We’re all aware there is an important general election on 14th October. What is sometimes overlooked is that the result may lock in, or reject, the increasing centralisation of decision-making that has happened over the past few years. This could impact our region for years to come.
During this electoral term, central government agencies have been given far more power than before – often at the expense of local decision-making. We can see examples of that centralisation in the health reforms, education reforms, planned Three Waters reforms, and Resource Management Act (RMA) reforms. In fact, the changes have come so thick and fast that many people will have failed to notice some of them.
The nature of those changes is another matter, but what we can say with certainty is that local and regional councils, health agencies, polytechnics, and local communities now have far less power than they did a few years ago.
Urban planning impacts almost everyone’s lives. Ideally, when done well, we don’t notice it much. It results in a pleasant place to live and a transport system that makes it easy to move around.
Until now, for better and worse, urban planning has been driven by local communities. Central government has set the framework, but has largely taken a background role.
Local residents have elected councillors to decide how to manage their city or district, including planning for future growth (a growth strategy), where the growth will go (a spatial plan), the types of things that can be built there (an infrastructure plan), and who will pay for the infrastructure (either developer contributions or debt to be repaid by ratepayers).
However, the landscape has changed significantly in recent times. The RMA reforms give far greater power to central government agencies and focus on regional planning, with less emphasis on local plans made by local communities. This was backed up by several other changes:
- ‘Growth’ councils (such as Tauranga) now have to plan for 30 years of growth, via a Future Development Strategy (FDS) – without any more funding towards the costs of that growth.
- The 2020 National Policy Statement on Urban Development promoted the catch-cry of “up and out”. This meant councils had to plan for growth via higher density development in existing city areas (up) and new greenfield developments (out).
- The government introduced new high density rules to enable more houses to be built (up and out) – a move supported by both Labour and National. We’ll explain how that impacts Tauranga shortly.
- Finally, a ‘key move’ was turning Housing NZ (the people who build and manage state houses) into Kāinga Ora. It was created in 2019 by the merger of Housing NZ with its subsidiary HLC and the KiwiBuild Unit from the Ministry of Housing.
The Kāinga Ora website states: “Kāinga Ora is the government’s Urban Development Authority. Our role is to enable build ready land for different types of housing and, through best practice urban planning and design, ensure the neighbourhoods those homes are in have the infrastructure and amenities to make them a great place to live.”
The result is that Kāinga Ora now has the power to be lead agency on developments across the country. Its website further explains:
“The Urban Development Act 2020 empowers Kāinga Ora to initiate, facilitate, and undertake urban development that contributes to sustainable, inclusive, and thriving communities.
This includes a comprehensive process for the planning, funding and delivery of complex urban development projects – called Specified Development Projects (SDP).”
That is the legislation that allowed Tauranga City Council to request Kāinga Ora turn the Western Corridor growth area (Tauriko-Keenan Rd-Lower Kaimai) into an SDP, to fast-track growth in that area.
Local Impacts on Tauranga
Of course, centralisation has been particularly keenly felt in Tauranga, where central government installed commissioners to govern the city from early 2021. At the same time that far-reaching changes were made to health, housing, urban planning and three waters, Tauranga residents have had no local councillors to advocate on their behalf.
Looking at their actions, it’s clear the government-appointed Commissioners have gone along with the reforms – and in some cases even encouraged more centralisation and less community-led planning.
For instance, unlike the majority of NZ councils, Tauranga’s Commissioners largely went along with the three waters reforms. The upcoming general election will determine the future of those reforms, so they may amount to nothing in the end, but the views of Tauranga’s residents were never treated seriously.
Then, unlike some other cities, TCC also just accepted the new urban density legislation and immediately included the new rules in its “Plan Change 33”. Those changes are clearly laid out here on the TCC website. Whereas in Auckland and Christchurch, this became an election issue for mayors and councillors, and those councils pushed back against the rules by adding extra qualifying matters,
The new Medium Density Residential Standards allow land owners to build three, 3-story dwellings on all standard residential sites, without a resource consent, in Tauranga and other major NZ cities. The TCC website further clarifies: “Resource consent would still be required for developments of four or more dwellings, but it would be easier to obtain and you wouldn’t need approval from neighbours if all our rules are met (as a restricted discretionary activity).”
The legislation also enables “higher density housing with more building height within and around the city centre, and other identified commercial centres across the city and close to public transport”. Tauranga’s council is proposing 4 to 6 story dwellings in some locations, and 8 stories in other higher-density zones, and 13 stories in the city centre.
Tauranga at the ‘Bleeding Edge’?
There are other significant initiatives that have taken place in Tauranga that, when taken together, show that Tauranga has become a test case for several new centralised initiatives. For instance:
- Tauranga is the only major NZ city where there has been no public consultation in recent years on the city’s growth plan and spatial plan. That is because (as we were told by a former SmartGrowth Chair) central government is now a strategic partner and that “limits public input”, because “central government is secret until decisions have been made”.
