Sunday, July 18, 2010

Owen McShane: What is a Spatial Plan ... and whose is it?

The race is now on for the Mayor and Councillors of the Auckland Council – a critical stage in the process of creating the new Super City for the Auckland Region. We must all hope that this new Local Authority will contribute to the growth and development of the Auckland Region. After all, if Auckland is unable to perform to expectations we can hardly expect the nation to do any better.

So we all need to be sure the Super City has a reasonable chance of delivering on the promises.

So far the reporting on the candidates has focused on their personalities, their credit card spending, and almost anything except their competing policies and philosophies.

However, one major issue is taking shape and the battle lines are being drawn. I understand the architects of the reform introduced the concept of the “Spatial Plan” (See part 6 of the Local Government (Auckland Council) Amendment Act 2010) because they wanted at least one strategic document that would focus on economic growth and development.

This Spatial Plan would be a strategy document with no rules.

Such a document might even allow the courts to have some consideration for employment and economic growth before turning down major developments because the planners haven’t finished their plans.

However, something seems to have been lost in translation. Section 79(2) of the Act as passed says:

The purpose of the Spatial Plan is to contribute to Auckland's social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being through a comprehensive and effective longterm (20 to 30 year) strategy for Auckland's growth and development.

And section 74(4)(d) says the Spatial Plan must:

identify the existing and future location and mix of—
(i) residential, business, rural production, and industrial activities within specific geographic areas within Auckland;

Even Stalin might blush.

The Spatial Planners are invited to contribute to “Auckland’s social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being” rather let the people take care of themselves, as in section 5 RMA.

These new Spatial Plan’s requirement to specify the mix and location of land-use activities throughout the region is much more far reaching than the RMA, which never mentions land use planning at all.

Naturally, the Smart Growth teams have already seized on the invitation to implement Smart Growth writ large, and will enthusiastically come up with a rule and a zone for everything.

For example Joel Cayford, Auckland Regional Councillor, and long-standing advocate for Smart Growth, declared his idea of a Spatial Plan in the NZ Herald (June 29th) in his Opinion Piece – City can be transformed by targeting specific projects.

Mr Cayford scatters the code word “integration” throughout his essay from the first paragraph. “Integration” – like “co-ordination” is the Smart Growth code-word for “control”.

And guess who does the controlling?

He lets us know that:

The Auckland Regional Council is developing a refined classification for Auckland's centres, corridors and business areas, in order to provide greater certainty for the location and sequencing of growth, and strengthened alignment of land use, transport and economic development.

This Spatial Plan will be no strategic enabling document, without any rules. Mr Cayford tells us the Spatial Planners are determined that:

Transformation will only occur centre by centre, commercial zone by commercial zone, and street by street.

Auckland City planners are already preparing Precinct Plans for centres such as Mt Albert, and Onehunga. These highly detailed three-dimensional plans leave little room for private innovation or change. Forget about spontaneous order. A letter to a Mt Albert resident says:

The Auckland City Council will be passing on the Future Planning Framework, (FPF) including the four precinct plans, to the new Auckland Council with a recommendation that this work be used to inform the development of the spatial plan and the new district plan which the Auckland Council is required to undertake.

Those on the Right tend to believe Governments should focus on the management of their own assets and let private investors and landowners manage their own affairs, depending on the market and spontaneous order to allow our cities to evolve and churn as they must.

On the other hand those on the Left tend to believe every part of the region must be planned "street by street" and "centre by centre"; even if this process will employ half the population. No one will be allowed to do anything until the process is complete – sometime towards the middle of this century, or the next.

It's a long time to expect investors to hold their breath.

These two contrasting philosophies will soon be competing for control of the Spatial Planning of the Auckland region.

We need to be sure the right team wins because there are no rights of appeal against the Spatial Plan. “Consultation is presumed to put them beyond reproach.

However, this polarity provides a potent litmus test for the ideological colour of the candidates.

We should simply ask each candidate, and their promoters and supporters, whether they believe the Spatial Plan should be:

• a massive and detailed zoning and rule book, or
• a policy document, with no rules or zones, and no thicker than a child’s thumb –
including the covers and maps. (The late Aaron Wildavsky’s original “rule of thumb” said “any plan thicker than my thumb has no relation to the real world.”

Then we can cast our vote – as properly informed voters. Just don’t let the candidates submerge the issue in “sustainababble”.

What a Spatial Plan Should Contain.

One reason Government has created the Super City is to allow Auckland to speak with a strong and unified voice.

The new Council should take up the offer and use the Spatial Plan to send a clear message to Central Government as to what reforms are needed if the Auckland economy is to work as it should. To begin with, the Spatial Plan should focus on how cities actually work rather than on how they should look.
This concluding statement from Wendell Cox’s “How Texas avoided the Great Depression” should be on the inside cover:

A principal reason that Texas averted the Great Recession is that its less restrictive land use policies prevented the most damaging impacts of the housing bubble. The result was less unemployment, stronger consumer spending and superior housing affordability. All of this makes Texas more competitive and positions the state well for continued economic growth.

The Spatial Plan should then promote the virtues of:

• low urban density, within a multi-nuclear city, and the consequently reduced commuter travel times, fuel use and pollution.
• the freedom of cities to churn, so they can respond to changing markets,
• affordable housing, (No MULs etc)
• high auto-mobility,
• high speed broadband to promote telecommuting and overall system intelligence,
• public transport for those who need it (not to force people out of their cars),
• dispersed employment centres, with quality inter-suburb highways,
• development contributions replaced with some recycled GST,
• home-owners’ associations, as an alternative to zones,
• low-cost private plan changes,
• spontaneous order (ad hoc development) rather than enforced rigidity,
• “open-zoned” land on the urban fringe
• having employment and economic growth raised to matters of national importance in the RMA.

That would be a good first page. Another couple of pages should do it.

I’ll do the whole job for $1,000. (But the footnotes might cost a fortune.)

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