Wellington Scoop

Keeping our character

by Felicity Wong
The official numbers are in. An overwhelming majority of Wellingtonians reject losing the character of their city in planning changes ordered by Phil Twyford when he was Minister of Urban Development.

Cabinet approved the edict during lockdown last year – the faulty National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD), as part of the government’s bold response to COVID and unaffordable housing. While the Cabinet paper didn’t mention it, it would be a directive to Councils to allow at least six storey development in and near city centres and train stations. It blamed zoning, including height and density controls, for restricting development and pushing up prices across New Zealand.

Twyford went a step further than the Californian model for the policy. At least the Californian version allows Councils to decide on an alternative city form that suits them better so long as they provide the same level of opportunity for intensification. Instead, without such a provision, local autonomy and democracy in Wellington city is hobbled by the flawed NPS-UD.

Big Councils, including the WCC, are now struggling with the prescriptive nature of the edict to “intensify” their cities to accommodate population increases (that residents and voters were never consulted about). The full Christchurch council has rejected the government’s NPS-UD, and so should the WCC.

A majority of Wellington submitters on WCC’s Draft Spatial Plan (DSP) clearly rejected intensification at the expense of city character. The report by Global Research Ltd analysing 2897 public submissions was released on the WCC’s Planning For Growth website this week. There’s also an excellent summary report reflecting the authentic views of Wellingtonians.

Keeping Wellington’s Character

Character was the main feature respondents were afraid of losing. Wellington’s character is what makes the city special and submitters felt the proposed changes in the Plan risked changing the character of the city forever. Strong value was placed on heritage/character protection to retain Wellington’s special identity – while those in the other main camp prioritised quality, affordable homes to encourage diversity – both architectural and human – over character protection.

● 66% of DSP submitters rejected WCC’s attempt at getting “balance” between maintaining the special character protections in the inner suburbs and making provision for more housing.
● 67% rejected the euphemistically called “refined approach” (ie massive reduction) to the pre-1930s character areas.
● 58% rejected the “targeting” of existing pre-1930 character demolition controls to tiny sub-areas within the inner suburbs, rejecting the view that only character that’s “substantially intact and consistent” should be protected.
● 58% rejected removing pre-1930 character demolition controls in areas that are no longer “substantially intact and consistent or where character has been compromised”.
● 73% agreed that there should be a continued emphasis on streetscape character … to ensure that new development respects the local streetscape and is well-designed.

Chief Planner’s Comments

In his comments this week, the Chief Planning Officer Liam Hodgetts walked a careful tightrope. He said

“the council is directed to enable intensification in and around city centres, metropolitan centres and within walkable catchments of existing and planned rapid transit stops, such as railway stations. The NPS-UD requires the Council to place greater emphasis on enabling housing development than ever before. While the NPS encourages and enables more dense and compact cities, it still allows the Council to protect historic heritage, open space, significant ecological areas and, where justified, special character areas such as those proposed in the draft Spatial Plan”.

The problem is that the special character areas in the DSP were far too small to protect Wellington’s beloved character and heritage. Even the Council’s own evidence in a report by Boffa Miskell recommended much larger areas of protection.

Final Spatial Plan In Late June

The Spatial Plan will now be finalised in late June. Council staff report that more time is being taken to “consider all the submissions”; “ensure the Council’s evidence base is robust”; “align programmes of work” and “tell a convincing story”. That sounds like ensuring the final version stands up to scrutiny and the WCC has its comms in place.

More work is also being done on:

– Population forecast review (by March)
– Defining Wellington’s “Mass Rapid Transit” in the Regional Land Transport Plan
– Infrastructure plans &
– Long Term Plan (10 year budget)

Population and Infrastructure

Some years ago, Auditor General Lyn Provost warned that infrastructure for population growth was not being kept up with. This week Bernard Hickey wrote about “three elephants in the room that the Government is avoiding talking about”: the population growth rate; who pays for the agreed growth rate; and should land or wealth be taxed to pay for it.

