Last week, the Coalition for More Homes sent a letter that we really shouldn’t have had to write. But first, some backstory and some acronyms.

Auckland Council is required to implement Government planning reforms called the NPS-UD and MDRS.

Really, these reforms should have been called the AMOTAOHACCATST: a massive opportunity to address our housing and climate crises at the same time.

Now, we knew early on that Auckland Council didn’t see things the same way as us. For one thing, “walkable catchments” around rapid transit were kept as small as possible, 800 metres, with the same distances used whether the station was in Drury or Newmarket.  For another, it looks like there’s no plus in the “6+ storeys”, just 6 storeys, whether you’re in Drury or Newmarket.

And then Council’s planning team used up huge amounts of resource working out how many Special Character Areas they could keep unchanged (gaming the system when required). It looks like too much time was spent there, to the detriment of a well-coordinated response elsewhere – although we’ll know for sure on 20th August when Council lodges their main response to the planning reforms.

We now know that we have an entirely new battle to fight: Council wants to “delay the implementation of the [NPS-UD and MDRS] in the Auckland Light Rail Corridor”, everywhere except in the city centre. This one flew under the radar, and almost no one noticed it; cynics might suggest that was the plan all along.

The area affected by this delay is huge: 37 square kilometres by our estimate (comprising 26 sq km in the isthmus excluding the city centre, and 11sq km in Mangere). That’s at least double the size of all Special Character Areas put together. Moreover, the isthmus section is very well-connected by transport and well-served by amenities – a high-demand area for housing, and thus a vital area for intensification. There’s a lot at stake.

As our letter says:

“This last-minute call to hit pause on 37 sq km in the most connected part of our city seriously undermines the intent of the planning reforms. It risks prolonging our housing crisis and worsening our climate crisis, and is a huge shift from Council’s earlier position as communicated to the public.

[Auckland Council] framed the decision to delay on the grounds that “more intensive development in the Auckland Light Rail Corridor is anticipated” – relying on a transport project which is unfunded, uncertain and which cannot access a streamlined hearings process for enabling housing more quickly.

In effect, this resolution reinforces the status quo, forcing housing out to greenfields areas like Drury and Whenuapai, and scattering it across the city in places that will never be as well connected as Kingsland or Onehunga are today.

Auckland Council should be leaping at the opportunity to allow more housing in a central area that’s already highly accessible and highly desirable – bringing us closer to a quality compact city that can equitably slash its greenhouse gas emissions, and where people can afford secure housing”.

To be clear, the Council does not intend to upzone anywhere in this corridor, except the city centre. The corridor includes or affects five train stations: Karanga a Hape, Maungawhau, Grafton, Kingsland and Morningside. It also includes the entire southern fringe of the city centre, and seven town centres from St Lukes to Mangere, and a large number of local centres.

The corridor covers all of Dominion Rd and Sandringham Rd – some of Auckland’s best frequent transit routes, which already have bus lanes – and quite a wide area around them. Light rail will only run down one of these two streets, but they’re both being held up, along with all the other areas that make obvious sense for intensification… on account of a possible future project. Council is saying this possible project takes priority over the City Rail Link, the Auckland Plan 2050 and all the other plans and aspirations which make this corridor a logical place to upzone.

Our letter to Council talked about ’10 vital reasons to enable housing now in the proposed [Auckland Light Rail] corridor’. Those reasons are:

  1. This is a massive opportunity. The potential ALR corridor covers 26 sq km through the heart of the isthmus, encompassing the southern fringe of the city centre, five train stations including Karanga a Hape and Maungawhau, seven town centres and many local centres. [Plus another 11 sq km in Māngere]. While Special Character Areas have seen much public debate, the ALR corridor is more than twice as large.
  2. This is prime space for housing. The size of the corridor underscores how vital this area is for central, well-planned intensification, with already excellent local and citywide access via many transport modes to services and destinations.
  3. We can plan now with confidence. Implementing the NPS-UD and MDRS across this area gives the appropriate planning weight to an as yet uncertain and unfunded potential future transport project, i.e. very little weight.
  4. New housing can get under way in 2023, not in 2028. The Intensification Planning Instrument process will enable intensification at least 5 years sooner than waiting for the ALR route to be (potentially) confirmed.
  5. It’s fiscally prudent and the only option for the climate. Enabling intensification along this corridor will lead to greater uptake of public and active transport, lowering transport emissions and putting the brakes on sprawl into greenfields. Together, this will mean lower transport costs for Aucklanders and lower infrastructure costs for Council.
  6. It’s consistent with Council’s duty to consult on major matters. Resolution PLA/2022/86 is a major departure from policy direction set by the NPS-UD and MDRS, and the public and mana whenua were not given an opportunity to comment on the corridor during public consultation over April-May 2022.
  7. It’s consistent with Council’s duty to carry out its affairs openly and transparently. Only three bullet points were provided to the public as a rationale for the 30 June resolution, offering very limited evidence for the thinking behind Planning Committee’s decision.
  8. It’s consistent with Council’s own arguments made against the 2021 housing bill, specifically the concern that the “MDRS will encourage a dispersed growth pattern in locations that are currently not well-served by public transport, and in some cases, will never be”.
  9. It’s consistent with Council’s key plans and strategies, from the Regional Land Transport Plan to the Auckland Plan 2050 to Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri: Auckland’s Climate Plan, all of which identify this corridor as a key growth area and direct you towards a more compact, sustainable and equitable city that is able to weather the coming decades.
  10. It’s legally and ethically the right thing to do and removes a huge reputational risk for Council.

The Council has probably paid for the best legal and planning advice money can buy. They must have found someone who said ‘you can ignore the planning reforms in the corridor’ (although we and others will challenge that in the hearing). But that doesn’t mean they should do it.

What does the ‘delay’ mean in practise? Auckland Council staff breezed over this in the last Planning Committee meeting: they said it would just be a delay of 12-18 months to get things started, until the route and station locations are confirmed. No doubt that will be their response to our letter as well.

But this really distorts the picture. Everything has been set up to give a considered, streamlined approach for considering the NPS-UD and MDRS reforms across Auckland, starting 20th August. The Government put new rules in place to expedite the process, and it’s expected to take a year to complete – that is, by late 2023, all the reforms will be in effect (and in fact, the MDRS are intended to come into effect immediately on 20th August this year).

Light rail is in a totally different position. The Government has a preferred ‘tunnelled’ option for the City to Airport project, and it’s a bit beyond being just an ‘idea on the page’ – but it still has 3-4 years of consenting and design to go. This preferred option leaves much to be desired, in Greater Auckland’s view: for the same amount of money, Auckland could build two surface-level lines running from the City to Airport as well as from the City to Westgate.

At $15 billion, it’s the most expensive transport project ever contemplated in New Zealand (actually, maybe about equal with what a road-based Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing would cost), and at least double the cost of the City Rail Link. It’s also not currently funded, and in Greater Auckland’s view at least, is not the best way to invest $15 billion in our transit network.

Two of the many cities which have invested in surface light rail. Green tracks in Barcelona, Spain (left) and Grenoble, France (right)

If the current tunnelled option remains the ‘preferred’ one, will the route and stations be known in 12-18 months time? Probably, but there’s a lot happening in that timeframe: a Council election, and a Government election too – with any change of Government likely to mean big changes for the project, or an outright cancellation.

And even if none of those things happen, in 12-18 months time, the project will still be less than halfway through its design period, and it won’t yet be funded. This means it still won’t count for NPS-UD purposes, as proposed transit projects need to have some funding certainty (i.e. funding is allowed for in the next 10 years).

In our view, the light rail project wouldn’t really be ready to lodge a plan change for NPS-UD purposes for 3-4 years, once design work has been completed and only if funding has been confirmed. Any number of things could derail the project during that time. Even if all goes well, the plan change itself would take at least 2 more years to become operative under a standard (not streamlined) planning process. So we’d be talking late 2028 at earliest – a delay of at least 5 years.

