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5 focus points for new residential development council

The Property Council launched a residential development council at its residential development summit in Auckland today.

Property Council chief executive Connal Townsend its role was to highlight the importance of residential development & investment “as a key driver of economic growth, employment, prosperous cities, empowered communities & social progress”, and it would be “a network of qualified & experienced industry experts, who demand sound policies & legislation that address critical issues facing New Zealanders today”.

Its 5 focus areas are:

  1. Better urban planning: establishing a robust planning system that results in fewer delays, more certainty & consistent consenting practices
  2. Less bureaucracy: targeting inconsistent & poorly designed rules & regulations that discourage development
  3. Infrastructure: future-proof investment in national infrastructure via aligned & integrated central & local government strategies
  4. Rigorous data: setting up a comprehensive knowledge base decisionmakers can use to draw reliable information from during the policymaking process
  5. Urban design: ‘good urban design’ that produces high quality & sustainable communities for New Zealanders, that is also well integrated with adjoining planning rules.

Mr Townsend said the need for a residential development & investment advocacy body had never been more apparent: “The launch of the Residential Development Council comes as the residential sector navigates a maze of convoluted central & local government legislation & regulations that undermine efforts to deliver houses.

“We are here as an advisory body to official decisionmakers during policymaking. We have the commercial knowhow, on-the-ground experience & market intelligence. We are saying ‘Consult with us’, and help us help you deliver better housing solutions for all New Zealanders.

“We are also a conduit between developers & investors, as our sector lacks significant scale. For cities such as Auckland & its substantial housing shortage, we need investors to help meet the demand.

“Investors offer the capital needed to build on a larger & more viable scale, while providing the means to offer alternative forms of tenure & home ownership over time.”

The Residential Development Council will represent professionals & stakeholders within the residential property sector under the Property Council umbrella.

Attribution: Property Council release.

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Minister doesn’t do industry’s bidding, but her own course seems confused

Wider education is minister’s way forward, and that sets off alarm bells

After the Minister for the Environment, Marian Hobbs, made it very clear on Friday that her thinking on resource management is, at best, muddled, I suggested to numerous Property Council members that debate between the minister and others at the council’s annual conference was at cross-purposes.

Resoundingly, the response was that my suggestion was too kind to the minister.

What the property industry wants out of the resource management process is certainty. It’s an expensive and time-consuming process: with certainty of process, you can know better where and how to spend your money and refine time management.

What the minister told them, in effect although she didn’t seem to have got to this conclusion or to have worked out where it would lead, was that you can ditch the district plan in favour of contrary decision-making by community boards.

Public participation fundamental

To her, the desire of many in the industry to have independent commissioners replace elected councillors or community board members to hear planning applications is misplaced. She wants public participation retained, and that means local body politicians should continue to hear applications.

Ms Hobbs commented in her address on the issuing of the Arrigato decision (on Ian Gillespie’s continuing battle to subdivide a farm overlooking Pakiri Beach) a week ago. “I’m very pleased it’s come out, not because of the decision but because of what it says about process,” the minister said.

Justice Robert Chambers has gone into great detail in his 23-page Arrigato decision, setting out the relationships between policies and objectives at various levels of the planning process as they flow down from national to regional to local level, and back up from local determination of specific zones to treatment of them at the higher levels.

An important few words for the minister’s view lie in page 14 of the Chambers judgment: “The residents of a district are entitled to assume that the plan, once formulated following public consultation, is in general respected, particularly in so far as its objectives and policies are concerned.”

Ms Hobbs made it clear that this item of public consultation at the local level was fundamental.

Inconsistency concern

Property Council members, including barrister and session leader Russell Bartlett and Bell Gully Buddle Weir partner and resource management specialist Rebecca Macky, raised concerns about the flow of the decision-making process being destroyed by contrary decisions at the bottom level, including decisions based on local politics rather than on subjection to the legal structure.

A way out of this was to have independent commissioners who are aware of the legal structure and have no political grounds for veering off its course. The local politicians would then be better placed to act as advocates for their political causes.

But this is to acknowledge a legal structure — and a place for lawyers in it. Lawyers are plainly anathema to Ms Hobbs, who echoed a concern raised a week earlier by Associate Commerce Minister Laila Harré that legal processes could defeat quick and simple resolution.

Ms Harré (a lawyer herself, but one who worked on the employee’s side of employment law and now an Alliance MP) was talking about the adjudication system for protecting building subcontractors. She said: “We do not want this process to turn into just one more round of legal skirmishing. Unless there are compelling reasons it is hoped that the process can be kept as informal as possible. It should also be able to appoint experts in complicated cases.”

That is an expression of an abiding concern for all left-wing politicians, that money will win and they must overcome that law of nature on behalf of the downtrodden.

Care for environment gets swept aside

Ms Hobbs said it was common that what begins as an environmental issue gets swept aside in an effort to get a settlement. “Rather too much continues to be about property rights… using the Resource Management Act as a commercial battleground.”

This is to state the difference between left-wing people who hug trees and property developers who chop them down for profit, disregarding the environment’s wellbeing in the process. And, of course, on that battleground it is the lawyers who make the money as the litigation experts.

One of the key points of difference between Ms Hobbs and her audience was that she insisted on seeing a wider environmental perspective, the syndrome of saving the planet and knowing your place in the greater scheme of things, while the two views of the industry’s desire for certainty are in basic conflict.

The industry’s view is that it will get things done better, more cheaply, more efficiently with procedural certainty.

