Wellington Scoop

Raising money, spatially

by James Fraser
Last week I attended another public meeting about the Draft Spatial Plan, this one organised by Inner City Wellington at St Peter’s on Willis Street. We heard speakers including our Mayor and Councillor Pannet. Through the murky fog of these last few months of public presentations, debates, zoom meetings, submissions, lobbying, etc, all is now crystal clear: It’s About The Money.

Mayor Foster let the cat out of the bag when he said that the tsunami of big bills heading the WCC’s way must be paid for by Growth, not by massive rates increases on existing ratepayers. Planning For Growth is really Planning for Dosh, Moolah, the Readies, because the Council is in effect broke, at least $500 million in debt and desperate for cash.

When the Draft Spatial Plan first appeared with its recommendation to remove heritage and character protections in our inner suburbs, I and others naively Got With The Programme, accepting council projections that 80,000 would be moving into Wellington within 30 years, and needing to be housed.

I even bought into the pitch put out by councillors that the Government is Making Us Do It through its Housing Policy Statement insisting that future development must be intensified by building up in urban areas, particularly those within 5-10 minutes stroll of a ‘Mass Transit Route’. But a Policy Statement is not set in law and there are loopholes to help local authorities protect neighbourhoods. Where there is a will there is a way.

Although the well-organised political campaign – which decreed that all who disagreed with the Draft Spatial Plan were over privileged Nimbys defending cold mouldy shacks – was offensive and divisive, I enthusiastically supported the push for ‘affordable housing’ and planning to make our city more liveable in the 21st century.

However I now realise that all these slogans were camouflage for the real pretext at play here … to provide more revenue by freeing up huge areas for high rise apartments.

Cover was provided by a council consultation of 1200 residents that decided it was better to go up rather than out. From the council’s point of view, this of course was the right answer. Paying for infrastructure in the Ohariu Valley would be very expensive for the council. Far more prudent to build up in our inner suburbs or next to the train lines.

On the surface this is a sensible plan. But there is a problem for the planners: many of these suburbs are protected by height restrictions, particularly in pre 1930s character areas with heritage listings. The answer? Incorporate changes in the Plan for more high-rise development than is required, so that after the ensuing outcry, the planners could pare it back. Developers have probably already signalled which sites are preferred. So let’s cut through the BS on offer, and go back to our St Peter’s meeting to bring some honesty to the debate.

Architect and host of TV’s Grand Designs Chris Moller spoke passionately about how important it is to get Town Planning right for the Well Being of Residents. Follow Barcelona’s Ildefons Cerda, considered to be one of history’s great urban planners.

Co Design consultant Jo Cribb spoke of the need to have a Vision in Town Planning. However there is nothing in the Draft Spatial Plan that guarantees good design or a coherent vision for that matter. If Victoria Street is it, the vision is more Dubai than Barcelona.

Maori Urban Designer Rebecca Kiddle gave a timely reminder that there are serious colonisation issues to address in Poneke. Sadly for her and the wider Iwi, there is nothing in the Draft Spatial Plan that addresses colonisation or civic responsibility to Tangata Whenua.

The Rev Stephen King from Inner City Wellington pleaded with the council not to forget public spaces and amenities. Unfortunately for Stephen, there is nothing in the Draft Spatial Plan that guarantees more open spaces, or for that matter schools, public transport or medical facilities.

A young woman in the audience made a plea for more ‘affordable housing.’ But let’s be honest: there is nothing in the Draft Spatial Plan that guarantees affordable housing.

It’s all about raising more money for the council. Simple. A clue is in the recent contentious vote by the Council to sell the land it owned in Shelly Bay to give the go-ahead to the Wellington Company to build on land bought in a disputed deal, during which, according to investigative journalist Nicky Hager

“Council officers appeared to ignore that the project went against the wishes of the Maori owners, helped overcome the obstacle of the road and helped to avoid community input before the Wellington Company had secured special housing approval (which required the land, roading and infrastructure to be sorted).”

It appears that in bending over backwards to help the Wellington Company, the Council has put its desperation for revenue ahead of its responsibilities to Tangata Whenua. If we are not careful, this cosy relationship will see the rest of the Miramar Peninsula go the same way.

