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Infrastructure – the elephant in the urban intensification room

Since this article was published in the November 202  issue of Local Government magazine, Auckland suffered a major flooding disaster over the city’s anniversary weekend, January 2023 on an unprecedented scale.
Alan Titchall looks at the Government’s urban intensification mandates and our tier one city ageing stormwater and wastewater infrastructure and asks – is this another costly ‘leaking home’ debacle on the horizon?

An obsession with ‘affordable housing’ has driven the Government, supported by the National Party, the Greens, and the Maori Party to pass legislation that could recklessly open the unconsented flood gates to building in tier one city suburbs, regardless of what local council plans are already in place.

The first of two planning laws in this direction, the National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD) was published by then Housing Minister Phil Twyford in 2020. This policy statement requires councils in our biggest cities to update their zoning to allow for six-storey apartment blocks in central areas, defined as being within walking distance of the town centre, or rapid transit.

The second piece of legislation, the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Act, was the result of a bipartisan deal between Labour and National. It brought forward parts of the NPS-UD and allows people to build up to three homes of up to three storeys high on most sites without a resource consent. This allows impermeable surfaces to be built-over that is protected by council by-laws for stormwater soakage and flow paths. It also overrides local council laws protecting residential amenities and well-being and comfort in areas such as privacy and access to sunlight; and the protection of heritage residential areas that make up a city’s aesthetics.

The NPS-UD will require Tier 1 councils (Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch and Rotorua) to intensify land use and replace their urban design and planning standards and rules, such as building setbacks from boundaries and minimum size requirements for outdoor living spaces.

Opposition from both councils and residents has been vehement. The fear is that urbanisation will not only trash architectural aspects of these cities with cheap unsightly apartment blocks and sloppy build add-ons, but dangerously reduce natural porous soakage areas and flow-paths that have both been protected for so long as our cities still rely to a great extent on this natural method of containing stormwater.

Tier one city councils had until August 20 to publicly notifying plan changes that accommodate these central government mandates and call for public submissions. As required by the Government council plans based on NPS-UD mandates, must be tested through public submissions, hearings, and review by an Independent Hearings Panel. These  panels have to consider all public submissions, hold hearings with submitters, and make recommendations back to the council on changes councils have made to their urban plans and rule books. If a council rejects a recommendation from this panel, then the final decision is up to the Minister for the Environment to make.

The only way for a council to modify the urban intensification mandate is to find ‘qualifying matters’ for the Government to ‘consider’.

This is primarily aimed at protecting public open space and sites of cultural, historic, or ecological significance or to avoid development in areas with natural hazards or nationally significant infrastructure. However, the definition is loose and it is up to the council to argue the toss with the Government over exactly what ‘qualifies’ as a ‘matter’ to reduce building heights and density requirement.

At the moment it does not specify ‘drainage infrastructure’, only the likes of natural hazards – coastal erosion threats.

In other words – not a lot of wiggle room councils can use to stop unconsented infill that will obviously place enormous pressure on existing infrastructure, including roading and schools and 100-year stormwater networks that are expected to suddenly cope with the thousands of extra residents, vehicles, kitchens and toilets.

Meantime, the Government is also pressuring councils to prepare and budget for climate change and all the bad weather news (think more severe storms and droughts) it claims will come with it.

Large areas of Auckland are already at risk of flooding because most of the city still depends on natural soakage, ancient backyard soak-holes, natural flow paths, and catchments that have long been under pressure from development and growth. And, the city’s architectural aesthetics are dependant on an inner city building period between 1880 and 1930, now under threat of demolition for infill.

The Auckland Council is desperately using ‘special character’ housing as a qualifying matter to exclude almost all of affluent suburbs like Grey Lynn (around 90 percent excluded), Ponsonby, and Devonport from medium density builds. It is also investigating a qualifying matter for water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure and transport capacity constraints. However, the acceptance of these ‘exemptions’ from urban infill mandates will finally be at the mercy of the Government.

Hamilton City Council claims its entire city is a qualifying matter, because it all feeds into the Waikato River catchment, while Christchurch City Council has voted against getting involved in the Government’s Housing intensification – full stop!

What the Government will do about any of this, is anyone’s guess as councils are still working through the ‘process’.

Interestingly, many big city councils are still sorting out the legal ramifications from the ‘leaky homes crisis’ concerning timber-framed homes built that were not weather-tight following central Government intervention in the building industry designed to encourage more affordable homes with the Building Act 1991. When this became law in 1993, it changed building controls and at a time of an architectural design trend towards Mediterranean-style dwellings with small, or no, eaves in a country renown or its rainfall. Councils got sucked in to this mess through their building consents, work inspections and code compliance certificates. Court cases have generally assigned around one third of the financial responsibility to local authorities.

Is there a risk in the future that the NPS-UD will result in increased urban flooding and massive insurance claims, followed by ligation by affected property owners who were once protected by local bylaws?

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