The miserables of Kohimaramaby Simon Wilson
Background reading: Simon Wilson explains how Auckland Council got us in a terrible mess.
Shortly before 6pm, when the meeting had been going almost four hours, Cr Christine Fletcher declared that unless this matter was resolved properly, there would be “civil war in Auckland for the next 20 years”.
And there they were, 150 of them piled into the back of the room, sitting and standing, shouting at every speaker they disagreed with, seething with anger: the insurrectionists of Kohimarama, just itching to storm the barricades. Well, not storm, exactly, because their average age was well into the 70s. Clamber carefully, perhaps.
But don’t go thinking that because they’re wealthy they’re also well heeled. Grumpiness, for this lot, merges seamlessly with rudeness. Disrupting everyone with an unpalatable view is a right.
And in the front row, dressed today in a pulsatingly bright blue suit, sat Desley Simpson, the Cosette of the eastern suburbs.
Simpson is chair of the Orakei local board, which covers the entire eastern suburbs, and her entourage included other board members, activists – the captains and lieutenants of the revolution – and her valiant general, the hunched, fiercely determined Richard Burton.
No, not that Richard Burton. This one, as it happens, is like a jaded Eddie Redmayne, Cosette’s beau in Les Mis: he’s got the same look of haunted determination. Burton is the boss of Auckland 2040, the lobby group that’s worked tirelessly to undermine the council’s plan for a city that builds up as well as out.
Many people dress up for these occasions. Even long-time radical activist Penny Bright wears an elegant straw hat with a jauntily tied scarf around its crown. Burton turns out in shirtsleeves and loafers, as if he’s en route from garage to barbecue.
But take note: he’s a genius at this stuff. He reads all the reports and he knows what to talk about. When he addressed the council, he framed the debate the way he wanted, marshalled the facts most useful to his argument, presented it all in simple language and employed a subtle, not at all bombastic, emotional appeal. Behind him, the mob bayed. Out front, Burton was calm and reasonable.
Over the six hours of this ridiculous, gruelling, extraordinary meeting of the Auckland Council, not a single other person came close to displaying such skill. There was definitely no Jean Valjean, no natural leader come to right the world with their humanity. Instead, they squabbled fitfully, confusing each other and themselves, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, Burton won the day.
But he’s on the wrong side of history and he will probably not win the war. The council has decided to withdraw some of its new density proposals for the Unitary Plan. Yet the UP will still set out a blueprint for more density, and it will include all the eastern suburbs those insurrectionists want to exempt. It will also include Takapuna, where Burton lives. It could even allow for greater density than is envisaged at present.
This battle is not really over the Unitary Plan. It’s about who controls the council. There’s an election coming in October and councillors are fighting to keep their own seats. For the forces both for and against greater density, the big prize is not the wording of the UP, but majority support around the council table for their point of view.
Witnessing the great, sprawling mess of it all, was she having second thoughts? “Oh no,” she laughed. “This is wonderful.” Actually, it was a complete clusterfuck.
Mayoral candidate (and political newbie) Vic Crone was at the meeting on Wednesday. She arrived too late to get a seat, so she leaned against a wall for the first four hours.
Witnessing the great, sprawling mess of it all, was she having second thoughts?
“Oh no,” she laughed. “This is wonderful.”
Actually, it was a complete clusterfuck.
To recap, just briefly. The Unitary Plan as drafted by council is currently before an Independent Hearings Panel (IHP), chaired by an Environment Court judge. The IHP is considering thousands of submissions and will report back to council in July. Council will then have 20 days to adopt, amend or throw out the plan.
Last December a council sub-committee adopted a proposal that the 29,048 homes, 40 per cent of which are in the eastern suburbs, be zoned for more density than is currently the case in the draft.
They did this because the IHP had asked them whether the UP allowed for as much housing growth as would be needed for the growing population. The answer, implicitly, was no. So the extra density plans were drawn up.