Before we get excited about encouraging developers to create tall cold draughty wind tunnels amongst our character homes, we should be looking at how to finance the growing demands on ratepayers. A case for increasing the ratepayer base for increased revenue can be made, but please do not dress it up as either demolishing cold damp mouldy rentals (when landlords must now provide minimum standards of ventilation, insulation and heating) or providing ‘affordable’ housing. The only way to make housing ‘affordable’ in the current climate is to Build More Social Housing.

The council will no doubt be making a case for its annual rates increase, but the billions required and a leaked figure of 23% for next year for starters clearly scared the bejeezus out of councillors eager to keep their jobs.

How do we find the cash to build more social housing and a light rail system, fix the three waters, and save our character homes from high rise developers? Sell our 33% of the Airport? Introduce water meters? Borrow now and pay later?

The answer could be to flush out our local MPs (one of whom happens to be Minister of Finance) in a Government with an unprecedented majority, to speak up for a much greater fiscal commitment from Central Government. There must be some leverage to be had with the Member for Wellington Central. We are the Capital City and surely deserve an Allowance! After all, heavy expenditure is being required by the increased earthquake codes of compliance on top of neglected and broken infrastructure. I doubt Canberra’s ratepayers pay for infrastructure in the Capital Territory. Maybe it’s time for Andy Foster to camp outside Grant Robertson’s office until he coughs up.

C’mon Grant, do your home town and the Capital City proud and find a billion or two for Capital capital.

James Fraser, a born and bred Newtown resident, is co-convenor of We Are Newtown.

NZHerald: Petition to save Mt Victoria’s heritage


  1. Conor, 7. December 2020, 10:07

    Was this the open mind you started with? My issue with this is there is still no statement of where you want growth to happen? Is it the expensive option of Ohariu Valley? Do you want to saddle ratepayers with the most expensive option?

  2. michael, 7. December 2020, 10:32

    It seems as though many residents in the suburbs would be happy to see all growth in the inner-city, no matter what the cost to good design and sustainable living environments (ie. no green space, overcrowding, and lack of facilities), as long as it is not in their backyard!

  3. K, 7. December 2020, 10:53

    James, you have not provided any proposals to address the core issue of the lack of affordable housing. The council has laid out its preferred solution (high density building in various areas – including Victoria Street & Newtown as you mention); you are implying it is the wrong answer but don’t provide any reasons why other than the fact you seem to dislike high rise buildings, and you offer no alternative solutions. If you oppose high rise developments, then that means new developments will be more expensive per dwelling (the lower the development, the more expensive it is per unit) and there is no hope of more affordable housing eventuating. The alternative you mention – “building out” – also means more costs on the council to build & maintain the new infrastructure, which again leads to higher per dwelling development costs and higher rates for everyone else as well.

  4. Peter Steven, 7. December 2020, 10:54

    The only way to increase the ratepayer base without having to spend ever increasing amounts on new and existing infrastructure is to build up in existing residential areas that already have infrastructure. You make it sound like some kind of crazy conspiracy but it makes perfect sense to me.

  5. Helene Ritchie, 7. December 2020, 11:01

    This is an excellent succinct analysis and is why I decided not to submit. There are so many, just too many flaws in the Spatial Plan which is neither in the interests of Wellington, Wellingtonians, affordable and liveable housing, open space, heritage etc. and even has wrong population projections.

    It is not a compulsory requirement of Central Government to advance a Spatial Plan in the way that the Council has done.

  6. Alana, 7. December 2020, 12:37

    I take James’s point to be that Councillors are advancing the increased special plan as a solution to high housing costs/faulty rentals when the real focus is on gaining more rates, and that should be the discussion. In my view the special plan created unnecessary hardening of interests around heritage property and greater density, when a community united for solving the problem would achieve more.

  7. Claire, 7. December 2020, 12:42

    Very good article James. Yes the Council can’t afford to do any of the new infrastructure so will rely on developers for it. Quimbys – thats quality in our back yard – want QUALITY. Not ugly buildings that we already have. Ohariu should be developed and will be in the future. Geographic and seismic aspects will stop too much high rise when planners come to their senses. Newtown has five three or four storey developments on the go at the moment, far exceeding the 23 dwellings needed a year over thirty years! This is based on the new fiqures. Newtown is accepting development and has always accepted a diverse community.
    The thing James has maybe left out is that we have been crying out for development on Adelaide Road and our commercial strip is already zoned four stories – so where is this development? They must think it’s cheaper to try encroaching on older neighborhoods.
    The council and the Govt should acquire land on Adelaide Road and put TWENTY six-storey (or higher) buildings there where they are appropriate next to other taller buildings.

