Wellington Scoop

In house – changing their minds about how to get more houses

by Lindsay Shelton
The Wellington City Council is changing its mind again about having some of its decisions made at arms-length by the directors of an independent council-controlled organisation. This time, it doesn’t like its idea of establishing an Urban Development Agency.

When councillors voted to approve the new Agency a year ago, the DomPost described something that sounded like a miracle worker:

It is expected the Agency would facilitate projects like medium-density housing, big infrastructure projects in high-profile locations, redevelopment of tired areas such as Adelaide Road, and redevelopment of areas where earthquake-prone building issues are slowing the market response.

Not everyone supported the idea. Iona Pannett​ was worried about the council ceding its powers to arms-length agencies with less transparency. Helene Ritchie said the agency would be a “monster risk” and the council should not be “gambling” ratepayers’ money on the property market for private developers’ gain.

And last week, the mayor’s housing task force seemed to be agreeing with the two dissenters – it decided to overrule the council decision. The development agency is to be abolished, even before it’s been established. Its work will instead be done in house. Task Force chair Paul Eagle said he’d been warned …

… a UDA could end up competing with the private sector and not complementing it; could duplicate existing council functions; and risked becoming politicised and unable to operate with sufficient agility.

Issues which councillors should have been made aware of last year. Cr Eagle says a better way forward will be …

… to create an internal council unit which would be a restructure of existing units that looked after consenting, urban design, city-shaping and aspects of the property team.

Five or six years ago – before it invented the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency – the council debated the wisdom, or otherwise, of having arms-length decision-making by the directors of council-controlled organisations. It decided to dis-establish five costly CCOs and to bring all their activities in house. The intention was to save money. In 2013 I investigated Positively Wellington Venues and found out its work was costing five times as much as when the same jobs were being done inside the council,

So it seemed that worthwhile savings could be made.

But, no, there was another policy change. Only Wellington Waterfront Ltd was dis-established and brought back in-house. The others – events, tourism, venues and growth – stayed outside the council and were moved into the huge new WREDA establishment when it was created at the end of 2014 with a budget of $15m a year.

A board described as stellar was chosen to oversee WREDA’s work. Yet only two years later, the council is sounding dissatisfied with WREDA’s performance. And Ian Apperley wrote in December that the organisation has a track record of “talk, with little action.”

Expect another debate on whether or not city council decisions should be made outside the council.

No such dissatisfaction, however, with the council’s long-term (in-house) social housing activities. The council continues to oversee a $400m programme to upgrade its social housing stock, a unanimously-admired programme that’s been running since 2008. Mayor Justin Lester included one of its current projects in his February announcement about building more social and affordable housing.

The social housing programme is also exemplary in its consultation. For which it has won prizes. We’ve suggested more than once that the social housing people should be given extra responsibility – to oversee all consultation carried out by the council. They could show their colleagues how consultation can be carried out in a way that’s satisfactory – rather than frustrating – for the people who are being consulted.


  1. Mike, 26. April 2017, 13:41

    Public housing is Housing NZ’s responsibility. We have watched poor housing management including demolitions, evictions, and sales in a massive reduction of public housing stock.

  2. Sez, 26. April 2017, 18:11

    Bring it in-house and let the WCC’s inertia take control. Way to solve the housing shortage – not.

  3. Observant, 26. April 2017, 19:10

    Surely a task force does not have powers to overturn a council decision…not even delegated powers.

  4. Lindsay, 26. April 2017, 19:13

    Sez – the great results from the city council’s (ongoing) $400m upgrading of the city’s social housing don’t indicate inertia. Quite the reverse.

  5. CC, 26. April 2017, 20:36

    In regard to social housing, wasn’t the upgrade part of a financial deal imposed on the Council by the Government when there was some contemplation of flogging the assets off to developers? However, there is no doubt that the team that are responsible are a cut above other Council infrastructure entities in terms of consultation and implementation. The planners could learn much from them.
    WWL being taken back in house was an interesting proposition. After consistently failing to meet the Council’s expectations and running up a significant debt, something had to be done. Unfortunately, it seems the name change to City Shaper hasn’t changed the impression that its only competence was delivering public assets to developers at bargain prices. Shelley Bay being offered to The Wellington Company for $2.5m while being valued at $10m by others in the business has a bit of a smell about it.
    Justin Lester, backed by some councillors with a bit of drive, competence and obvious appreciation of the expectations of the non-commercial ratepayers, appears to be moving toward holding the administration to account.

  6. Kerry, 27. April 2017, 13:24

    The key point — and as I understand it the reason for separation from the WCC — is what compulsory powers are available to agglomerate land in large enough parcels for medium-density development. I suspect the answer is no powers and no planned development on a scale larger than the existing sections. Medium density is extremely unpopular on that basis, understandably, but is much more popular when done on a larger scale. The trick is not medium density but what Brent Todarian calls ‘Density done well’.

    It is the way to develop for a city with far fewer cars, which is going to happen whether we plan for it or not.

  7. Ian Apperley, 30. April 2017, 14:59

    Smells like Labour calling on their local lackeys to jump, and jump they are.