Simon Wilson: What’s up with Labour and National’s ‘slum enabling act’?


How excited they were when it was announced. On October 19, Housing Minister Megan Woods and National leader Judith Collins jointly declared their support for the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Bill.

This bill, they said, would allow “at least 48,200 and as many as 105,500 new homes” to be built in the next five to eight years. It was so important, they’d get it passed by Christmas. It was a rare example of bipartisan support and for such a good cause, too.

An approving John Tookey, professor of construction management at AUT, marked the occasion by quoting Shakespeare: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”

There was a man – Environment Minister David Parker, a principal architect of the bill – but it was mainly women at the podium that day. Woods, Collins and National’s Nicola Willis all looked very pleased with themselves.

The new law will eliminate the single housing zone in our larger cities and allow three homes of up to three storeys on almost any site, without the need for a resource consent. There will be no large-scale “character overlay” to limit development in older suburbs. The bill will also cut other “red tape”, making property development easier.

The New Zealand Initiative (NZI), a centre-right think tank, called it “a superb first step”, while noting the need for better infrastructure financing “to truly unlock the potential” of the bill.

The Coalition for More Homes (CMH) said the bill was “a major step forward in allowing more housing to be built, in existing urban areas close to public transport, services and amenities”. CMH is a fairly broad church: NZI is a member, along with Generation Zero, Greater Auckland and social housing providers like Habitat for Humanity.

Te Waihanga, the Infrastructure Commission, called the news a “win-win”.

“When we allow for greater density around existing infrastructure, we reduce the need for the extra roads that would be necessary if we were to continue regulating for low-density in our major cities.”

Then they all read the bill. And were appalled.

The bill is touted as giving speedy effect to the 2020 National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD), which puts a clear focus on density and integrated development, where housing, transport and other services are planned together.

The NPS-UD, in my view, for its capacity to make Aotearoa New Zealand a better country to live in, is quite possibly the most important policy to have come out of this government.

But by my reckoning this new bill subverts the NPS-UD in at least nine ways.

Julie Stout, a leading architect and member of the Urban Design Forum (UDF), a coalition of design professionals, calls it “a slum enabling act”.

Those nine factors:

1. While “up to three” dwellings can be built on any site, there are to be no minimum section sizes. You could put two extra dwellings on your section, or subdivide it into two, or three, or more, and put three dwellings on each new site.

2. The “do it anywhere” provision is an invitation to developers to build where it’s easiest and cheapest.

That, says Auckland Council, “would see widespread intensification dispersed across the city in places not served by essential public transport, water and community infrastructure and in areas located far away from employment centres. This includes smaller coastal and rural towns on the outskirts of the city.” It’s an invitation to urban sprawl.

The Environmental Defence Society (EDS) says this could even lead to “areas with significant landscape and environmental values, like Waiheke Island, being destroyed”.

3. Developers will no longer be required to consider sunlight, privacy, safe pedestrian access, access to nature, servicing and the interface with the street.

4. There are standards governing size and location, but even they are flawed. They’ll encourage what’s called “sausage flats”: rows of apartment blocks running back at right angles from the street, with little usable land for a garden or backyard.

5. Want to object? Sorry, it’s all “permitted activity”. The council can’t do much, either. Even on matters of national environmental significance, there’s no recourse to the Environment Court. The minister for the environment will decide.

6. Will developers have to include any social housing in their projects? Nope. What about universal design standards, so at least some of the units are fit for people with disabilities? No again.

7. Are they preserving environmental standards or keeping up with the demands of a changing climate? Also no. Encouraging urban sprawl fails that test. So do the lack of standards for construction techniques and emissions over the life of the building. There’s no requirement for trees or other vegetation, either on sections or in public spaces near larger projects. “The first casualty,” says Stout, “will be the trees of the city.”

8. The “rules and standards one might expect to find in a district plan”, as the EDS puts it, now rest with the Government. It means councils could become bystanders in the development of the cities they are supposed to be running.

9. Why the rush? The announcement was just over a month ago and already the deadline for submissions has passed.

It’s not like nothing is happening to address the housing crisis. Nearly 50,000 new homes will be built nationwide this year: that’s more than at any time previously.

About 40 per cent of them will be in Auckland, and most of those are apartments and town houses.

It’s still not enough, but there are capacity constraints stopping the numbers being higher. Not land: the city is full of multi-unit construction sites. Not consenting regulations, either, as the record numbers attest.

Instead, as AUT’s John Tookey says, the urgent need is for more “strategic investment, skills training and availability of finance”. That’s what the NZI said too.

“The constraint on housing in Auckland,” says mayor Phil Goff, “is … the cost of the infrastructure needed to support new developments, as well as skills and building shortages.”

They’re right. And the new bill doesn’t address any of these constraints.

The bill also ignores the years of debate Auckland went through over its Unitary Plan, a process that eventually enabled denser housing in places where it makes the most sense, while preserving the single-house zone and character overlays.

Arguments continue about whether it is too timid or too permissive, but the UP allows for the construction of 900,000 new dwellings and unlocked the record growth we’re seeing now. It hasn’t controlled runaway house prices, but nor will the new bill.

What should happen now? Critics of the bill, including Auckland Council, have stressed that they support the intent. “The Bill’s heart is in the right place,” says the EDS.

“We strongly support the intent,” said the Coalition for More Houses, but added that the proposals were “likely to exacerbate” the problems of poor medium-density housing it was supposed to relieve.

Submitters have proposed solutions for all the problems listed above, as well as a national set of minimum standards. Several also argued for an expert working group. The Government is said to be keen on that, but wants the body to convene now, with no authority, and finish its job within three weeks. That’s called bad-faith consultation.

Why has this happened? Because councils have been too frightened of a nimby backlash to embrace density, so Parliament is removing the political risk and doing it for them? That may be true, but it doesn’t explain why the bill is so flawed.

Fundamentally, this is a clash of the two big approaches to government. Do you regulate to improve, or do you leave it to the market? The Enabling Housing Supply Bill should be the former, and it masquerades as such, but it embraces the latter.

And, as Greg Severinsen from the Environment Defence Society says, “If design controls are rejected, then we risk the market providing the cheapest options and producing urban slums … They will be hard and expensive mistakes to undo.”

For National, the attraction of market forces is never far from the surface. And for Labour? Perhaps they just want to build more houses and don’t care about the consequences of doing it badly.

Bill English summed up that attitude in 2014, when he said urban planning might “have to get a bit ugly”. He was wrong, but at least he was being honest.

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