However, despite objections, the proposal did not go to the full council and the sub-committee decided not to notify the affected residents.
About seven per cent of the city’s overall housing stock was affected by these new plans, and of that, most would be rezoned from Single House to Mixed Housing Suburban. This allows buildings to be closer together, but not higher: lost in the furious debate was the fact that the height allowance for the two zones is the same.
Many of the affected homes were not subject to zoning change in the earlier draft and therefore did not attract any submissions. The proposals affecting these homes are called “out of scope”: they are not within the scope of the earlier UP debates. New submissions cannot be made on out-of-scope proposals.
In other words, a small group of councillors decided to change the rules and keep the affected residents in the dark. When that became known, the uprising began. Opponents of density in any form were joined by opponents of density specifically in the eastern suburbs and by many others who support more density but want the decision-making process to remain democratic.
It’s a relatively small group of homes, but that’s cold comfort if yours is one of them.
Proceedings kicked off with the mayor inviting Penny Pirrit, the council’s head of planning, to explain the background. This infuriated a lot of people right away. Councillors have held workshops, there have been briefings and meetings, report after report, and any number of discussions. Did anyone need the recap?
In the public seats there was laughter every time Pirrit mentioned “due process”. There was lots of heckling. “We don’t care about all that,” someone called out, and there was more laughter.
The problem was this: Pirrit couldn’t say, in simple unambiguous language, what the consequences would be if the council withdrew its proposals or adopted some other course of action. She tried to do it, and many councillors cross-examined her on it, but none got a clear answer.
Cr Wayne Walker suggested that there was expert evidence the out-of-scope proposals were not needed. Pirrit didn’t say yes or no to that. She said “It’s not about the numbers” and they were acting on the principles established for them by the council. They had submitted a plan for “integrated, comprehensive neighbourhoods”, and if they took some parts of it out the rationale for the rest would be undermined.
That kind of answer just went nowhere. Was she suggesting the plan couldn’t be changed in any part or it would all fall to pieces? Was she saying they couldn’t amend their proposals or the whole UP would be unworkable?
Len Brown asked her to “think laterally”. She didn’t respond. It was a strange request at that late stage.
After Pirrit and other officials had spoken it was the turn of members of the public, and then some of the chairs of the local boards. Then Pirrit and her colleagues were recalled, and still they couldn’t give clear answers. Frustration mounted.
Cr Cathy Casey said nobody should be surprised the controversy had erupted, and she was right. What on earth possessed the council sub-committee to think they could sneak something like this through? And how was it, given the enormous amount of time council officers had spent on this, that they had not worked out how to give clear, satisfactory answers to the questions they were being asked?
It was an epic fail. The council’s chief executive, Stephen Town, sat at the head table through all this, two along from the mayor, and didn’t say a word the entire time. His officials were dying in front of him, but he didn’t step in.
And the mayor himself, the lead advocate for the Unitary Plan, had also not ensured the political process was clear and democratic. He may be retiring at this election, but he still has a job to do, and ensuring the credibility of his own programme is at the very heart of it.
When it got to 6pm, Cr Mike Lee exploded. “We’re the councillors,” he railed. “We make the decisions, and after four hours we haven’t even started our debate!” That was true too.
They made such strange bedfellows. Penny Bright hunkered down on the bleachers with the Kohi crowd, shoulder to shoulder with Burton. Bright has devoted her life to opposing many of the values of people like Burton, but sometimes fighting your enemy’s enemy makes you see the world differently.
Four local board chairs addressed the council, sitting together in a row. Shale Chambers and Peter Haynes have Labour Kool-Aid coursing through their veins; Angela Dalton is an Act Party member and Desley Simpson is so deeply embedded in the National Party she’s married to its president. And yet they spoke as one.
As for Cr Cathy Casey, one of the council’s two genuinely staunch left wingers (the other is Cr Mike Lee), she revealed how ecstatic she was to have “worked with people I’ve never worked with before”.
