isn’t theoretical. We have real examples.
Lower Hutt City recently changed its plans to allow townhouses and low rise apartments across the city with little control on design enforced through planning rules. This has resulted in a building boom of townhouses that have generally been of a decent quality.
Like these in the image below. Snobs will find reason to pick at these but they look good from the street and are warm, dry, and well set out inside.
The housing bill will not disperse growth
Auckland Council’s Unitary Plan was premised on the concept of the “compact city”. The idea was that growth should be concentrated in existing urban areas, especially where accessibility is high and transport costs, in both time and money, are lowest.
In practice the compact city concept in the unitary plan was compromised by political interference from councillors representing the “leafy” inner burbs. As a result, there is little intensification enabled in the inner suburbs where it makes most sense, and a tonne enabled in outer suburbs in West and South Auckland where there was less political resistance. The unitary plan creates a doughnut city more than a compact city. It pushes intensification to outer suburbs, and drives significant growth in greenfield areas all while preserving the inner suburbs in amber. This has shown in Auckland Council’s own data on housing construction, with significantly more growth in outer suburbs and greenfields than the Isthmus or the lower North Shore.
Perversely then, commentators and even some within the planning profession have claimed that the housing bill will disperse growth, and increase transport costs and emissions. This is wrong. In Auckland especially the biggest impact it will have will be on removing restrictions that prevent development in inner areas. Growth will transfer from greenfield sites to the existing city, and from outer suburbs to inner.
An absurd version of the “compact city” has taken hold in an innumerate planning profession based around upzoning a small block around a set of shops or a train station and leaving the majority of the best located land for intensification reserved for single houses. This approach neglects the scale of the problem. Small blocks of upzoning around a set of shops are not
sufficient to enable the necessary growth in housing. So growth gets pushed outwards further from the city centre. The current planning rules are ones which promote dispersed growth.
However, the bill does allow growth right across the city so admittedly some growth will occur in outer areas. But in aggregate growth will be greater in inner suburbs both because that’s where market demand is highest, and because that’s where current planning rules are most restrictive. It’s also not a bad thing if outer suburbs densify somewhat. This means more areas can have access to a wider range of services that a greater population can support, that more people can stay in their neighbourhood as they move through life stages, and it means that infrastructure costs can be spread over a larger number of people.
The housing bill will not increase overall infrastructure costs
There are two key factors that determine demand for and cost of infrastructure. One is the number of people in the city, and the other is the overall extent of the infrastructure network.
Buildings themselves do not drive demand for infrastructure, people do. Two families crammed into one house will place roughly the same demand on infrastructure as two families in two separate dwellings. Population growth is driving the need for new infrastructure, and that demand exists whether people are well housed or not.
Also as the housing bill will redirect growth from greenfields to existing urban areas it will mean a more compact overall infrastructure network, and therefore less spending on infrastructure overall.
There is significant work for the government and councils to do in investing and upgrading the infrastructure needed for our growing population, but this will need to be done regardless of whether sufficient housing is enabled through the bill. The Auckland Council approach of upzoning insufficient little areas around shops and stations and pretending the job is done, may have the appearance of managing pressure on infrastructure, but in reality it leaves both the housing and infrastructure shortages unaddressed.