It seems to us that the Planning Committee, which consists of all councillors plus two representatives from the Independent Māori Statutory Board, has been led astray by Council staff. We honestly don’t think they realised the gravity of this situation. They spent all their time discussing special character, and no one pointed out to them how crucial the area within the light rail corridor is for Auckland’s development.

At its meeting this Thursday 4 August, Planning Committee has one more chance to get it right, and say they didn’t understand the full context of the decision they made back in June. We really hope they do. But we’re skeptical that a change will come now, and we are ready to advocate in the hearings process instead.

See our full letter here.

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  1. Unfortunately I think this piece has missed what is almost certainly the reason for deferring upzoning in this corridor – value capture.

    We don’t yet have adequate value capture mechanisms for transit oriented development, meaning that landowners can see a huge increase in value from transport projects like Auckland Light Rail, without needing to contribute what might be considered a “fair share” towards the creation of those projects.

    Exclusion of the light rail corridor under NPS-UD is almost certainly something put in place until the value capture mechanism is active.
    It would be prudent and transparent for the Planning Committee to declare this, however.

      1. The easiest way to implement value capture would be switching rates to land value only.
        But I agree with Matt the government is not at all close to landing on any value capture mechanism.

  2. The cynic in me thinks there are two forces at play here.
    1. Councillors and officers have made it clear they think the existing UP is perfect and didn’t need to change -which is rubbish – and are using this as a delaying tactic to avoid doing the work in the hope they won’t need to in the future.
    2. Trying to help light rail so they can count all of the housing uplift that comes as a result of this legalisation in their business case/justification.
    We can see both of these play out in the decision not to upzone the areas around existing train stations like Kingsland and in city fringe locations.

    It also really annoys me how much time they spent on special character and not on planning to make suburbs liveable, especially in areas surrounding suburban rapid transit stations which will allow more housing but not businesses to support residents

  3. To me the whole Light Rail Project has been pushed in to the too hard basket. This is evidenced, among other things, by the (IMO) the crazy idea to underground the system at enormous cost for questionable gain.
    If a meaningful start isn’t made soon on even part of the Light Rail it will be yet another stick the opposition could used to beat the Government with.
    It certainly can be agreed that we need to have done a lot more to release the congestion problems of Auckland by now and it can be easily argued that the Light Rail will be a major step in achieving that.
    While the route from the Airport and Mangere to Onehunga is self evident, with some minor exceptions in the Airport precinct, I would suggest that there is a strong argument for the present Onehunga branch line being converted to Light Rail and adding an initial terminal at Ellerslie with provision to extend across to Panmure and even building a circuit through to Hawick, Botany and back to the Airport via Manukau Town Centre.
    A service that connected with the Southern Line at Ellerslie and serviced Mangere, including the Mangere Town Centre, and the Airport precinct would serve two purposes, one getting the Light Rail system started and two demonstrating the benefits of adding Light Rail to our Public Transport mix.
    This would also allow for the connection to the Auckland CBD to be carefully designed and also built in useful sections and leaving the most difficult section for later, not to keep pushing in off but more to allow for extended consultation to ensure that with that section we get the best results.
    Such a (some would suggest backwards approach) would also allow for adding extra cross town and out west lines to be added.

      1. That’s not a bad plan. Most buses from pakuranga/botany go through panmure to Ellerslie so it’s the normal route. City bound people can transfer at panmure or ellerslie. Cross towns can stay on the light rail to onehunga or mangere.

        1. I mentioned it previously, but apparently there are constraint issues at Ellerslie station for the busway ?

          But I guess if we can drop 15bn on LRT we can buy a solution to that one. Incidentally, the LRT should also have a line from the NW busway to Onehunga, via SH20, perhaps that being the line that goes through to Ellerslie. Others have proposed that previously (albeit stopping at Penrose, I think).

  4. Light Rail. The current government doesn’t want to do it but they can’t say that. The next government doesn’t want to do it but they prefer not to say that until after the next election.
    Preventing intensification in the one part of New Zealand that really should get it. Now that is just too effing funny for words. Surely most of you are as amused as I am? I suggest we call it the Charybdis zone in honour of the planning committee chair.

