‘Enabling Housing’ Legislation Sacrifices Townscape Character


Late in October, the Minister of Housing, Dr Megan Woods, Minister for the Environment, David Parker, Leader of the Opposition Judith Collins, and Opposition spokesperson for Housing and Urban Development, Nicola Willis together announced a new bill; the Resource Management (Enabling Housing Supply and Other Matters) Amendment Bill. 

The intent behind this bill is to increase the availability of residential land and relaxing of rules to enable more new housing within existing neighbourhoods.

Submissions for the bill close on November 16 for the Environment sub-committee to consider and report to parliament, with the expectation that the legislation will be passed by 16 December this year.  All very fast, and all very possible given the cross-party approach. 

The Labour-National cross-party initiative shows the heightened concern that parliament has for the present housing shortage.  But the bill as it stands has serious and long-term consequences for our neighbourhoods, towns and cities. As background, the first part of the bill brings forward changes required by the National Policy Statement – Urban Development brought in last year.  The NPS-UD requires – amongst other things – that Tier 1 urban areas (Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch) update their District Plans to allow higher density development in city centres and suburban centres, including residential areas within a walkable catchment of the centres.   The mechanism to accelerate the changes in the bill is an Intensification Streamlined Planning Process instead of the standard Resource Management Act processes.  The timeline is for councils to have notified the intensification plan changes by August 2022 when they’ll come into effect, and the final decisions by August 2023.

The second strand of the bill relates to new Permitted activity and Restricted Discretionary activity rules, and new Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS) being set in place by the above Tier 1 Councils listed.  The Tier 1 definition draws in the neighbouring councils, so – in the case of Hamilton, these proposed changes equally apply also to the Waipa and Waikato District Councils.

Key to the proposed bill is that up to three residences, and up to three storeys in height, will become a permitted activity (ie; not requiring Resource Consent) for all residential properties in these areas.  The developments are subject to rules that are much more permissive than most councils have for development within residential areas.  Other MDRS changes to the current rules mean that boundary setbacks for buildings are much reduced, daylight envelopes are enlarged (meaning the neighbouring buildings can be larger and closer), and building coverage on properties can be increased. Large Lot residential zones – such countryside lifestyle blocks, and properties around the perimeter of towns such as Cambridge that are not connected to reticulated wastewater systems – are excluded from these changes.

The proposed bill foregoes the considered approach to placemaking, urban design, heritage, and designing for communities that has marked planning since the beginning of this century – marked by the development of the Urban Design Protocol under Helen Clark’s Labour Government in 2005.  The UDP is a remarkable and progressive viewing of the built environment with an understanding of placemaking that has seen many positive results in our towns and cities.  Many developers, local authorities, government departments and consultants are signatories to the protocol.

However, even prior to this – in the 1970’s – young couples and families rediscovered an appreciation for restoring and revaluing the bungalows and villas that were abandoned in the 1960’s as part of the social migration to the new suburbs of modern houses, such as Pakuranga and Chartwell.  The character of these older leafy-tree neighbourhoods, crafted and gardened houses and properties in areas such as Devonport, Ponsonby, Haitaitai and Claudelands came to be cherished, celebrated and protected by our communities.  However, these will be the neighbourhoods at the forefront of either demolition and replacement with multiple, too-often-anonymous infill townhouses, or to suffer new-builds immediately up against their bay windows and verandas.  It may likely be a challenge for the likes of the liberal Epsom enthusiasts to open their properties to the freeing-up of regulation in their neighbourhood.

The Enabling Housing Supply bill doesn’t address issues of neighbourhood context, greenspace, play areas or aesthetics, and – as we saw in the 1970’s with the pervasive concrete block flats throughout New Zealand’s inner town suburbs – a lot of neighbourhood damage is done that cannot easily be undone.

The seemingly one-dimensional objective for the legislation reads as a panicked response to the nuanced and multi-faceted issue of housing cost and supply, town and city identity and placemaking, neighbourhood character, housing for a variety of lifestyles and culture, and health and well-being.

However, there are advantageous features within the bill, and one would wonder why they shouldn’t be applied universally across the motu, rather than to the specific Tier 1 (and possibly Tier 2) areas.  Firstly, the idea of consistent planning rules across New Zealand such that each local authority has the same general rules as the next, perhaps nuanced in particular circumstances, has much sense to it, and would be less confusing. 

That it is difficult to build a second dwelling larger than 70 square metres on a property, for whanau and others, has lacked vision and an understanding of family-and-friends living advantages that people considering co-housing see.  Even a kitchen sink in an outdoor studio has been discounted in the past as evidence of a second dwelling.

The proposed bill is roughly-aimed and senseless at a time when swathes of land are continuing to be opened up around New Zealand, and locally, in Hamilton, Te Awamutu and Cambridge to release thousands of new homes to the market.  Net immigration has slowed to a trickle, and with the eventual opening of New Zealand’s borders, there is the real potential of net outwards migration.  Alongside this, the Covid-induced supply chain issues has constrained world-wide construction to a painful and expensive crawl.  Even if the government is looking to open land up quickly for development, there is no building capacity to match that intention for the foreseeable future.

With these constraints, and the likely push-back from the community, it is worth the select committee and the government taking the time to progress a nuanced, considered, and broadly-informed approach to address all the near- and long-term issues raised with residential intensification, and not just the perceived urgent immediate shortage.


About Author

Antanas Procuta

Antanas Procuta is Principal Architect at Hamilton-based PAUA, Procuta Associates Urban + Architecture