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Failure to plan for the future has left Auckland a rambling mess of expanding suburbs with a higgledy-piggledy transport system. Visitors to our biggest city are dumbfounded that there is no clear line from the airport through the isthmus to the CBD and waterfront – ©123RF.com

Why our spatial planning needs government intervention – By Phil Twyford

Some people may have been taken aback when I said recently that our cities are failing. But it wasn’t meant to offend local councillors or council staff who work hard to look after their ratepayers and their local environment, or the builders and construction companies that build and develop our infrastructure and housing.

Rather, it was a comment on the way – for some decades now – local and central governments have failed to look to the future, beyond the electoral cycle, and plan our cities for growth.

Overly restrictive planning is creating an artificial scarcity of land and is stopping our cities from growing up and out. This is driving up the price of land and housing. In fact, it is one of the big drivers of the housing crisis. It also contributes to a range of other problems, including low productivity in our cities, congestion, and poor environmental and social outcomes.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Auckland. Failure to plan for the future has left Auckland a rambling mess of expanding suburbs with a higgledy-piggledy transport system. Visitors to our biggest city are dumbfounded that there is no clear line from the airport through the isthmus to the CBD and waterfront. At the other end of the spectrum is Wellington which decades ago was coherently designed around rail lines, but now needs to be able to grow.

Freeing up the rules

We desperately need a new approach to planning that allows our cities to grow up, especially in city centres and around transport connections. That’s why in August we released the proposed National Policy Statement (NPS) on Urban Development.

These proposed new legal requirements sit alongside a proposed NPS on Highly Productive Land that aims to allow our cities to expand in a way that protects our special heritage areas and the natural environment.

The NPS 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. And we also know that with good planning and transport infrastructure, growth on the fringes of the city can avoid the pitfalls of sprawl.

Our government wants councils to take a long-term strategic approach to the growth of their cities. This means joining up transport, housing and infrastructure in a 30-year spatial plan that involves mana whenua, the wider community and the private sector in a much more hands-on approach to planning.

A collaborative exercise

Spatial planning is a collaborative exercise to produce an evidence-based, long-term, future-focused growth strategy for an area. We want our urban centres to be designed and structured in a way that is better for the environment, and that supports the next generation of low-emission transport options. We also want our centres to be focused on people, with access to jobs, services such as education and health, and other amenities that are essential for the wellbeing of our communities.

Investment in rapid transit and public transport, with planning rules that encourage denser development around transit corridors, can encourage far more efficient and desirable communities to live in. In contrast, much of our recent urban growth has been characterised by ad-hoc and uncoordinated decisions around housing developments, which may solve a short-term problem, but provide little benefit to our communities long term.

Our government is already taking this approach and is working on spatial plans with councils in the Waikato, Tauranga and Queenstown. In the Waikato, we are working with local authorities and iwi on the Hamilton–Auckland Corridor. This work aims to unlock the significant growth potential in southern Auckland and the Hamilton-Waikato metro areas, underpinned by new rapid and commuter rail connections that will direct future housing and employment growth in the Waikato.

Government officials are also already working on spatial plans with the Queenstown Lakes District Council and the Tauranga City Council – two areas where infrastructure has failed to keep up with high population growth.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Development is now analysing 242 submissions on the proposed NPS on Urban Development. And it seems many in the residential construction and transport sectors and the wider community agree there is a need for better planning because the majority of the submissions were supportive. Officials will make their recommendations to ministers in February.

New regulations and legislation

Our government is playing a more critical role in urban development than has been taken for decades. We recognise the need to create an environment that supports growth. For this reason, we are also working to improve the housing and urban system, to enable government and the market to build more affordable homes and thriving communities.

In October, the new urban development authority Kainga Ora – Homes and Communities opened its doors. It is now responsible for leading urban development projects, both large and small, and managing public housing. A second tranche of legislation to enable its powers to fast-track large-scale urban development projects will be introduced to Parliament shortly.

A bugbear of many builders and developers – and a handbrake on new housing developments – is the Resource Management Act. Our government is also undertaking a comprehensive overhaul of the act to reduce its complexity and costs.

Improving our urban planning and development planning processes has been talked about for decades. However, our collective inaction means we are now well behind the rest of the world. Our challenge is to work together to catch up, and to establish our own spatial planning practices that work for all New Zealand.

Phil Twyford is the Labour Member of Parliament for Te Atatu and holds the ministerial portfolios of urban development, economic development, and transport in the current NZ government



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