    1. Agreed. It makes zero sense to me that the one place in the entire country which most needs intensification, does not get it. Auckland Council may disagree about the exact extent of intensification – but it should be clearly noted as an intensification zone. So, putting the entire process on hold seems perverse. As is Miffy, I am amused. Also bemused.

    2. Using a potential LR line as a means / excuse to lower zoning relative to places that are not going to get it is quite something.

  5. Just more reason for trying to get a progressive such as Efeso Collins into a position of potentially more citywide influence. I have heard that primary schools are now big on waste management, and also good with walking “buses”, cycling “buses”, the stuff we might have grown up doing solo ish. So once again the buck is being passed to the next generation. Surely we, the children of boomers demographically, can put our hands up, and say we will not fail our children. Our parents had to work for us, we need to reverse climate change for our kids. Why can light rail not be linked to the Mt Eden Station going South. Why are interchanges not acceptable. The Panmure Puhinui and Otahuhu stations are clearly future proof, and should simply be exchange stations to switch to above ground light rail. It would surely be less costly, there is plenty of international precendent. Why when the City Rail Link will move people so much faster, would you double over it with light rail? It is pure kicking the can down the road, the roads that were built replacing light rail in the 1950s. Seven decades later the Auckland Council is dominated by the change resistant. Meanwhile 16 year olds are being denied a vote. Democracy is a notion that need to evolve, and the powers and instutions that govern this great city, must respect Climate Science, and the urgency with which we must take action. Light Rail needs to be stamped for approval, as does lowrise / midrise construction. The Climate demands it; and if I can’t forgive my innocent parents for not doing something about this, how on mother earth will our kids ever forgive us?

    1. If light rail does go ahead surely the first section will be Kingsland to Mt Roskill. We’re building the CRL as we speak, there isn’t going to be another tunnel built under the CBD for at least another 30 years.

      1. Perhaps they should do a cheap and easy surface line down Queen Street then. Instead of waiting 30 years for a tunnel that isn’t going to happen.

  6. There is still strong opposition to apartments in NZ. Those people remind us about the old English apartments and the associated problems. They still won’t accept apartments more than 2 stories high.
    But modern apartments are much more liveable with many benefits.
    Times are changing and many Aucklanders have made the move.

    1. Well the market disagrees with this assertion, or rather suggests there are more than enough people happy to live in apartments, but that there’s also a very pushy, usually older, richer, whiter group who don’t want people to even be allowed to have the option.

      So how about each to their own? The already well housed should not be able to restrict housing supply for others based on these prejudices, imported from England, as you suggest, or wherever.

      Don’t like ‘em? Don’t live in one!

  7. I cannot agree that the pause along the light rail corridor is some dreadful ruse to frustate and evade the intentions of the NPS-UD & MSUD rules. Until the exact route and in particular station locations are confirmed nobody knows where to draw the lines for the affected walk-up catchments. So the pause is not forever – only a matter of months or maybe a year until we know exactly where the new stations are to be built.

    1. Given that the entire Isthmus already has frequent bus routes on every avenue, more than able to support higher densities, certainly for the years until LR is delivered (if it is), this is irrelevant. Upzone every frequent route.

      Tomorrow’s urban form is decided today. Investment takes years, and whatever is built lasts decades, it is now a climate crime to delay further necessary available density one more minute. Delay is indistiguishable from denial both for climate and housing supply.

      After Council’s badfaith legal position on climate action, following up with this cunning take to further delay the desperately needed urban form shift is equally indistinguishable from denial.

        1. Mt Eden Rd, Dominion Rd, Sandringham Rd, Manukau Rd, New North Rd, Gt North Rd, Remuera Rd, Gt South Rd, all have frequent services. Sure they all could do with more priority, but right now frequent services exist on every single one of these.

          Of course these routes could all also benefit from additional systems, not to mention cross-towns, but the absence of these at this stage is no reasonable barrier to up zoning. In fact, up zoning and subsequent development then helps builds the case for better transit systems.

        2. And of the frequent routes along these inner isthmus ‘spines’ Sandringham and Dominion have some of the best bus lanes (author points this out). Unlike the patchy-ness of bus lanes on Mt Eden or the lack of any on New North.

