The thing about the market is it’s true it will get things right – balance demand and supply, respond to consumer trends and preferences and basically look after its own skin by looking after yours – eventually.

The problem is the timing. And in few sectors is this more apparent than in planning and housing.

If you’re one of the true believers in deregulated zoning – that it’s the silver bullet to bring down our housing prices –  you’d be swooning right now with the exquisite gift that was handed to your cause this week.

Auckland, the New Zealand capital, had cracked the NIMBY nut we heard.

Those zealous ideological anti-development people who want to take us back to a bucolic motherland of dells and country lanes – except in Willoughby, Kew, or Marrickville – had been slayed in the land of the long white cloud.

It’s the NIMBYS we hear, who keep our young from decent housing and force single mothers and older women to sleep in their cars, as the drumbeat of the same simple message works its way through our media on repeat. Just as it has for decades. 

“Since 2016,” the article said, “rents have increased 10 to 20 per cent in Auckland, compared with about 40 per cent in Wellington. House prices are about 20 per cent higher, compared with the 70 per cent lift that occurred outside Auckland.”

The main reason for this was liberalised zoning that allowed most of the city to be redeveloped with three storey townhouses, and up to seven storeys near transport.

Approvals went from 4500 a year to 21,000 the article said, citing research from New Zealand academic Ryan Greenaway-McGrevy.

But you really need to look behind the numbers to understand what happened. 

There was a cost.

“Like all policies, it involves a trade-off. The character of neighbourhoods will change and the built urban form will change,” Greenaway-McGrevy said.

In fact the costs have been so big that the people who previously championed the new liberalised planning agenda want it wound back.

According to Australia’s housing researcher Dr Cameron Murray from the University of Sydney who keeps an eye on New Zealand and works with a colleague there, one description of the situation was “chaos”.

The problem, it turns out, is what you’d expect from a near free for all in planning – unintended and unwanted consequences. Such as poor development and spikes in density in areas that were not expected to spike.  For instance, a 25 per cent increase in population but no plans for schools there.

The pushback has now reached the political sphere with the Nationals favoured to win national election on 14 October offering to reverse the unitary plan.

In an article on the planning changes in 2021 in The Fifth EstateJago Dodson of RMIT in Melbourne and Iain White of University of Waikato in New Zealand, said part of the push for the upzoning originated from the relatively new YIMIES (yes in my backyard) movement emerging from the political left “who see planning as a brake on their aesthetic preference for higher-density urbanism” but also the political right who want weakened state control of property rights.

Great mix, huh?

But the agendas of both sides of the YIMBIES are “rooted in a simplistic neoclassical economics that sees planning as a restraint on dwelling supply” the authors say.

Not to mention the notion that it will reduce or contain housing costs.

What the authors urged was that to work effectively any such measure needed to be aligned with rational planning strategies (that avoided pockets of spontaneous growth without adequate services) and change to tax policy that didn’t entrench windfall gains and benefits to those who already hold housing assets.

Dodson added this week that such policies miss opportunities to encourage development in village clusters or other benefits that come with good planning.

So here is where the numbers and the human stories behind them get interesting.

We called David Curtis, the chief executive of the New Zealand Planning Institute to see if these views from afar stacked up.

On the chaotic consequences of the unitary plan he said it wasn’t far from the truth and some areas fared better than others, with deep frustration places that is now fuelling a push to reform the upzoning.

He noted though that the zoning for higher density around stations and a containment of city limits had been around since the 80s. It was the amalgamation of seven councils that allowed the unitary plan to be spread across much of  the entire city.

So what about the prices? 

As Cameron Murray noted it makes a big difference when you start and end your graph. He might have added it makes a big difference what story you include and what you don’t, too.

As prices increased there was more demand for more intense housing, Curtis said. In 2016 the prices of housing in Auckland were about twice what they were in other major urban areas. In fact they rose to the point that people were unable to service the debt. “The unaffordability factor was holding back price growth,” he said.

The pandemic then kicked in and people started to work remotely in places that were more affordable. 

Between 2016 and 2021 prices in Auckland rose about 100 per cent. In Wellington they rose 150 per cent and in Manawatu, they rose 200 per cent. 

Curtis points to the purpose of planning, of which, he reminds us, zoning is just a part of the equation. “Ultimately it’s a mediation of spaces to create places.” A way to ensure good economic, social, environmental and cultural outcomes.

Right now the current government has embarked on another big overhaul of planning  – one that will “completely transform our resources and planning system. And what it delivers will be a whole new world,” Curtis says.

The increased density of the unitary plan was in essence a stop gap, he says. The new plan will agree on outcomes that are wanted, identify the effects of that – positive and negative – and then allow the goals to filter through to the regional level and finally the local councils to deliver the developments that accord with the plan.

The forecast transition is eight to 10 years and even with a change of government it’s a framework that he thinks will continue.

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