  8. Julienz, 7. December 2020, 18:27

    @michael – So far as the outer suburbs are concerned residents may have been amenable to gentle densification, say increasing the height limit from 8m to 11m (two to three storeys) and accepting 50% site coverage, with adequate sunlight protection. If this was instituted throughout the outer suburbs then it is likely significant development could be achieved.

    Design guides promulgated and published now could have allayed fears about what the future might look like. But instead we are expected to trust the council with zones now and design guides in the never never. Unfortunately we have seen what happened in Christchurch with their council now admitting a high proportion what has been built is not of the quality envisaged when upzoning was put in place.

    Many older people in the outer suburbs are parents who are acutely aware of the lack of suitable housing options in Wellington for their adult children to rent or buy. Unfortunately the DSP goes way too far and has driven residents into high defence mode.

    The traditional provision of green space in the suburbs is by way if private gardens. The DSP plans to build over the gardens but makes no provision for any public green space, pocket parks etc. Nor does it enlighten us on increased provision of infrastructure, public transport and other facilities that will maintain quality of life in the face of increased demand.

  9. Pam, 7. December 2020, 23:51

    Perhaps record net migration is something we need to consider in the equation? Recent reports suggest there is little evidence the supposed benefits have accrued. The Kiwi way of life is all but disappearing . Figures to September 2020 suggest net migration of 80,000. That is a lot of houses, schools, doctors etc. required. A rethink seems in order if we genuinely want affordable housing or is it profit before people and families?

  10. Julienz, 8. December 2020, 9:43

    @Pam – couldn’t agree more. We need a population policy, not just the ad hoc “more equals good” policy we have had from both sides of the house for years. Stated goals seem to completely oppose each other. How we can reduce our emissions when we continue to rapidly grow our population? Central government could pause and transfer some of the revenue gains from past immigration to local government to pay for the infrastructure catch up needed after the population shock we have experienced over the past 20 years. The Salvation Army is suggesting a measured migration policy.

    The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment told the government in his submission on the NPS-UD: “ New Zealand has recently experienced a period of unusually high population growth and steady economic growth. Neither can be assumed to continue indefinitely and care should be taken to avoid policies that respond to a phenomenon that may even now be slackening. On the other hand, if there is a desire to promote strong population growth through immigration, then the environmental consequences of such policies need to be considered carefully.”

    But no-one in the Beehive seems to be listening.

  11. Trish, 8. December 2020, 10:53

    The fact that WCC’s financial future is unsustainable should not be a surprise to those with memories. Towards the end of Kerry Prendergast’s reign as mayor (maybe 2008?) the council published a 10-year plan that spelt out how following a “business as usual” strategy could simply not be funded by existing ratepayers as infrastructure and other costs snowballed. The answer proposed was to go for growth, starting with a runway extension and a conference centre – there were about 10 other proposals but I’ve forgotten what they were. The proposed actions have been generally opposed, and when the plan was reviewed three years later all its forecasts were forgotten. The government has held an enquiry to find alternative sources for funding for councils (led by ex WCC councillor David Shand) which concluded that there are no acceptable alternatives to property rates. So here are are, and the clock is still ticking.

  12. James Fraser, 8. December 2020, 11:53

    Many thanks for your comments.

    @Conor. I would insist that as a partner in LGWM the NZTA commit to a transport solution OTHER than Four Lanes To The Planes / more roading and require that they relinquish their property portfolio along the route to the airport which includes many houses and apartments that have either been demolished or allowed to deteriorate. There is already scope for high density development along mass transit routes such as Kent Tce and Adelaide Rd. How can it make sense to leave vacant lots in the CBD for car parking where buildings once stood. I suspect the answer is ‘land banking’ which is a real problem in Wellington. The DSP takes the lazy route by rezoning large areas of ‘character’ or low rise housing to be made available for developers.