Mayor Foster noted the “consensus” around the need for more affordable housing in Wellington, but said “importantly in the short-term, areas of the city that will support growth need to be integrated with infrastructure planning and funding decisions.”

Who pays for what needs clarification in WCC’s Long Term Plan-10 year budget, (“LTP”). We’re about to be “consulted” on a 14% rates increase to cope with failing infrastructure. Residents will reject paying for infrastructure investment needed to accommodate growth, if it’s at the expense of the city’s built character.

WCC recently referred to “50,000 to 80,000” additional people in Wellington over 30 years, a figure supplied by Infometrics, while StatsNZ uses a more conservative range of low (12,000), medium (46,000) and high (76,000) and COVID has paused migration.

Mass Rapid Transit and LGWM

Defining “Mass Rapid Transit” (MRT) in Wellington determines how much of Johnsonville, Khandallah and Ngaio will allow six plus storey “upzoned” development. It depends whether the slow, creaky Johnsonville branch line is MRT (as the DSP assumed) or whether credibility can’t be stretched that far (as residents doubt).

The MRT component of the “Let’s Get Wellington Moving” project (LGWM) also has implications for blanket six storey plus upzoning in Newtown and Berhampore. Who wants MRT that will obliterate heritage suburbs? The recommended pause for LGWM reflects the fact that few mention light rail any more and fast-bus lanes seem more realistic.

Post LTP and Final Spatial Plan

Labour-endorsed Councillors are bound to support its party platforms and there are NPS-UD cheer leaders among Councillors who genuinely believe it will deliver lower asset prices. So the WCC is trying to work with it.

The final Spatial Plan will feed into the Draft District plan ready for more Consultation in October/November. WCC’s plan to produce a notified District Plan by August 2022 was pushed along by an NPS-UD timeframe. However, in recent days the Minister of Housing said in Parliament that the NPS-UD would not be effective until 2024, since a Housing and Business Land Availability Assessment (stocktake) was needed to be done first.

There’s a good chance the DSP will end up in the filing cabinets of plans for Wellington’s future. We can’t get insurance for the high rise apartments we already have. I’m hopeful we’ll keep Wellington’s Character if we get pipes that work, a frequent bus service to the airport and southern suburbs, and a “zero budget except for pipes” LTP (meaning an affordable rates rise for fixed income and low earners to struggle by on).

We’ll have plenty of visionaries at the next local body elections in 2022, including those who doubt that printing money to save jobs has been the major driver of asset/house price inflation, but what we will need is sensible character candidates in all wards.

DSP Consultation Key Findings

Almost 3000 submissions = over 20,000 ideas

● Support for a liveable, vibrant City
● Affordable housing and diversity of housing types to cater for all a high priority
● Strong concern around potential loss of amenity and poor design
● Differing opinions about where intensification should occur (57%supported intensification in the central city; 45% supported it in inner city suburbs, and 44% in outer suburbs)
● Character seen as part of Wellington’s identity
● Fair and equitable distribution of growth across suburbs
● Infrastructure upgrades should be carried out prior to intensification (particularly 3 waters and transport)
● Provision of more green and open space to support growth
● More emphasis needed on reducing carbon footprint and planning for sea-level rise and other natural hazards.
● Questions around population forecasts, impact of COVID-19
● Requests for a staged approach
● More integration needed across different plans and strategies

Felicity Wong is chair of Historic Places Wellington.


  1. I blame remuera, 18. February 2021, 11:30

    Felicity you are wrong. The detailed breakdown is on page 9 of the full analysis report:
    “Intensification of the Central City was agreed with by 57% of respondents and disagreed with by 32% of respondents
    > Intensification of the Inner Suburbs was agreed with by 45% of respondents and disagreed with by 46% of respondents
    > Intensification of the Outer Suburbs was agreed with by 44% of respondents and disagreed with by 41% of respondents
    > The approach to distribution of intensification City-Wide was agreed with by 41% of respondents and disagreed with by 50% of respondents”

    There is no overwhelming majority as the percentages you’ve given above include those who were indifferent.

