Mayor tackles red tape as city grows up and out

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Hamilton Mayor Andrew King is looking to slash red tape and potentially save “hundreds of millions” as the city grapples with growth.

And in the longer term, Hamilton can expect much greater housing density, height restrictions in the central city could be lifted and surrounding farmland could be swallowed up as far as Taupiri. That’s the future envisioned by King, just over two years into the job.

Waikato Business News first interviewed King when he was the newly elected mayor.

Since then his council has passed a 10 year plan that includes increased developer contributions, while it has also raised rates by an average 9.7 percent in a one-off jump.

Two years ago, King said he wanted to open up more areas for housing development, including fast-tracking Peacocke, and go through the district plan to reduce its rules.

Peacocke has been given the green light, while King was not able to convince his council to back a wholesale review of the district plan. He says he is comfortable with the alternative, the regulatory effectiveness and efficiency programme (Reep), which is set to gain traction before the October election, when King will be standing for re-election.

“As far as I’m concerned this really is looking at red tape, it really is looking at the rules and making it easier to do business.”

He is critical of the plethora of “unnecessary” reports imposed on developers, almost all of which, he says, end up being rubber-stamped.

“I’m saying if these things are happening as of right, the people are getting them through anyway, why are we making it so difficult for them? Why not just let it happen as of right? I believe that alone would save hundreds of millions of dollars a year.”

King is bullish about the prospects for Peacocke. The land is good for building on, he says, and he also cites its proximity to the central city, hospital and schooling.

It comes with a $180 million interest-free loan from the government, which King says saves the city $70m in repayments, and he says it will also have $110 million ploughed into the roading infrastructure by NZTA.

Over the next 20 years, up to 8000 properties could be developed in its boundaries, with the all-important bridge across Waikato River likely to open in five years. At $50,000 development contributions per section, King says 3750 sections would put them very close to the $180 million. 

“I don’t see any risk,” he says.

“I think it’s really exciting that 30 years of council have tried to get Peacocke across the line, and we have got it across the line.

“I think it’s quite telling that the development levies in Peacocke are $50,000 whereas the development levies in Rotokauri, which was ahead of Peacocke, is $98,000 per section, which is the huge cost of developing out in that area.” 

King says the development of the arterial Southern Links by NZTA, possibly starting in five years, would open up further potential for housing.

Some developers have pushed back against rising contributions, but King cites nearby Cambridge as comparable to Peacocke both in quality and in developer contribution (DC) level.

He is more concerned about the contributions for commercial and industrial land, an area where he says he wants to better understand the issues ahead of any possible changes mid-year.

“The people I would be concerned about would be the people that create the jobs, the DCs that we’ve got  on industrial land and those who are producing. If we are looking at anything, that would be the one thing that I would be concerned about, but on new houses I’m very comfortable with where the DCs are.”

Driving all of this is growth and, as King sees it, the need for more land. He points to Hamilton having the highest density of people of any territorial authority in New Zealand. “We need to plan the city for 100 years and we need to address affordable housing in quantity, and the only way we can do that is to get land that’s outside of our boundary.” In his view the boundary should go as far as Taupiri, and bring in Gordonton and probably Matangi, as well as the land within the Southern Links.

It’s not only housing; King also wants “large tracts” of land for factories. He cites the city’s loss of two large factories, one moving from Hamilton to Waipa, the other “rumoured” to be shifting from South Auckland to Ohinewai.

He says a lot of factories are looking to move from South Auckland where the land is becoming more expensive as housing pressure builds. 

“They want big rectangular blocks of land. For a production line to work as efficiently as possible they want it all in one building, all under one roof, raw material to packaged product.

“We need huge blocks of land to be able to set this up and bring in the factories we want.”

Meeting growth will be a three-pronged approach, which will also involve going up in the central city and much denser infill elsewhere.

On height restrictions: “Why can’t you build as high as you like in the CBD? We know it’s already naturally limited anyway by the ground conditions – to go down to get a hard base is very difficult so we know it’s very challenging and that will limit how high you can go anyway from an engineering point of view.”

On infill: “When you’re pulling one house down and putting six units on, it’s hugely beneficial for the efficiencies around the city. Why do sections have to be limited to 400 sq m? Why can’t they go smaller? 

“Why, when you own a section, can you only put one other house on it? If you comply with the section sizes, why can’t you put three houses on there? Why can’t you put a tiny house – which is a house that’s under about 30 sq m – on every section, as of right?”

He says there has been consultation with developers and the public over the changes, which a full-time staff member and external consultant have been working on for a year.

Looking back over his term so far, what is he most pleased about? “That we’re bringing in enough money now to look after our assets properly.”

He cites as issues when he gained the mayoralty Waterworld needing fixing, the central library needing earthquake strengthening, the indefinite closure of Founders and sewerage pipes that needed upgrading.

“We were flat out paying down debt, patting ourselves on the back, and saying we were doing a great job when our city was falling apart around us.

“To run the city responsibly you need to bring in enough money to look after what you’ve got.”

He says interest and other costs sees every $1 million in council borrowing balloon to $15 million within 10 years, and gives the unexpected extra repair costs to the lights at Seddon Park as an example of the council avoiding such a risk.

“It was going to cost us $5 million instead of $3 million but we’ve got enough money in the budgets where we didn’t have to ask for more money.”

And what is his greatest disappointment? “I would have liked a full review of the district plan. I really do believe the city’s not as efficient as it could be because of that, but I also am very happy with where we’ve got to with the Reep.”

Catch the bus

One potential downside of growth is congestion, and Hamilton Mayor Andrew King is touting the council’s “innovative” approach to the buses as part of the fix. City buses are set to be free for all under-18s and people with disabilities in a move that he hopes will draw a bigger NZTA subsidy.

“Our plan is to get every kid under the age of 18 using buses as the default, as the norm, We want them to use them for everything – they can go to their mates’ places, they can go shopping, they can just go for a ride – and we want them to get so used to riding buses that when they get over the age of 18 they continue using them.”

He points to the environmental bonus, as well as the reduction in cars on the roads during peak school times, and says he is unaware of such a programme being undertaken anywhere else.

Public transport needs subsidies in order to work, he says. 

“Part of what we do isn’t just things that stack up business-wise; we also have, I believe, a responsibility to look after the vulnerable.” 

Nevertheless, he says regardless of whether NZTA comes to the party, rates will not be raised to pay for the scheme.

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