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Dr Phil McDermott

Auckland Planning: Doing Less with More

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The burgeoning bureaucracy

In 2010 the eight Auckland councils were amalgamated into one.  I’m not sure why and my early prognosis gave the experiment five years before failing.  This was based on the unwieldy nature of the proposed council – multiple layers of management were bound to complicate and slow down decision-making and further remove policy-makers from the places and people for whom they are actually making policy.

More managers also means much higher wage costs, more internal meetings, and a reduced capacity to respond on the ground to the needs and wants of different communities and places.

Talking, talking …

It was no surprise, then, to read the report in the Herald (4 April 2016) of 37 city managers attending a workshop on updating the Auckland Plan in February.  The manager of the strategic planning process for the Council justified this by saying that “input from different experts across the organisation and workshops are used as the most efficient and effective way to ensure expertise is shared across the organisation”.

Talk about talking to ourselves!  And what have we got to show for it?

Well, most people are beginning to understand that the approach promoted in the Auckland Plan of using less land to absorb more development is pushing up prices for housing, costs for businesses, and congestion for commuters.  And these inevitable outcomes of rationing urban land can be compounded by inadequate infrastructure provision.

It’s certainly time for the council to have a rethink.  But I’m not holding my breath.  The last time planners recognised their plan for a compact city was not working, they simply argued for more regulation (in Growing Smarter, Auckland Regional Council 2007).

Getting grounded

The deficiencies of the current planning culture go further than the impacts of land rationing on property markets.   I’ve attended several hearings reviewing the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan (the PAUP, a statutory document intended to implement the aforementioned Auckland Plan).  I’ve been struck by three things.

(1) Private costs and commitments

First, there is the amount of time spent by the very large number of professionals drawn into the process: lawyers, independent planners, and a variety of experts (including the many consultant planners and experts commissioned by the council to advise its “different planners and experts” – go figure).

The cost of all this to the wider community must be substantial – quite apart from the Council’s $70m annual planning budget ($45 for every person living in the region).

(2) Getting grounded

Second, many private citizens are putting real time and thought into making submissions to a plan that has serious implications for them and their neighbours, their livelihoods and their lifestyles.  However, at the plan hearings in different parts of the region submitters addressing local, practical matters are up against by a centralised process and a complex and coercive set of regulations built in large part on supposition.

In fact, it is the many parties with a commitment to living and working in the region that anyone charged with thinking about the future of Auckland should be listening to, rather than talking to each other.

Unfortunately, the groupthink taking place in Auckland Council excludes divergent views and local circumstances when they cut across the beliefs that mark the current planning culture.

Institutional myopia generally is one of the reasons we end up with dubious decisions by large organisations out of touch with their public. This has already been demonstrated in the Council’s faulty assessment of housing capacity behind the proposed Auckland Unitary Plan.

Hopefully, the Plan Review Panel will counter such narrow thinking and ground the PAUP in reality rather than theory.

(3) Push back

Third, council officers and consultants seem almost inevitably to push back against any deviation from the PAUP proposed by submitters, implying that the principles they have adopted should prevail over the knowledge, aspirations, and circumstances of households, businesses, and community groups.

Even when council officers change their position in the face of the evidence, it seems often to be to draw back from increasing flexibility or providing for wider development opportunities, even to the extent of retreating from provisions set out in the PAUP as originally notified.

This might be acceptable or understandable if we are confident that the Council has properly identified and prioritised the issues, objectives and policies in the first place.

House of cards?

Unfortunately, we can’t be.  Drilling down into some of the material cited in the hearings and the documented rationale for various objectives and policies in the PAUP (contained in Section 32 reports) is disquieting.  There is a plethora of material, it is difficult to access, not especially conclusive, and in many cases, hard to relate to the policies it purports to support.

A lack of clarity or critical analysis means that much of this material appears irrelevant, dated, or contradictory.  This raises the uncomfortable thought that despite its budget, the quality of expertise bought to bear on planning in Auckland does not match the challenges associated with a region of 1.5 million people (and growing), compared with preparing plans that deal more directly with the circumstances of different areas within the region.

Consolidating planning and plans (and truncating the process) with the aim of streamlining is beginning to look like a step in the wrong direction.

Or less charitably, it may indicate that the quality of our planning is not up to the challenges of reconciling sound environmental management with the diversity and volatility of modern urban development.  This has serious implications, including that of not providing for the housing and employment needs of a population that the planners expect to continue to grow strongly for the foreseeable future.

When is more too much?

All of this led me to revisit Auckland local government employment numbers.  I haven’t dug up the numbers employed directly in planning.  But the overall Auckland figures increased 8.8% over the two years to 2015 compared with just 2.2% for the rest of New Zealand.

In fact, Auckland’s local government employment jumped by over 50% from 2010 to2015!  The rest of New Zealand experienced just 5% growth.  (This included 23% growth in Canterbury, a short-term boost attributable presumably to the response to the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes). So much for the greater efficiencies trumpeted for amalgamation.

Worryingly, 50% growth in local government employment compares with an estimated 9% growth in population and less than 13% growth in other employment over the same period.

In this case, more may be less

Auckland is clearly putting more resources into local government. It’s hard to see the benefits this is delivering to a city struggling still with expensive land, inadequate transport infrastructure, inappropriate land use, and an intrusive planning culture which appears to be promoting more rather than better regulation.