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.
- The NPS-UD (National Policy Statement on Urban Design 2020). means upzoning for 6+ storeys close to rapid transit and large town centres, and
- The MDRS (Medium Density Residential Standards means allowing for 3-storey medium density (e.g. terraces or walkup apartments) almost everywhere else.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
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.