- Consultation on the SmartGrowth Strategy is finally happening in September 2023, but it remains to be seen if public feedback will result in any changes to the current growth plans – especially because the Connected Centres “programme that forms the basis of our updated SmartGrowth Strategy” has already been predetermined.
- Tauranga is also the only NZ city where there has been no public consultation on the city’s transport plan for at least six years. Remarkable, considering that is the same time that congestion has become a huge issue and transport has rocketed up to the number 1 issue for most Tauranga residents.
- The aforementioned Connected Centres programme was signed off between Covid lockdowns, without any public consultation, and it spawned a Transport System Plan that most people have never heard about,
- Tauranga City Council has just signed off on its Climate Action and Investment Plan. However, despite being the last city in NZ to produce a climate plan, it is the only one we know of that has no target – and does not even sign up to the net zero 2050 target embedded in NZ legislation.
- TCC is so far (subject to any changes from upcoming Plan Change 33 hearings) implementing the new higher density rules across the city without the many “qualifying matters” (which limit building heights and density in certain locations) that Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch are planning. That could mean a radical change from the largely single-story sprawl that Tauranga has known… or not. Because whatever the government’s rules, the market will rule.
- Kāinga Ora’s assessment of Tauranga’s Western Corridor as a Special Development Project was the equal first and biggest of the only two development areas in NZ chosen so far. That means this central government agency will have almost complete control over this massive development, with councils relegated to a “stakeholder” role.
- BOP Regional Council was blindsided by the fact that the SmartGrowth partners will no longer be “partners” on this development, should it proceed, but just be “stakeholders”.
- What’s more, the April 2023 SmartGrowth Leadership Group meeting also fast-tracked a much bigger growth area than previously proposed (right up to Upper Belk Road and Omanawa Road, as well as Merrick and Joyce Roads) – which also surprised BOP Regional Council and many Combined Tangata Whenua Forum representatives.
- In a related matter, in January 2023, the Minister for the Environment granted Tauranga City Council a 5-year exemption (See page 6) from the wetland protection requirements in the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management and Resource Management Regulations. This exemption allows a “five-year window for urban development in Tauranga” and lets developers ‘off the hook’ by not having to follow the rules around wetland protection that apply elsewhere in NZ.
- TCC’s Long Term Plan consultation in November will seek feedback on implementing road pricing across Tauranga City. If it goes ahead, that could make Tauranga the first city in Australasia, and one of the smallest cities in the world, to introduce road pricing.
- In December 2022, Tauranga became the first place in NZ to use the innovative Infrastructure Funding and Financing Act (IFF). That means ratepayers have already borrowed extra “off the books” debt, with the details still shrouded in secrecy. That debt does not appear on Tauranga City Council’s balance sheet, but it still has to be repaid by ratepayers.
Why did they do that? To borrow $177 million more debt, on top of the $1.05 billion that Tauranga City Council already owes, with the likelihood that we’ll be borrowing hundreds of $millions more via the IFF to fund the civic centre and other projects.
Where Does That Leave Us?
We are not making value judgements about the pros and cons of all those things. Indeed, there are arguments that some of those initiatives may be needed, as it has become increasingly clearer by the year that the SmartGrowth model of urban sprawl has failed Tauranga.
Compared to the 20th century pre-SmartGrowth era, Tauranga now has worse environmental outcomes, worse social outcomes, far worse congestion, unaffordable house prices, the highest rentals in NZ, much higher carbon emissions, and economic outcomes that are no better for many people than back in the days of ‘$10 Tauranga’.
That’s not to say SmartGrowth caused all those problems, but it certainly didn’t deliver on its promise of “a unified vision, direction and voice for the future of the western Bay of Plenty” and “communities where we live, learn, work and play” in their local suburb.
Our concern is that some of those things are happening without the knowledge of most Tauranga residents. If they are all such great ideas, why not get the buy-in of local communities before moving forward? That applies especially to the city’s growth plan and its transport plan, which will shape the future of Tauranga for decades to come.
Which leaves us where? It leaves us at a crossroads.
Tauranga can continue sprawling more than ever, bringing rising living costs, increasing homelessness, even worse congestion, soaring debt, and even higher rates than now – already the highest residential rates of any city in NZ. And Tauranga City Council and SmartGrowth partners can continue to push most things through without public input, often in “confidential” meetings, and then offer token engagement opportunities that don’t really change anything.
Alternatively, we have an opportunity to develop a sustainable plan for a sustainable city – meaning financially, socially and environmentally sustainable. Where there is less congestion, better public transport, no homelessness, manageable debt and more affordable rates bills. And where councils work with local communities to develop the city we want – not the city that the elites and expensive, out-of-town consultants want for us.
You will have a rare opportunity to make a public submission when the SmartGrowth Strategy goes out for consultation later in September. Don’t waste that chance to share your thoughts – it may be another 6 years before you get a second chance!
We’ll have more details about this consultation in the next few weeks.