Friday, September 2, 2011

Owen McShane: When Plans Prevent Planning

The housing shortfall in the Auckland Council area – which generates an employment shortfall in the area – is now a crisis. Given the impact on the whole economy, and on accommodation costs in particular, one would think that this would be the top priority for the whole of Council, its Local Boards and its staff.

You would be wrong. Council does not seem to be concerned and is instead busy on activities that will only make this shortfall worse – and indeed is doing so already. For example the new Auckland Plan confirms the use of MULs (Renamed the Rural Urban Boundary – now there’s the RUB.) The Plan also confirms that Development Contributions will be a major source of financing for the planned projects. These two policies are incompatible with affordable housing (land) (Refer to the two pairs of graphs comparing US States with Prescriptive land use regulation and those with Responsive land use regulation) They guarantee that the massive housing shortfall in Auckland will extend well into the future, and volatility will continue to be the norm. A city is unlikely to be liveable if it is short of houses and jobs and the available housing stock is unaffordable to working and middle classes.

It’s all very well to have plans for the future of the city and region but they cannot be realized on the back of a stalled economy. Plans do little to guide growth and development if there is none. And as Plans multiply then the private sector loses its own ability to plan because of the resulting uncertainty.

We should all be aware that DURT (i.e. Delays, Uncertainty, Regulations and Taxes) is the major impediment to economic activity. We should also be aware that Uncertainty is a major deterrent to investors starting new projects that take time to realize – and in these days that time can be measured in years. The key “Uncertainty” is the uncertainty of the final outcome. After five years or more of planning, a project can be dissolved by the stroke of an Environment Court pen.

But this uncertainty of outcome is multiplied many times by Uncertainties surrounding the legal framework of decision-making which are in place on day one. The Council’s focus on generating a bundle of interlocking new Plans means that only a fool would begin any major project at this time.

Auckland Council is producing “a Spatial Plan”, “an Auckland Plan”, and “Central City Plan” and these are being processed at the same time, while all the existing Plans and Policy Statements remain in place. I have not been able to find any psychic who can make any predictions as to which of these plans will govern decision-making in any particular area, and what weight the different plans will have at any given time. The legistlation is largely silent on the relationship between these new Auckland Plans and the RMA. The end result is that officials have enormous discretion. Such discretion does not equate to “flexibility” because the “Uncertainty” weighs so heavily on the shoulders of investors that they sensibly withdraw from the market.

The Spatial Plan that is not a Spatial Plan.
Part six of the legislation that established the Auckland Council requires Council to prepare a Spatial Plan as an early precursor to decision making on transport and other infrastructure and land use matters. Spatial Plans are a standard form of plan and tend to be high-level strategic documents that focus on the integration of infrastructure and land use. (What Wendell Cox calls The Infrastructure Canard” because of the assumption that government funded infrastructure must be in place prior to land use development being approved.) This is just an excuse to impose central planning on the urban economies. This excuse ignores the fact that intensification required retro-fitting of upgraded infrastructure which is much more expensive but which will be provided by the waving of magic wands.

The proponents virtually never propose expansion of roads to deal with the increased traffic that occurs in densifying conditions. Yet, the national and international evidence is clear: higher densities produce more traffic. Without more capacity, this means slower speeds, more intense pollution and more greenhouse gas emissions.

There is no point in imagining that it can be any different. For example, the most dense part of the United States is New York’s Manhattan, which is served by a rail system that is far more comprehensive than any other place in the nation. Yet, traffic volumes (total vehicle miles) per square mile in Manhattan are more than 3.5 times that of the nation’s most congested urban area, Los Angeles, and 12 times that of the nation’s least dense major urban area, Atlanta. Don’t expect rail to reduce congestion, especially if “supported” by densification policies.

Thus, any savings that might be obtained from not expanding roads to meet demand is achieved by retarding service levels. Further, the longer travel times would stunt economic growth.

Anyhow we are stuck with the proposed Spatial Plan, or we were until it morphed into something new – “The Auckland Plan for Everything”. Aucklanders are now being asked to comment on a Plan that includes education, health, housing and other issues that fall well outside of the scope of Section 6 of the Auckland Council Act.

The new Proposed Auckland Plan will probably fail a challenge in the Courts for being ultra vires section 6. The Plan also appears vulnerable to challenge under the provisions of the Local Government Act dealing with “decisions of significance”. Maybe someone has sought a legal opinion and believes that the Spatial Plan can be extended to consider such matters which are outside section 6, and for which Council actually has no responsibility as a “requiring authority”. Such a decision is surely “significant” and hence must go through the necessary consultation processes and be built into the Long Term Council Community Plan.

As things stand, the Auckland Council is proposing a Plan that includes a host of activities without having authorized the resources needed to finance their supply.

It seems that Council had made the significant decision that it is a law unto itself and can do whatever its visions tell it to do.

When Councils get visions the ratepayers get nightmares.

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