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Why bother with consultation?

growth planning logo [1]

by Benoit Pette
In August last year, Wellington started a journey called ‘Planning for Growth,’ asking how the District Plan should be amended to make room for the expected growth of the city in the next 30 years. A city wide consultation was undertaken:

If the city was to grow, what did residents prefer? Higher density in the CBD? Higher density in inner suburbs? Or new greenfield developments?

While there were some debates on how the questions were asked, potentially skewing the results in one direction, the option chosen by Wellingtonians – by a wide margin according to the council website – was “Option 2: Suburban centre”. Here is its description (on the website here [2]).

“This would see more townhouses in most suburban centres. Apartments up to six storeys would be needed in Newtown, Berhampore, and around the Kilbirnie towncentre, in addition to apartments up to 15 storeys high in the central-city. This scenario means new development goes mostly to areas that are less prone to sea-level rise and liquefaction, and it provides more housing choice across the city. Residential growth around suburban centres supports the economic viability of those areas, but we would have to invest in upgrading community facilities and infrastructure to support that growth. There would be some changes to pre-1930 character protection, although to a lesser degree than scenario one.”

With that in mind, you’d expect that this would be the baseline for all further discussions. Yet the 2020 edition of Planning For Growth consultation (the Draft Spatial Plan [3] has been written with scenarios significantly different from the “Option 2: suburban centre” description.

For example, “apartments up to six storeys would be needed in … the Kilbirnie town centre” have risen to 8 storeys! We asked City Councillors about the reason for the change. Teri O’Neil, councillor for the Eastern Ward was equally surprised. She picked up the question and passed it to city officers. The response came in an email:

“Since the previous engagement we have done more work on the areas that were identified for potential growth like Kilbirnie. This work involved considering a range of factors such as character, community facilities, public transport, open spaces etc. (the report ‘Wellington Outer Suburbs Assessment & Evaluation 2020 report’ is available on our Planning for Growth website [4]). Through this work Kilbirnie was identified as having a good range of transport and retail options, and excellent community infrastructure to support development of up to 8 storeys in the commercial centre, stepping down to 4 storeys adjacent to the centres and 2 – 3 storeys beyond this.”

So, the proposition for apartments up to 6 storeys which received wide support in last year’s consultation is gone.

Rather than refining the terms established last year, the consultation is now back to square one. The irony went a little further when the email continued:

“However is important to note that these are proposed heights for consultation and feedback, and also that there are a number of hazards relevant to Kilbirnie that still need further investigation to help inform future decisions about what level of intensification is appropriate. We are undertaking a range of research on hazards risk which will be complete by end of this year to inform the District Plan review process.”

Equally, the “suburban centre” never referred to developments outside the specifically designated suburbs (Newtown, Berhampore, and Kilbirnie). So why is the Draft Spatial Plan suggesting 6 storey developments in Miramar and Karori? Also, the 2019 survey showed that respondents wanted a greener city, yet the Draft Spatial Plan makes no provision for this: its sole focus seems to be on new density standards and height limits.

In a nutshell: why bother with consultation when city council staff overwrite what has been decided by the community?

As imperfect as the first round of consultation was in 2019, it had the merit of asking the question in simple terms, with four directions to debate – 1372 people responded and chose a preferred scenario.

The City Council should now be laying out a refined design built on this baseline, and the Mayor and Councillors should be championing the vision that was chosen by the people who responded.