    @K. WE ARE NEWTOWN and I are NOT against growth or development, it’s the lack of a coherent vision in the DSP that we object to. As I suggest, the aim of the DSP is to increase revenue, not to provide ‘affordable housing’ whatever that means. The only way to provide housing that is affordable is to build (or adapt existing properties for) Social Housing. In my humble opinion/experience there are four models that can deliver this:
    1. State Housing. Where Kainga Ora build and manage tenancies for those on low incomes.
    2. Council Housing. Same as above but managed from the local level.
    3. Housing Associations. Where housing professionals build and manage housing that guarantees fair rents for essential workers or those on low incomes with finance borrowed long term from the Treasury at low interest rates.
    4.Housing CoOperatives. Same as for Associations but the members/tenants have a greater say in how the housing is built and managed. Both Associations and CoOps are managed as charities where members do not have equity but are guaranteed fair rents, security of tenure, and a say how their homes are designed and managed.

    There is also Co Housing; Same as CoOps but members have equity and borrow to develop on the open market, so not really Social Housing.

    Although the WCC should be congratulated on how they design and manage their housing stock, especially here in Newtown and Te Aro, I’m not sure if the same can be said for Kainga Ora. Council tenants are a huge part of our community here in Newtown and contribute massively to make it possibly the most diverse suburb in Wellington. In my experience Housing Associations and CoOps are also very good at delivering specific requirements for their members. The more tenants are ‘hands on’ and work together, the more likely a long term housing solution is achieved.

    @Peter Steven. Yes it does appear to make sense, but the draft is over the top and will make residents’ lives a misery by letting developers build high rises at random amongst their dwellings without requiring the infrastructure and other essential amenities (already maxed out) to be included. My point is if it’s purely about raising as much revenue as possible for Council coffers, then let’s have a separate debate about how to do it without handing developers open slather in ‘character areas’ where land is cheaper than on transport spines or closer to or in the CBD.

    @Claire. I agree that what is proposed for Newtown is a continuation of WCC planners dumping on Newtown and Berhampore which have already suffered from civic vandalism over many decades. To go against their own report and write off whole streets (and their residents) as not fit for any protection is frightening.

  13. Pam, 8. December 2020, 23:00

    ‘A report on migration from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) for the Productivity Commission concludes that the country’s high level of immigration has not resulted in improved productivity or a significant boost to gross domestic product (GDP). A long succession of immigration policies tried to increase productivity and attract highly skilled migrants and entrepreneurs, but with very little effect, said NZIER associate Julie Fry.’

    It is very unlikely we will ever be able to meet housing needs unless we start with a population policy.

  14. Claire, 9. December 2020, 9:25

    Pam that’s interesting. I thought John Key etc had attributed the rock star economy to the open door policy. This is where he did nothing with infrastructure to support the open door. At present we do have population control with covid. It’s enjoyable travelling to parts of the country that are usually heaving. I agree at least till we are ready for more people let’s take a breather and work on infrastructure.

  15. Conor, 9. December 2020, 14:44

    James. We are both fans of social housing. Luckily Kainga Ora are the experts, and they submitted on the DSP. I guess we should follow their submission.

  16. Claire, 9. December 2020, 15:20

    Yes Conor I have read that!! I am sure they wish they could retract it. A very extreme submission. Would be beneficial to ALL to read it.

  17. Julienz, 9. December 2020, 16:19

    Like Stride and their Johnsonville fantasy, Kainga Ora bowl in fresh from their Auckland forays and colour in a map of Wellington with no knowledge, understanding or concern about whether there is infrastructure (transport, water, sewers, electricity, schools, shops, doctors surgeries, pharmacies, parks etc) to support their colouring in effort. But in that regard WCC is no better and they are supposed to represent us. Is there an acronym for Build Apartments Absolutely Anywhere but Forget About Services?

  18. Pam, 9. December 2020, 22:25

    International tourist numbers are down and travel around NZ is much more pleasant as a result . Net migration to Sept 2020 is approximately 80,000 so is possibly at record highs.

  19. Conor, 10. December 2020, 10:35

    JulieNZ – Kainga Ora are headquartered in Wellington.
    James – Four Lanes to the Planes is significantly more likely to happen if Wellington doesn’t take a path fairly similar to what is outlined in the draft spatial plan. The flip side to opposing density is enabling sprawling auto-dependent subdivisions in Levin and Upper Hutt, and empowering the roading lobby. A consistent position is that if you oppose density in MtVic, you should support 4 lanes to the planes.