The view of opponents of development — a view which runs through all the anti-mining campaigns on the Coromandel, pops up in “nimby” cases of opposition to higher-intensity housing and invariably arises where subdivision will result in a radically different land use — is not essentially about change but about destruction which can’t be remedied.

The Arrigato case at Pakiri is one example — although thousands of trees have been planted on barren pasture to make the environment more like it once was, houses will be dotted on this land and the objection is to the destruction of isolation.

Objection to AMP’s Auckland waterfront tower and the way the Auckland City Council went about permitting its development is another example: opponents generally see highrise as a destroyer of the human element, a particularly bad loss on a waterfront where the momentum has been toward creating a warmer, more human environment, and anything above about 10 storeys can be seen as negating that human warmth.

Minister highlights education need

Ms Hobbs recognised that councils with a low rating base (rural ones with high new-infrastructure demands, those with little industrial or commercial property) are likely to be in a worse position to hire the best, or right staff. In that event, the planning process is unlikely to be as smooth an understanding as the professional process practitioners would like.

At this point, the minister showed her interest was less in achieving efficient processes (although she mentioned work being done on that; see below) than on getting public input. “Largely, good practice is a matter of education, not just councillors and their staff but educating the public.”

Her audience slumped back. Instead of closing out the irrelevant by a tighter process focusing on an application, and not going beyond that, the minister would have the whole nation being educated in the general subject and able to participate better in hearings.

She confessed to her own ignorance on resource management detail before becoming a minister and figured most people would be the same: they wouldn’t know boundary requirements or floor-area ratios, or anything about them, until someone started building something they didn’t like next door.

“There’s been a lot of focus on process, but we need to be sure about outcomes,” Ms Hobbs said. This meant attention to monitoring, compliance and performance. “I would suggest the power rests in your own hands,” she told her industry audience.

I take her reference to outcomes as being to the wider “sustainable management” objectives of the Resource Management Act, and this is where the minister’s muddled view of the act comes to bear.

Bringing more educated local viewpoints into the process at an early stage can be a wonderful ambition, although people tend not to learn such things unless they have a need to know, but the property industry would argue an excessive focus on consultation destroys management of the process.

In practical terms, Russell Bartlett said the time it takes to put a district plan in place is a destroyer of management. In one example, the plan for the Viaduct Basin precinct of Auckland City, he said the operative plan specified the number of carparks a development should have, but the proposed plan says a development doesn’t have to have any parking.

“There are many examples. You don’t know what to do,” he said.

Back to the practical

As district plans go from operative to transitional, eventually being dominated by conditions in the successor plan before being replaced, a process which can take a decade or more, and sections such as the above can be in complete conflict throughout this long transition, Mr Bartlett suggested a good resource management change would be not to make district plans operative until they’re passed.

This would speed up councils’ introduction of plans, he believed.

Ms Hobbs felt “the people who did the envisaging” to create the Resource Management Act “might not have known much about human nature.”

She has turned away from some legislative changes and is cautious about making sweeping changes through the amendment bill which is before a select committee now. “We spend an awful lot of time redoing it because we’ve done it so speedily,” she said of hasty legislative changes.

This took her back to the all-encompassing altruism which could so easily bring the forward motion of the resource management process to a grinding halt: people affected by development proposals are told they had the right to express their concerns about the nature of development they don’t like, rather than the specifics of a development proposed according to the guidelines put in place perhaps several years before, when the plan was being written.

When it comes to complaining about a development proposal at the time of construction rather than at the time the framework was written, people can find they’ve become excluded from the process because their complaint is about the framework.

Ms Hobbs said it would be better for people to become involved at that earlier stage of writing district plans than to tinker with legislation as a response.

That, in turn, led to a debate on democracy versus efficiency in the hearings process, with nobody’s view changing. Ms Macky said the hearings process was “quasi-judicial,” not a democratic process, and should not be conducted by elected councillors acting as commissioners.

Ms Hobbs said there was anecdotal evidence, but no hard evidence about poor performance by councillors in this area. “I understood the Resource Management Act was about decisions being made at a local level,” she said.

This is to confuse the definition of local equalling councillors and people of the neighbourhood, excluding independent commissioners who may well have a long history of expertise in a neighbourhood’s affairs, with a view that efficient processing means people of the neighbourhood are not being heard fairly.

But it is in line with the view that lawyers are bad because they make a lot of money from litigation processes, so everything would be better if they were ousted from the process.

Far better would be to see the expertise used, efficiency improved so the litigation process is carried out in a far tighter timeframe, an end put to the insertion of unnecessary bureaucratic processes to give the meaning of the universe at every tiny tree-pruning, and the currently excessive bills for experts and lawyers quickly slashed.

Ms Hobbs got somewhere near this in her discussion on the Environment Court backlog. Although case management had been introduced, there was still room for improvement. “I’m not convinced it’s just a case of appointing more judges,” she said.

Now she is a minister, Ms Hobbs has lost the opportunity to sit quietly and unnoticed in a back corner of an Environment Court hearing room, which would show her in short time what a disastrous exercise in management the whole Environment Court is.

The minister mentioned as progress that the court now holds a callover of cases, similar to the high and district courts’. Again, what she would not know is what a time-waster the Environment Court has made of its callover.

As for the amendment bill now in Parliament, Ms Hobbs said all oral submissions had been heard, the deliberations of Parliament and voting process could take six weeks, and the select committee is expected to report back by the end of October, though she suspected it might be mid-November.

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