  2. Claire, 18. February 2021, 11:38

    Great summary Felicity. Interesting that Megan Woods is saying the NPS would not be in force till 2024. Perhaps this aligns with the RMA revamp. Also it seems Wellingtonians are not at all for pepper potting taller buildings through cottages, especially when there are plenty of areas already zoned for higher buildings. The councillors towing a political or yimby line need to listen to constituents. Not their own ambition. And promising a younger group affordable housing is a dangerous ploy as it may be very difficult to pull off.

  3. I blame remuera, 18. February 2021, 14:18

    Claire. Unaffordable housing is a political choice. Unhealthy housing is a political choice. Congratulations on being on the side of having more people sleeping on streets, cars and crowding into rotting old shacks.

  4. David Mackenzie, 18. February 2021, 14:26

    I blame remuera: Indifference, or being undecided, cannot be interpreted as support.

  5. Dave B, 18. February 2021, 14:32

    “Slow, creaky Johnsonville branch line. . .”
    The Johnsonville line actually works pretty well with the trains that it now has. The fact that they are slow is significantly due to the risk-averse safety-regime that they have to adhere to, but what guarantee is there that any other from of ‘mass transit’ would (or should) be free of this?

    Extending just the Johnsonville Line as mass transit to the airport provides little benefit to the wider region, which is where much of Wellington’s excessive traffic originates. All the lines need extending, with a much more comprehensive scheme than simply shoehorning an extended Johnsonville Line into existing streets.

  6. Claire, 18. February 2021, 14:49

    IBR. Remember Newtown has the most social housing of any suburb. Come and see for yourself. You can have more houses and not wreck a suburb or housing that’s already there. Why has our main commercial strip not been developed? It’s not just about old houses is it. That’s a red herring. If you knew me you would know I am dead against people sleeping in cars and hotels. What I am not for is entitled people at the upper end living at home or starting out who are whinging. We have tower blocks – at least ten storeys -at the edges of Newtown for people who really need them and I would encourage WCC and Kainga ora to build more.

  7. Felicity Wong, 18. February 2021, 16:28

    I blame remuera: I stand by the figures I quoted relating to character; rejection of the WCC’s proposals relating to the inner city character suburbs; and my comments. (You quote figures relating to a single “intensification” question). It’s all about how intensification is done – by prescription or with local autonomy.

  8. greenwelly, 18. February 2021, 16:44

    > It depends whether the slow, creaky Johnsonville branch line is MRT
    In the current Draft Regional Land Transport Plan (submissions close March 19) the Regional Council classify the Johnsonville line, and even the Melling line, as Rapid Transit. If you think otherwise you should probably tell them now.
    “The rapid transit network and services for the Wellington region comprises the Kāpiti, Hutt, Melling and Johnsonville rail corridors.”

  9. Pseudopanax, 18. February 2021, 21:44

    Fortunately for Wellington, a majority of submitters appear to have seen through a cash-strapped council’s plan to open up land amongst character or heritage houses for high-rise developments. Pretending that it will solve the housing affordability crisis is a lie. Andy Foster has said it himself: they need ‘Growth’ to pay the bills.

  10. Dave B, 18. February 2021, 22:57

    “the slow, creaky Johnsonville branch line. . .”
    The Johnsonville line actually works reasonably well with the trains it now has. Yes it is slow, but this is in part due to the way it is operated and the very risk-averse safety-regime imposed on it. There is no guarantee that a different type of operation would (or should) be free of this. But having said that, there are certain simple things that could be done to speed it up if the will was there.

    The idea of combining the Johnsonville Line (converted to light rail) with light rail to the airport has been around for quite a while, but it is not a solution to the wider transport problem of Wellington which is too much traffic flooding in from the rest of the region. There is no way that an extended Johnsonville service alone will be able to cope with the huge passenger demand from the Hutt, Porirua and Kapiti as well. The whole metro service needs extending.