          The market boom has stagnated anyways, so up-zoning isn’t going to see change on the ground for at least a few years. Walkable catchments to bus stops is good.
          IF light rail goes ahead, there’s more push for safe cycling/scooter lanes to allow that walkable catchment to increase even more to get people to LR stations (if / where-ever they get built).

    2. It is not even about this light rail.

      There is one small patch of Auckland where public transport actually works and where we can relatively easily improve it further — the old tramway era suburbs.

      It should be easy in this entire area to build terraced houses and apartments. Also allow mixed use in the entire area.

    3. This misses the point. Much of the light rail corridor should be upzoned for other reasons, not because of how close to light rail it is. Not upzoning around an existing rail station because light rail might happen is a scam.

    4. The walkable catchments aren’t relevant to the medium density residential standards. The only reason to not implement them is to prevent housing being built.

  8. The economics literature shows that innovation and new infrastructure almost invariably follow demand. So more houses on the Auckland isthmus will result in better infrastructure. It will be relatively easy to run light rail down streets that used to carry trams, and demand and public opinion will support light rail when population densities are high. So waiting to work out routes for light rail before up zoning is the wrong move.

      1. Building lots more houses with no carparking will increase demand for public transport. With more locals some businesses will see less need for carparking.

        1. Only for people travelling adjacent to a regular bus route or train line. Businesses with no parking are less visited.

        2. “Businesses with no parking are less visited.”

          A massive over-simplification showing an old-style understanding. I woonder how businesses in city centres and town centes with no parking all across the world work then?

          Oh, right. They work because lots of people live around them (intensification) and because people can get there in other ways (walk, cycle, scoooter, use the bus, tram…)

          Only some things like hardware stores really *need* (some) car parking. Everything else works fine if we actually take both steps – reduce car access *and* increase other modes and residential numbers.

        3. Depends on where you are in Auckland. Did anyone ever do a mode share survey at a local shopping strip which is not on Karangahape Road?

          I have made the same anecdotal observation on playgrounds. A playground without parking next to it is almost always empty. This is the case despite children not having driver licenses.

          But: in the old tramway era suburbs most shops sit adjacent to regular bus routes. This is probably due to the thing from which the tramway era suburbs derive their moniker.

    1. Yimby that demand has to be able to materialise, currently desirable and viable densities are illegal, so it can’t occur. That’s what these planning changes are designed to fix.

      1. Yes, I was arguing for higher density zoning so that there would be more houses. Better public transport would then follow.

    2. “It will be relatively easy to run light rail down streets that used to carry trams”

      Not when you put the highway engineers from WK in charge of building it. They come up with mega billion dollar light rail tunnels so they don’t have any traffic ‘disruption’.

  9. Can’t help but feel that 3 year election cycles,make any long term change ,if not vitually impossible, very difficult to implement. Modern thinking on electioneering is to “present a small target”,I.e,don’t promise anything,look at the aspirations of th3 current mayoral crop. Then 1st year,lay out a plan,then start thinking about how to get re-elected,meanwhile long term project gets bogged down by bureaucracies who just wait out the election cycle ,hoping a change of personnel will make it all go away.
    Any progressive councillor/politician gets their life force sucked out of them,in these short election cycles,and their sole purpose for being is to get re-elected,rather than implementing progressive change on the city .The bureaucrats know this,and are very happy to play this game. Used to be an elected official wanted to be associated with big legacy projects,nowadays they seem to be happy enough,to be associated with a playground refurbishment.

    1. I did some work in Hannover in Germany for a while – they elect a mayor for 8 years!
      Across Germany it varies between 5 and 9 years. The mayor’s office is therefore given time to make things happen, and they are then judged on that. Becomes super important to vote for the right mayor!

  10. Not sure I fully understand.

    From a project management point-of-view, doesn’t it make sense to hold off on high density housing for a bit while LR plannings is advanced?

