We need to talk about Bill

We need to talk about Bill English’s repeated accusations that planning is responsible for stratospherically high house prices and inequality, and about the opportunity the Auckland Unitary Plan has to get housing back on the right track.

Ever since he wrote the forward to Demographia’s 2013 annual housing affordability survey, our Minister of Finance has been banging on about how land supply, planners, and the Green Party (somehow, in opposition) are stopping new houses from being built.

Land supply and planning are important issues, but not the way English, Building & Housing Minister Nick Smith, and Demographia claim. It’s the way our current urban areas are developed that is inefficient, and a lot of that is down to planning rules that have 1) tied up huge amounts of land in car parking, and 2) prevented more dwellings, shops, and places to work from being built where land values are high through density caps, height limits, and similar regulations.

The housing affordability debate has been confused, because some people often imply that everyone wants to live on a quarter acre section but planners want to force people into high rise apartments against their will.

The reality is that people and their needs are quite diverse. Some people do want to live in a house with a yard, and would be able and willing to pay more to do that, or live further from the centre of their city. Many people want to live on the isthmus or in other inner-suburbs of Auckland, which is why land values are very high there. They would be happy to live in a smaller, attached dwelling in order to be close to the centre. Especially if there are safe public parks nearby. And frankly, if there are high quality options for apartments and townhouses, many people would prefer that because they don’t want to look after a big yard.

Urban housing in Melbourne, Australia. Image credit: Donaldytong, Wikimedia

Urban housing in Melbourne, Australia. Image credit: Donaldytong, Wikimedia

The National Government’s ideological allies at Demographia are well-known in planning and transport circles for using unbalanced statistics to argue that more urban sprawl is the only way to achieve housing affordability. A think-tank founded by Wendell Cox and probably funded by fossil fuel companies, its sole purpose seems to be promoting car dependence, not understanding the complex causes of housing bubbles and undertaking rigorous evaluation of potential policy solutions. Like climate denial think-tanks, Demographia is very successful at getting into the media and influencing debate. One doesn’t find their work in many peer-reviewed journals though. Just look at their website, which seems to have been designed in 1998 – these people aren’t serious.

When Kiwis go to Sydney, Melbourne, London, and elsewhere overseas, they often find it quite attractive to live in an attached dwelling, take the train, cycle, and walk. It is the norm in these cities, and high quality options exist. They don’t need a car to go shopping, or if they do, they can access one through a car share organisation. They have parks and public spaces to enjoy. It’s not all concrete and tall buildings.

They key is providing choice. We haven’t had many choices in Auckland because our planning rules assumed that everyone wanted the same thing, and for many decades prevented higher density attached dwellings from being built.

When the average section is worth $1 million in the isthmus, the best way to get affordable homes is to allow more homes to be built on that same section. Three- or four-storey, large character apartments (like the 1930s and 40s Art Deco buildings) can be built for much less per square metre than high rise apartments, and they aren’t as imposing. If we don’t require an off-street car park with each dwelling, we can get 10 or more homes where one house and yard may have been. We don’t have to build out the whole site to do this, we can retain trees and landscaping.

With all those people living in the neighbourhood, we can run frequent bus or train services. There will be a market or an urban supermarket offering more choice within 5 minutes’ walk, and car share systems so people don’t have to own a car to have access to one.

Not everyone wants to live in endless urban sprawl. Image credit: Mark Strozier

Not everyone wants to live in endless urban sprawl. Image credit: Mark Strozier

Ironically, Bill English’s brother recognised the need to protect farmland and green spaces at the fringe of the city some time ago, as a spokesperson for Federated Farmers.

We don’t have to go up 20 storeys to provide a lot more homes in Auckland. We just need to allow a few more storeys consistently and use the land for storing cars far more efficicently. There are about 3-4 empty car parks for every one being used in Auckland right now. That’s a lot of land. We can retain green, public spaces and have much more efficient and affordable transport services.

Housing affordability requires a lot more than planning rule changes – we need tax reform, better rental standards and security of tenure for renters, and we need a public agency to lead redevelopment so we get high quality development. If we’re going to build a lot of homes, they should be warm, dry, quiet, and comfortable, and not cost a fortune to heat and ventilate.

It’s a huge opportunity for healthier, happier cities. Central government can and should be leading on all of this.

The Auckland Unitary Plan can help in this respect by removing some of the harmful rules that pushed car dependence and sprawl in the first place. That’s what I am hoping to see next week in the recommendations from the Independent Hearing Panel.

Urban living in Freiburg, Germany. Image credit: Arnold Plesse

Urban living in Freiburg, Germany. Image credit: Arnold Plesse