By Bernard Hickey
It's now one of the most famous phrases in the English language: "Houston, the Eagle has landed." It signified the moment when humans landed on the moon and it followed years of hopes and dreams and planning and construction. There was immense satisfaction, and then anxiety about whether the whole enterprise could be brought safely back to earth.
On Friday, Auckland's 'Eagle' landed in the offices of the Council and it's a moment that will prove pivotal in the future of both Auckland and the rest of the economy. The Independent Hearings Panel on the Auckland Unitary Plan handed 1,000 of documents, plans and recommendations over to officials after five years of work, including 249 public meetings and 21,210 pieces of written feedback.
There were 13,394 submissions from members of the public and all sorts of interested parties covering 1.494 million separate submission points over 249 days of hearings on 70 separate topics. Submitters made 4,000 appearances and submitted over 10,000 pieces of evidence.
Controversy has raged over its contents since a draft was published shortly before the 2013 Council elections. Countless angry discussions around the Council table and endless letters to the editor have debated whether the Plan should allow Auckland to grow out and/or up, and how. It is the most anticipated town plan in the history of New Zealand.
Everyone who cares about how Auckland handles its explosive population growth and what that means for the rest of New Zealand is interested in its contents. The Government has wrapped its entire supply-led strategy for dealing with Auckland's housing crisis/challenge into the Auckland Unitary Plan. The troika of housing ministers, Bill English, Nick Smith and Paula Bennett, are not-so-slightly desperate that the Plan includes enough room for hundreds of thousands of new houses, and that the Council agrees to it if it does.
No one knows what is in it and won't until it is revealed in all its glorious mass of zoning rules and maps on Wednesday afternoon. When it is revealed to the public, it is likely to set off a firestorm of debate about the future of Auckland, and unfortunately it will happen in the full glare of an election campaign for Council seats.
Under the rules to decide the Unitary Plan, the Council has 20 working days to make its decision or decisions on the Plan's recommendations. That means it will all have to be done and dusted by August 19. The Council is preparing for an intense set of public meetings to debate the recommendations from August 10 to 18.
The Government and some on the Council are quietly confident will it fit the bill and be approved, although there is a tiny bead of sweat on their brows when they say it and their fingers are suspiciously crossed. Anyone at the now-infamous February 24 meeting where the Council voted 13 to 8 in favour of those who wanted to withdraw proposals for more intensification of housing developments knows this is no sure thing.
The stakes are incredibly high, as pointed out repeatedly by Reserve Bank Governor Graeme Wheeler in comments to politicians, and as recently as July 7 by his Deputy Grant Spencer.
"The Panel’s recommendations and the Auckland Council’s response to those recommendations will be crucial in setting the future path towards reducing the housing market imbalance," Spencer said.
Auckland and New Zealand desperately needs Auckland to change its plans so developers can build the sort of 3-4 storey walk-up apartments like the one pictured in Ellerslie. The Wamaka Buildings were built in 2013 by Mark Todd's Ockham Residential on a traditional section that would normally have just one stand-alone house on it, with possibly a small in-fill house at the back. The usual redevelopment would put three NZ$1 million-plus townhouses on it. But Wamaka includes 10 two and three bedroom apartments that would now be sold for a more affordable price of around NZ$550,000. They can be built at an affordable price because they don't need expensive basements or lifts or sprinkler systems.
Auckland needs a flowering of these sorts of developments all across the Isthmus if it is to become more affordable. Used car yards all along Great North and Great South Rds should be turned into these sorts of affordable and attractive housing developments. This was the sort of housing that the Council voted to stop on February 24.
The Government, the Reserve Bank, Generation Rent and the rest of New Zealand are preying the Eagle has landed and it can be brought home safe and sound. Fingers crossed. The last thing we need is for all of us to be gazing skyward on August 18 and see the hopes of future generations flame out in a mess of Council debate and legal challenges.
A version of this article was published in the Herald on Sunday. It is here with permission.