    My thinking:

    a) We are planning to rip up streets and services for a few years building a light rail system. Even tunnelled, if the CRL is anything to go by, every station and TBM entrance/exit is a huge bit of construction, like $15 billion dollars worth.

    b) If you give the go ahead to start construction of medium to high density housing in the same area, you potentially face a situation in say 2028, when a brand new block of apartments has to be disrupted or knocked down as it happens to have been built on a street corner that becomes a LR station.

    Would make more sense to me, to give the go ahead to go seriously high residential/commercial buildings once route and station locations are settled, so that space above the stations can be sold at a premium.

    I know the issue is timing, with housing needed now and the LR system planned for sometime in the distant future, but what says to me is that LR planning should be accelerated to the maximum so instead of being happy for years of planning, we should be time boxing the process so that stations and route is quickly fixed so we can unlock housing to go ahead.

    1. In addition to the timing issue that you’ve pointed out, these are big issues:
      – 37 sq km!
      – the quality of the advice from the planning team in general. I suspect a major review is required.
      – the quality of the ALR process… a core requirement should have been for sufficient information about route to be available by now for intensification to be able to proceed.

  11. Good planning would upzone the whole area with regulations that are complementary with greater intensification in certain parts at a later date, if that becomes appropriate.

    For example, they could suggest that the whole area gets regulations that allow for the site by site development of the four storey perimeter block housing form, and six storeys where appropriate. This would retain the back yards as gardens – whether kept apart or combined into parks at some stage. Importantly, this would allow the number of storeys to be increased whenever that is appropriate without any of the development over the next few years being wasted or inappropriate.

    Perhaps they think implementing MDRS regulations (3 storey 3 dwelling per site) in the area is going to create problems for the urban form in future when higher intensity is anticipated. If so, what does this mean for the rest of the city where they are only implementing MDRS? I suspect it means they are consciously committing those areas to have poor urban form, in which each site has townhouses and driveways slathered over each site, instead of thinking through how to achieve perimeter block housing development, which is complementary to a pleasing, higher density form in future, with fewer vehicle crossings and more green space.

  12. Why do you say ‘it flew under the radar’?
    The consultation version of the planning maps, and accompanying information, noted the light rail corridor exclusion, did they not?

    1. Further, it’s simply a delay. The balance of other rezoning that occurs still constitutes a huge amount of land upzoned for more density, much much more than will be needed in the next year or so while the light rail stuff gets sorted out.

  13. This is utterly cooked. If we’re not upzoning the light rail corridor for more housing, why are we dropping 15 BILLION providing transport for homes that aren’t going to be there?!?! Spend that money where homes ARE being built but we’re being fobbed off with dumb bus stops with no seats.

  14. I have a copy of a report, recommending 4 routes to be tram or light rail the old routes 7 to 10, Sandringham Road 7 to Onehunga 10. Dominion Road route 8 as early as 2019

  15. Yeah, this has been known since the initial consultation. I included in my feedback strong opposition to the approach. I was disappointed to see that of all the Councillors, only Richard Hills did not endorse this approach.

    I am similarly concerned that the Pakuranga, Edgewater, Burswood and Botany bus stations were not considered to be “planned rapid transit stations” either – even though there is funding and a general understanding of where these stations will be. That example illustrates that Council will not be in any rush to upzone around future light rail stations until they are pretty much being constructed, or later.

  16. The light rail project is a total disaster. All wheels has fallen. There is no point to push it.

    Instead they should start focusing the westgate, as well as thinking about heavy rail such as avondale to mount roskill to onehunga.

    The heavy rail at least can enable the mount roskill redevelopment.

    Let the domination road take the statue of quo, gave them a few high quality bike lane and thats is it.

  17. So why can’t I do a small extension on the back of my property using the benefits of MDRS like everyone else in Auckland just because my ‘side street’ is close to one of the potential main roads (but >1KM away from the main roads) ???? It’s not like the train stations will pop up in the middle of any side streets. For the main roads e.g. Sandringham/Dominion/Mt Eden Rd, I get it but why stop minor extensions on existing properties. Specifically anyone who wishes to extend their properties to utilise the benefits of 50% coverage under MDRS cannot do it until when (long pause as no definitive timelines!!!)… There is no logic on this and can any town planners help when this madness will cease? This isn’t how first world countries operate…

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