Report to change our cities

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A 500-page report yesterday kicked off what is likely to be big changes to the way we build our cities.

The Productivity Commission’s report into the Resource Management Act has the potential to change the way our cities run, how they grow and how their transport and other infrastructure not only run (and where it goes) but how it is funded.

Environment Minister Nick Smith may have initially conceived the idea for the report as an answer to Auckland's housing and transport crises, but its recommendations go well beyond the city and have the potential to affect every New Zealander.

Simply the report seeks to address how cities should grow; how that growth should be regulated and how its associated infrastructure should be planned and funded.

It starts with a simple claim which reflects the difference in our cities from when the Resource Management Act was passed in 1991.

“Compared with former Planning Acts, the Resource Management Act is virtually silent on urban areas,” it says.

“The definition of the environment refers to urban issues only indirectly.”

In 1991, what is now Auckland City had a population of 830,665; that has now grown to 1,377,000 --- an increase of 66%.

With that has come a housing crisis both in terms of affordability and availability. 

That growth and its consequences are what lies behind much of what is in this report.

So the report proposes that:

  • A future urban planning system should respond to growth pressures, and information about land prices should be a central policy and monitoring tool in any future planning system, and should drive decisions on the release, servicing and rezoning of development capacity. 
  • Greenfield land brought forward for development should be serviced with necessary bulk infrastructure, to allow land to be developed.
  • The government should use a national planning template to reduce unnecessary variation across plans in content, layout and presentation.

The current National Policy Standard on Urban Development which was introduced last December goes part of the way to meeting some of these proposals – what is new in the report is the idea that land prices, rather than purely population growth, should drive the release of greenfields land.

On the question of environmental protection within the urban environment, the report says there should be clear limits and standards within which development can occur, to ensure the integrity of natural systems, maintain standards of environmental quality and recognise community preferences including Maori interests.  

The big question in Auckland is always how to pay for the infrastructure as the city spreads outwards.

The report is clear: Growth should pay for itself.

But it says  Councils’ funding and financing tool kits should be expanded.

It proposes that Councils should be able to levy targeted rates to cover infrastructure costs --- and that they should be able to continue to use targeted rates in a future planning system as a way to  recover the costs of broader community infrastructure from the beneficiaries.

And recognising that infrastructure increases land values, it proposes that councils should be able to levy targeted rates on changes in land values.

Councils should consider public-private partnerships for all significant local government infrastructure projects, it says. 

It says Councils need a greater ability and willingness to impose user and congestion charges, so as to encourage efficient use, help recover costs,  and manage pressures on existing assets.

And it proposes that Auckland’s problems of a debt constraint and the threat of a credit downgrade need to be resolved.

“Options include raising more revenue, putting additional debt on the balance sheets of others, and negotiating higher limits with credit rating agencies in exchange for assurances of creditworthiness and fiscal prudence,” it says.

A key section of the recommendations says that land-use plans and planning processes under the RMA have frequently demonstrated deficiencies that cause inadequate responses to growth.

So what is proposed is Regional Spatial Plans which would be grand plans setting the overall framework for subsidiary plans like district plans. 

The Spatial Plans would set out strategic land-use parameters stretching 30 to 50 years ahead in the case of high-growth regions. 

“Spatial Plans will define corridors that provide options for future infrastructure, future public open spaces, and areas of cultural significance and outstanding conservation value. 

“Remaining land will be available for development. 

“Territorial authorities, central  government, iwi, developers and infrastructure providers will all participate in the RSS process.

“RSSs will have a formal status , so that district and unitary plans, transport and other  infrastructure plans will be obliged to pay serious  attention to them." 

The report also addresses the frequent complaints about the involvement of the courts in the planning process and proposes to to limit the powers of the Environment Court and instead to appoint Independent Hearings Panels to review district and other plans and for the Environment Court to be restricted to hearing  appeals challenging resource consent decisions or conditions, hear applications for declarations and enforcement orders, and decide matters of national importance when they are “called in”. 

Reaction to the report is  – by and large – favourable. 

The Environmental Defence Society praised the Commission for the report.

“The report is a very comprehensive, thoughtful and constructive analysis of the resource management system from the perspective of the needs of towns and cities,” said EDS CEO Gary Taylor.

“The report finds that resource management challenges in towns and rural areas are different.

“We agree: the current system, following a large number of ad hoc amendments over many years, has evolved into a clunky hybrid that satisfies few.

 “The Commission has recommended a new act that would contain separate objectives and principles for the built and natural environments.

“Crucially, it acknowledges the need for clear environmental limits to apply everywhere.

“It also promotes the use of long-term spatial planning to achieve an integrated approach across various statutory instruments. That is a very good idea.”

The Auckland EMA – who have been involved in the two years long behind the scenes low-key campaign to get changes to the RMA said the Commission was to be applauded.

“I think the key here, is whether the government will be bold enough to use this report as a launching pad to create a much broader, a political process, to identify a better way to manage the built and natural environments,” said its CEIO, Kim Campbell.

“Either way we welcome the debate this report will trigger and look forward to working towards a more holistic solution to drive much-needed reform.”

Connal Townsend, CEO of the Property Council said the report provided the starting point for a national conversation about the future of our cities’ planning system.

 “We need to clarify how the built environment interacts with the natural environment,” he said.

“This is critical for the future development of our cities and the protection of the natural environment.

he said the Government must be careful not to cherry pick recommendations from the report.

“If Government wants to implement the reforms, they need to do so as a coherent package.

“As we’ve seen with the Resource Management Act, constant tinkering by successive Governments has resulted in a fragmented Act that does not achieve the desired outcomes for the environment or development.”

Labour's Environment spokesperson, David Parker was less enthusiastic.

“The Government could have done most of the things being proposed here under the RMA," he said.

“And the things they couldn’t have done, other political parties, especially the Labour party have been taking a rational economic approach informed by overseas practice, which leads you to the solution which is now being promoted on behalf of the Government by the Commission.

“So you don’t need a Productivity Commission, you need to change the Government.”

Finance Minister Steven Joyce partly conceded Parker’s point by saying that the Government had made a number of changes to existing planning and funding tools over recent years.

“These include the National Policy Statement on Urban Capacity, the proposed Urban Development Authority legislation, the Housing Infrastructure Fund, and the current round of RMA reforms, all of which progress some of the areas of work the Productivity Commission identifies,” he said.

"However in this report, the Government asked the Productivity Commission to take a blues skies approach and provide a longer term view at what a future planning system could look like.

“The Government will respond formally to the Productivity Commission’s recommendations in due course. “

It appears to be in no rush. POLITIK understands the report has been in the Beehive for some weeks now. Nothing much is likely to happen until after the election.

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