Opinion: National's focus on housing affordability in RMA reforms is welcome

Opinion: National's focus on housing affordability in RMA reforms is welcome
By Hugh Pavletich The 2010 6th Edition Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey was released January 25, 2010, generating significant international media coverage, including a report on the Demographia Survey by the highly regarded Mish's Global Economic Trend Analysis. This Annual Demographia Survey covers the 272 major urban markets of the United Kingdom (33 urban markets), United States (175), Canada (28), Australia (23), the Republic of Ireland (5) and New Zealand (8). For urban markets to rate as affordable, housing should not cost any more than 3 times annual household income. On a country basis of the major urban markets surveyed, the United States was the most affordable with a Median Multiple of 2.9, Canada and Ireland both 3.7, United Kingdom 5.1, New Zealand 5.7 and Australia experiencing the most intense housing stress at 6.8 times annual household earnings. With respect to the 8 New Zealand major urban areas surveyed, Palmerston North at 4.6 with Napier "“ Hastings and Hamilton at 5.0 times annual household earnings were the least stressed markets. Dunedin and Wellington followed with 5.6 and 5.8 respectively. The most stressed markets were Christchurch at 6.1, Auckland at 6.7 and Tauranga 6.8 times annual household earnings. New Zealand has much work to do in progressively restoring housing affordability to historic levels, where households do not have to spend any more than 3 times their annual household income to house themselves. And importantly "“ not load themselves up with in excess of around 2.5 times their annual income with mortgage debt. In broad terms, the suggestions on what is required are covered within this year's Annual Demographia Survey refer "Restoring Housing Affordability) and on the writer's website. The New Zealand National led Coalition Government is well aware of this. The focus must be on much improved performance within the local government sector. Since assuming office November 2008, there have been a series of announcements (for access to major Ministerial Statements go to Performance Urban Planning) by the key Ministers involved, being Housing Minister Phil Heatley;  Infrastructure Minister Bill English with Associate Steven Joyce and  Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith. Building And Construction Minister Maurice Williamson is playing a major role as well, in endeavouring to improve performance within the building sector and streamlining the regulatory processes. Local Government Minister Rodney Hide has been preoccupied through 2009 with Auckland issues. This year however, it is anticipated his focus will be on working with Local Government to significantly lift performance. Three days after the release of the Demographia Survey, the Minister for the Environment Dr Nick Smith issued a statement -  New work underway on Phase II of RMA reforms "“ stating "“ "There are major question marks over the way the Resource Management Act is working in urban areas," Dr Smith said. "I don't think we have the incentives right for developers to do the best urban design in our largest cities. There are also questions about the policy of metropolitan urban limits, the effect they have on section prices and the negative flow on effects to the broader economy. Nor do we have a good track record of having the right infrastructure in place at the right time for supporting urban development." In seeking outside advice on these issues, the Minister has set up two Technical Advisory Groups (TAG's), with the Urban Group chaired by Alan Dormer to report back by 31 March and the Infrastructure Group chaired by Mike Foster to report back by 30 June. See the interest.co.nz report on this from January 28. The core issues within the Terms of Reference for the Urban TAG are "“
The scope of the review will look (at) the merits of tools currently available for implementing urban planning and design including: (1)   housing affordability / section (lot) pricing mechanisms (2)   urban design panels (3)   metropolitan urban limits (4)   financing and funding mechanisms for infrastructure (5)   spatial and structure plans
The "˜lead in" to these points is rather unfortunate, as it is old style Town and Country Planning Act language, and clearly does not reflect the enabling and environmental effects based intent of the 19 year old Resource Management Act. Further to this, including Town and Country Planning style "urban design panels" and "spatial and structure plans" in to the TOR mix is an unnecessary and damaging distraction. Remarkable too "“ when one considers that the reporting date for this Group is 31 March. Dr Smith is to be commended for including within the TOR (1) housing affordability (3) metropolitan urban limits and (4) financing mechanisms for infrastructure. This is a big ask of a group of professionals with no practical development experience, without imposing on them "aesthetic issues", where they may or may not have any expertise. The Government must be clear that the days of old style "playtime planning" (The Crisis of Academic Urban Planning | Newgeography.com) are over and that the name of the game now is "performance planning". Indeed, they should have been "over" back in 1991 when the RMA came in to force. Good planning essentially is a task carried out by those with the appropriate technical skills, that is forward looking, with the capacity to focus on the timely provision of infrastructure. If I haven't made myself clear "“ we need engineers, not evangelists. We must not revert back to the failed old style Town and Country Planning approach and have to endure any more of the "sun rises in the west" research underpinning this nonsense. There is nothing more irritating to a property owner or development practitioner, than having to endure the aesthetic  musings of a council employee or a politically favoured architect, with the power to withhold consents, unless their (often costly,undesirable and silly) "whims" are incorporated within development's. With the "leaky homes" fiasco to deal with, the public is in no mood for urban design advice. While Local Government appears very keen to spend ratepayers' money on "design advice" (another aspect of "playtime planning" to expand the bureaucracies), it seems this sector have no funds available to meet their civic obligations to leaky home owners. The Minister of Building and Construction issued a release just prior to Christmas -  Government Assistance for Leaky Home Owners stating "“ "I had hoped the package would include a contribution from the territorial local authorities, but they have advised me today that this is not possible. While this is disappointing, the government believes that local authorities have a key role to play, and that the door remains open for them to be part of the solution." "Our priority is to bring together a package that helps people fix their homes, the government understands the frustration of leaky home owners who have waited ten years or more for assistance "“ the majority of those affected have found it impossible to access finance to make repairs." At the same time, the Minister released a statement, Review reinforces Government action on weathertightness, with the PriceWaterhouseCoopers report attached, stating that between 22,000 to 89,000 homes are affected. The Government also accepted PWC's consensus figure of  42,000 homes affected and that the costs are likely to be around $11.3 billion in 2008 dollars. Indeed, it would appear the Government already recognizes the significance of the need for clarity with respect to regulatory responsibilities, with the recent announcement by the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Christopher Finlayson,  Historic Places Trust review announced, where he states "“ "Separating the local advocacy interests of branch committees from the regulatory functions of the Trust along the lines of the British model means better outcomes for both," Mr Finlayson said "For example, local activists will not be constrained by having to work within the priority setting framework of a Crown entity." During the previous term of the National Government, the writer had dealings with Nick Smith when he was Minister of Conservation and responsible for Heritage as well. There was a clear need at that stage for a "culture change" within the Historic Places Trust, to restore sound and sensible regulatory administrative disciplines. It was an impressive performance in political management. These same political management skills will be required of Ministers Smith, English, Heatley, Hide, and Williamson working as a cohesive team, with local government and the wider community. As citizens, we have a responsibility to play our part too. The country cannot afford to be put through a replay of the political management failures of the previous National Government, following the enactment of the Resource Management Act back in 1991. * Hugh Pavletich runs Performance Urban Planning

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