Mayor Andy Foster discussed the Wellington City Council’s Planning for Growth proposals, in an interview on RadioActive. He was questioned about preserving the city’s character areas. Here’s what he said.
Interviewer Maggie Tweedie: We’ve had an enormous amount of feedback about the threat to heritage buildings in our character areas. This has come from an article by Felicity Wong of Historic Places Wellington published on Wellington.Scoop . There is to be a Strategy and Policy Committee meeting primarily on the “planning for growth” city development proposal. There is also a webinar unveiling of the plan to the public on the 13th of August. For listeners who may not know what’s coming up, can you please give us a quick synopsis of the plan? How big is this? What does this mean for the future of Wellington, particularly those immediate peripheral suburbs?
Mayor Andy Foster: Yeah, look it is big. I’ve been saying that this [has been] coming for a while and it’s going to be big and it’s going to be challenging. [Ah] essentially what we’re doing is we’re expecting another 50,000-80,000 people to call Wellington home over the next 30 years and the Government has said … that you must provide the capacity for housing and for the non-residential, y’know businesses and schools etc that that growing population needs. In other words we can’t bury our heads in the sand and say ‘look, we’ll leave it to somebody else’, we’ve got to do the planning. So, that’s going to be very hard because [um] given that we’ve got just over 200,000 people in the city now and if you have 80,000 more it’s not going to be invisible. So the trick’s going to be how we accommodate that growth, how we try and protect the things that we value and look, I completely buy the issues around protecting character. I mean, I was the one who brought in the 1930’s non-demolition rule in the first place to try and protect some of the character of the inner city suburbs. So it’s going to be challenging conversation, at the moment it affects basically, pretty well, every suburb in the city, the inner suburbs, central city, the outer suburbs as well. And we’re going to want people’s feedback on what’s the right way to go and what they value and what they don’t want to change. The other bit is the most recent piece of the Government’s policy, which is what they call a national policy statement on urban development, they actually make some requirements on us and essentially everything within walking distance to the edge of the CBD must be/ we cannot set a maximum height limit less than six storeys unless there are some particularly good reasons. Those particularly good reasons do include heritage protection, natural environment and things like resilience so seismic and sea level rise. So that’s where the discussions are going to go.
Interviewer Maggie: Theoretically, if the changes to the district plan go in as are outlined by the current proposal, will this mean that we’ll see more high density housing complexes go into places like Newtown, Mount Victoria, Mount Cook and Thorndon?
Mayor Andy Foster: Well what we’ve done is the proposal at the moment has spread the growth across the central city, inner city suburbs and the outer suburbs, particularly around certain centers. So, it would have an impact across the board. The one thing that I have particularly asked is that, look what we’re doing is we’re providing capacity, so providing essentially an envelope for a building to go in. That doesn’t mean a building will go in, in fact we expect the market to only provide a small proportion of that. So that does lead you to the question whether you actually need to provide all that capacity which we’re still working through and will continue to work through.
Interviewer Maggie: In the comments section of a Wellington Scoop article written back in July 2019 you said “In my view it is absolutely essential in this process that we as a community decide together what are the things we value and want to protect, and what are the things and places we are happy to see change.” What are “we” as Wellingtonians happy to see change?
Mayor Andy Foster: Well that’s what we’re going to be consulting on. This is the second stage of four. The first stage was essentially saying do you want to go “up” or do you want to go “out”? We did that last year, we got around 1,300 submissions at that stage. We put four options to Wellingtonians, we said well either we can densify central city plus that sort of Newtown corridor as well as the core of that, or see development in other places Northern suburbs, green fields, in-fill and various other places [paraphrased as inaudible]. Or we could have a bit more suburban focus plus the CBD, or we could go out into green fields to places like Ohariu Valley. And really strong feedback from the community was that they preferred to densify rather than to go out and that really is about being more energy efficient, reducing our carbon emissions and increasing sort of vitality of the city and our suburban centers. So people told us that, and this was the second stage and the third stage will be what we call a non-statutory district plan for change, which will be drafted in the first quarter next year and that’s actually when you get into planning rules and finally there will be an actual statutory district plan which will be the end of next year. So, there are the several stages, there’s a lot of opportunity for people to have input during this process.
Interviewer Maggie: Historic Places Wellington are concerned that the 6-week submission period is running at the same time as the general election, taking that sort of much needed media and public attention away from something that may well have extensive consequences for this city; and that’s why we’re focusing on that this morning.
Mayor Andy Foster: Yeah, I understand that. We’re going to have to ask our [inaudible] to do several things at once and there’s also talk about the library which people have told us they want to get on with. One of the challenges we’ve got in this country is we have very very short electoral terms and this term has been interrupted by Covid. So we’ve got some real challenges, if people actually want us to get things done, we actually have to get on and get things done which means talking to people and listening to people.
Interviewer Maggie: Why has there been input only by Council-employed heritage folk? Is the Council’s proposal a result of input from developers? And is that because developers will get a greater return on their investment in the heritage areas?
Mayor Andy Foster: I’m not quite sure what you mean about that – this is a council paper rather than a public paper at this stage, and this is the second stage of the opportunity for our community to have an input.
Interviewer Maggie: Let’s wind back to what you were saying earlier about population and the extraordinary influx of people we’re predicting to have in Wellington. According to the 2018 Census, there are approximately 40,000 empty private homes in Auckland. Are there any figures of these “ghost homes” for Wellington? And if so have they been taken into account for the projections?
Mayor Andy Foster: I’m not quite sure where those numbers come from, there’s been a bit of comment particularly around things like AirBnb, that people are having homes which could accommodate people full-time as part-time options effectively. There’s always some homes vacant for one reason or another, maybe their homes in transaction/ buying and selling. Maybe people are out of the country, not so much at the moment but there are a range of different reasons that those homes are not fully occupied.
Interviewer Maggie: And if people want to submit information and are interested in getting involved all you have to do is go online to the Wellington City Council website after the 10th of August and have your say. With your history of green initiatives, Shelly bay and Zealandia sort of being examples of that, what are the ecological considerations in a project like this? Isn’t destroying heritage buildings to build new ones inherently wasteful?
Mayor Andy Foster: Well as I’ve said, I was the one who brought in the 1930’s rule, so I’m going to be going out and I know that at least one of my colleagues is very very keen on that as well. He’s going to be going out and looking, street by street, at what’s been proposed to be removed from the pre 1930’s rules and seeing whether we agree with the [ah] those assessments, and obviously listening to what the community has to say about that. [Ah] in terms of the natural environment, we’ve been doing some work called “backyard taonga” [um] so that’s basically identifying the areas of potential significance in terms of the natural ecology and landscape. Talking with land owners there who are potentially affected by that and how we can help them as well and that will form part of the proposal.
Interviewer Maggie: Finally, back to population. Because these changes are based on long-term population projections: does Covid-19 not sort of change the picture a bit? Given that international immigration is indefinitely non-existent and that birth rates are affected by economic downturn.
Mayor Andy Foster: This is because/people sometimes say, y’know do we want to have that many people coming into pretty much the city. The answer is people are going to come because they want to come, because they’re in New Zealand already. So there’s a big weed to be pulled in terms of growth and that’s actually by the Government not by us, and that’s sort of the rate of migration. Obviously we have a very very high rate of migration over the last few years. Covid has essentially stopped that, in terms of non New Zealand migration. However, we’re seeing a very very high number of New Zealanders coming back to New Zealand looks on the basis as broadly the same amount of numbers we were getting from non-New Zealand citizen migration. So I’m not sure it will make a lot of difference even in the short term, and certainly over a long period of time- no, we don’t think it’ll change anything.