  20. Claire, 10. December 2020, 13:16

    Conor. Most Govt Depts are based in Wellington. That doesn’t mean they can’t try to transplant a plan suitable for Auckland to Wellington and Christchurch. All vastly different cities. Newtown and Mt Vic are already very dense suburbs. That was the norm for working class areas in colonial times. We have already had more density applied to Newtown. If housing is removed for larger buildings, quite a lot of smaller sections will have to be bought. The sections being bought up in Auckland are larger. It will cost more in say Newtown to buy 8 or so small sections to put in a larger building. The current rv for a working man’s cottage is $900,000 so times 8 is not so cheap.

  21. Julienz, 10. December 2020, 13:20

    Conor. My impression is that James is asking for a sensible approach to Newtown. I do not oppose density in Mt Vic. There seems a desire by some to preserve the picture postcard view from the harbour. I can see some merit in that position as the view differentiates Wellington and may have value if tourism becomes a thing again post-Covid. There could still be higher density from say Majoribanks Street south which is where many apparently substandard houses being complained about are located. I have no issue with total renewal of Aro Valley floor.

    What concerns me is densification of the outer suburbs being more extensive than proposed in the “heritage” inner suburbs where people can walk to everything or bike on relative flat. The density proposed for the outer suburbs especially those along the supposedly Mass Rapid Transit Johnsonville Line is beyond the capacity of public transport and other infrastructure to cope. Even with more working from home it is probable there will still be large number of commuters going to the CBD from the outer suburbs. The DSP should take account of the capacity of public transport to move those commuters.

    All I am asking for in the outer suburbs is, to quote the NPS UD, “building heights and density of urban form commensurate with the level of accessibility by existing or planned active or public transport to a range of commercial and community services.”

    As far as I am aware there are no plans for an increase of capacity or frequency of trains on the Johnsonville Line. Similarly there is no plan to expand the Karori tunnel or to create any new dedicated bus lanes from the Western or Northern suburbs. There doesn’t seem to be room for them down Chaytor Street, Ngaio Gorge or Onslow Road. The NPS requires WCC make a realistic estimate of accessibility and make provision in the DSP for density to match.

    Re Kainga Ora – The majority of Kainga Ora’s large urban renewal projects to date are in Auckland. They have plans to replace 2000 houses in Porirua with 4000 over the next 25, yes 25, years which seems pathetic given that right now Porirua has the highest rents in the country. My point is their “expertise” to date has mostly been applied to Auckland problems regardless of the location of their head office.

  22. Julienz, 10. December 2020, 15:35

    Let´s remember we are not first to the party on this densification lark. This link is to a series of four articles from the Conversation published in 2017 discussing the experience in Australian cities. A few of quotes feel like predictions.

    “Other than in the prestige areas where higher-income downsizers and pied-à-terre owners can be enticed to buy in some comfort, much of what is being built is straightforward “investor grade product” – flats built to attract the burgeoning investment market.”

    “Apartment living is the new norm in Australia. As the nursery rhyme says, when it’s good it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad it’s horrid. If these homes are poorly designed, poorly built, poorly maintained or poorly managed, they are poor places to live.”

    “The market-led housing model that underpins Australia’s compact city policies has meant that people with less money get a poorer product. Few planners or politicians have adequately acknowledged these inequities.”

    “In the last decade, backed by state planning authorities and politicians desperate to claim they have “solved” housing affordability by letting apartment building rip, developers have got involved on an unprecedented scale. In the rush, we, the housing consumer, have been offered a motley range of new housing with a series of escalating problems. Leaving aside amateur management by owners’ bodies in charge of multi-million-dollar assets, problems of short-term holiday lettings and neighbour disputes, there are more serious concerns over build quality, defective materials and fire compliance. In other words, the creation of speculative profit, rather than the creation of homes, is now the primary driver of much higher-density development.”

    This sounds more like growing our way into problems rather out of them as Mayor Andy seems to hope. And residents present and future are just supposed to have faith that our councillors and their officers are so wise and so competent that outcomes for Wellingtonians will be different and better, even as they follow the same market-led model which appears to have failed many Australians. I feel a Tui ad coming on.

  23. Claire, 10. December 2020, 16:30

    Julienz thanks for that. We are all hoarse trying to tell the likes of Gen Zero that the apartments will be crap if cheaper, and will push people out if expensive. No such thing as an affordable great design. Don’t forget the leaky building fiasco.