  11. John Rankin, 19. February 2021, 9:41

    @DaveB: as I understand it, one of the problems with the Johnsonville line is that it is limited to a 15 minute frequency. Daran Ponter has I think suggested adding more passing loops so that a higher frequency service could be operated.

    Are you able to comment? It seems to me that if Wellington wants to increase the housing density along the line, an investment in improving the service perhaps ought to come first. Your thoughts?

  12. Dave B, 19. February 2021, 13:15

    @ John Rankin. The Johnsonville Line ran for many years at a 13 minute frequency and this was what the loop-positions were optimized for, with 4 trains continuously circulating. In 1991 as a cost-saver, one train was arbitrarily deleted, but the service had to retain the basic 13-min pattern because of the crossing locations, so for the next 25 years it ran at intervals of 13min-13min-26min. In 2015 a desire to make it “clock-face” saw the 4th train restored and the frequency altered to 15min, but at the cost of lengthier waits imposed on counter-peak services at particular crossing-points (counter-peak WLG-JVL journey-time is now 28 mins). Prior to this, the option of a 12 minute frequency was investigated but this would require an additional track and platform at Johnsonville in order to work properly. Provision for another track was made when the Broderick Road overbridge was re-built in 2015, so this has certainly been allowed for. For frequencies greater than 12min, altered loop-positions or limited double-tracking would be necessary – all possible if enough money is thrown at it.

    However, the reality for the Johnsonville Line is that it has not seen the patronage increases that the other lines have seen and at present there is no imperative to increase its frequency. If demand increases due to housing densification along the route, there is scope first to accommodate demand by lengthening trains before increasing frequency.

    But in terms of proposed mass rapid transit south from the present station, the patronage-feed from the Johnsonville Line will always be small compared to that from the other lines, so whatever is built needs to be sized to carry much more than just the contribution from the Johnsonville Line.

  13. Claire, 19. February 2021, 14:04

    This article is about Wellingtonians and what they want regards the Spatial Plan and the results from the submissions. Not a detailed train analysis although yes we need faster trains and possible extension. It’s not a trainspotting convention.

  14. Claire, 19. February 2021, 15:39

    Conor yes I guess those 10 storey buildings were put in Newtown under different rules. Six storey ones near those ones might work then. It’s all about placement. Down our main strip would also work. Kainga Ora has more power as you know, they are already building 30 dwellings here.
    Dave I am a public transport user and welcome improvements there. Express busses, bus only lanes. Lower costs.

  15. Conor, 19. February 2021, 19:36

    The overwhelming majority of Wellingtonians don’t care either way. More people submitted on e-scooters.

  16. Conor, 19. February 2021, 19:39

    Claire – you say you encourage Kainga Ora to build more 10 storey blocks in Newtown. To do that the district plan needs to change to allow such buildings. At the moment they would not get resource consent.

  17. Claire, 19. February 2021, 19:49

    Conor you obviously care. And so do I. It’s certainly better than the 1300 submissions in 2019. But yes there needs to be a lot more people engaged on the important issues.

  18. Claire, 19. February 2021, 20:32

    OK the ones we currently have must have been consented under different
    Zoning? There are six of them on the edges of Newtown. Look I am sure if the buildings were to go near those ones or on the strip six would be ok. It’s where they go and a gradual staged process.

  19. Dave B, 19. February 2021, 22:47

    Claire, I believe developing our public transport and reducing the domination by traffic are a vital components to achieving the urban character we aspire to.

  20. John Rankin, 20. February 2021, 8:21

    I support @DaveB’s comment above. A plan to increase housing density without a complementary plan to increase transport density (ie improve public and active transport) will inevitably result in more cars competing for the same road space.

  21. Julienz, 20. February 2021, 9:47

    Dave B and John Rankin are absolutely right. For the Johnsonville train in particular there is a goldilocks point beyond which demand will exceed capacity resulting in more car congestion.