The councils pushing back on housing density rules

One of the government’s solutions to the housing crisis, allowing for the construction of higher-density buildings in the city’s suburbs, has put it on a collision course with local governments. She now finds herself having to crack down on unruly councils if she wants them to comply. The detail examines who might gain the upper hand in this battle between local and central governments.

Houses in Auckland, including the suburb of Gray Lynn, are much more expensive than other parts of the country.

Houses in Auckland, including the suburb of Gray Lynn, are much more expensive than other parts of the country.

Who would have thought that the arrogance of housing density would turn into a juicy soap opera?

But that’s how urban planning expert Matthew Prasad describes the standoff between Christchurch City Council and the government after the council voted against the new building codes.

“There are people on the sidelines with popcorn,” he says.

“It’s pretty horrible in a nerdy way. It was assumed that this would not happen, no council would be foolish enough to say no.

“And lo and behold, one of them has it.”

Prasad, the senior urban planner at The Urban Advisory, winces when he talks to him about it The detail while we stroll through downtown Auckland. He says people in his industry don’t know what the future of medium-density housing standards (MDRS) will be and the row has left them even more confused and fears Christchurch City Council’s actions could embolden other councils to change the rules also to be rejected.

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“It’s going to set a very interesting precedent for all future legislation and policies and how commissioners are appointed and so on.”

Christchurch City Council last week voted against government policy to introduce new housing intensification standards that would make it easier to build three units of up to three stories on one lot. Councilors have been told beforehand that if they fail, a commissioner may be appointed instead.

The detail looks at the controversial national standards for six of our key cities – Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Rotorua, Tauranga and Christchurch – and the background to this unusual agreement between the two parties.

Matthew Prasad smiles for the camera.  He's standing on the footpath of Newton's Bridge.  The Sky Tower is in the background.  It's a sunny day with blue skies.

Matthew Prasad is the principal urban planner at The Urban Advisory.
Photo: Bonnie Harrison

Prasad is for density, although he says the rules aren’t perfect. On the border of Eden Terrace and Gray Lynn, he points to examples of ‘good’ high-density developments, but says even the ‘ordinary’ ones could one day become beautiful buildings.

More intensive development brings more people into the area, lowering the cost of plumbing, roads, streetlights, and amenities. With more people, community cornerstones like cafes and schools are popping up, Prasad says.

But Prasad also says, for example, that 900,000 new homes are only good if they are where people want to live. Right now some areas are booming with new construction while others are on lockdown and we need to enable housing everywhere.

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The density rule applies almost everywhere in our six largest cities, but the government has arranged for some areas to be exempted where it makes sense. Prasad says some locations, like sensitive ecological sites, aren’t suited to denser housing, and that’s fine. These are referred to in the legislation as “qualifying matters”.

Prasad says the legislation opens the door for almost anything to be considered a qualifying matter and thus be exempt from the new rules. He says councils have exploited this in a way that is not in the spirit of the legislation.

Auckland Council, for example, uses ‘character’ housing as a qualifying matter to exclude almost all affluent suburbs such as Gray Lynn (roughly 90 per cent excluded), Ponsonby and Devonport from medium-density buildings. Hamilton City Council has attempted to assert that the entire city is a qualifying matter as it all flows into the Waikato River drainage basin.

New Zealand Herald Senior political journalist Thomas Coughlan explains the bipartisan agreement to deal with the decades-long housing crisis. He says despite Christchurch City Council’s total refusal to comply with the law, the government will have the final say.

Housing Secretary Megan Woods and National Party leader Judith Collins.  The parties worked together on a bill to amend the Resource Management Act to make it easier to build houses.

Housing Secretary Megan Woods.
Photo: Pool/Stuff/Robert Kitchin

“The government can choose to do what they want here, they can hit Christchurch pretty hard and say no, you have to do this and they could actually send a commissioner to Christchurch and announce a change of plan. So the government can actually “appoint someone on his behalf,” says Coughlan.

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“One way or another the Government cannot allow a council to decide that it is above these rules because other councils would also get the wrong idea because you have to remember that in Wellington and Auckland that process is quite was traumatic.”

Prasad says the policy was developed behind closed doors and the bill was pushed through with very little deliberation. During this time, the government held daily Covid-19 press conferences, but very little was communicated about rules that could have a huge impact on people’s lives.

Residents were unnecessarily afraid that the bungalow next door would be demolished and replaced by three ugly, three-story houses that would rob them of sunlight and put more pressure on drains and parking lots.

“I think instead of saying we don’t want it, tell us what you would like, how you want it to happen, what you want the urban environment to be like with these new rules. Because it doesn’t go away, you are here. They work with it and improve it, and that’s what I want from everyone,” says Prasad.

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