She beamed, rose half out of her chair, and in her broad Scottish accent called across the table to Cr Dick Quax, who is the driest right-winger on council: “Kumbaya, mate! Kumbaya!”
Quax mumbled something back.
So what’s this “civil war” about? Burton said he and his group was not opposed to greater density and “the only issue here is the democratic process”.
Generation Zero’s Sudhvir Singh wasn’t impressed with that. He said, “Today it’s process, yesterday it was viewshafts”. The real complaint was about density in the leafy suburbs but “we just need to get on with it”.
Don Stock, representing the leafy suburbs – the residents associations in Mission Bay, Kohimarama and elsewhere – echoed Burton. “The only issue is the process,” he said. But did he mean it? The next thing he did was criticise the proposals themselves. “We don’t need the extra capacity,” he declared. Then he said if three-storey apartment blocks are to be built, why not put them somewhere else?
Cr Cathy Casey kept a stony face. She was going to support Stock when she voted, but where did he mean? The poorer parts of her Eden-Albert-Roskill ward, perhaps?
Activist Lisa Prager wasn’t even pretending it was just about the process. “The entire Unitary Plan,” she proclaimed, is “a load of hogwash…. designed to bamboozle the public”. She got a very big cheer from the Kohi crowd for that.
Flora Apulu from the council’s Youth Advisory Panel told the council she and her colleague Alex Johnston were “probably the only young people in this room”.
“Oh, poor things,” called out someone at the back.
Architect David Gibbs echoed Singh, who had talked about leafy suburbs residents already on the property ladder wanted to “pull the ladder up” so no one else could get on it with them. Gibbs said he couldn’t think of a “more potent symbol” of the problem. He got booed too.
Burton was always going to win the day. Those six hours resulted in the council voting on two motions, both with the same outcome, and that outcome was 100 per cent predictable from the start.
Thirteen councillors voted to withdraw the out-of-scope proposals, eight including the mayor to keep them.
None of the ithmus, or old Auckland City councillors, supported Brown. None of the Shore councillors did either, except Penny Webster from the most northern ward of Rodney, and nor did either of the councillors in the east. On the other hand, Brown carried most of the south and both councillors out west.
Getting the facts? Way harder than you’d think. In conversation, mayoral candidate Mark Thomas called the changes “substantial”, but when I said surely it was only seven per cent, he agreed. And only half of that would be given a bigger height allowance? He agreed with that too.
Facts are very hard. Every single person in the debate quoted a different set of numbers to support their argument. Some didn’t even make sense.
Penny Hulse, the councillor who has steered the UP process on council and therefore has to take responsibility for the sub-committee decision, was sick of it. “You’re all entitled to your own opinion but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” The crowd was sick of her, too, and scoffed at her repeatedly.
The issue of density is not controversial in Hulse’s ward, out among the Westies. That’s because they went through it years ago under the old Waitakere council. They did it with an awful lot of talking, she said, and it was done with goodwill. “What we weren’t facing out West was the battle for information… Now, when the facts are actually proffered, they don’t correspond with what’s being said.”
Privately, Hulse commented: “Now I know why the old Auckland City Council was so dysfunctional.” She stabbed an arm at the insurrectionists. “Every time this lot barked, they jumped.”
Professor Ken Palmer, introduced as a retired planning expert, appeared with Burton. He “reminded” council that “there would be no Unitary Plan until the last appeal had been heard”. This resonated with several councillors, who spoke later of the need to adopt a plan that would not lead to objections in court.
Palmer is not quite right about that. Appeals against any parts of the Unitary Plan will cause those parts to be set aside, but they will not delay the whole plan becoming operative.
The big play was for council seats. Cr Dick Quax wants to delay the UP process, which the law does allow, so the election becomes a straight referendum on the Auckland Council’s entire set of plans for a more compact city.
If that happens, stand by for fearmongering and flood of misinformation. The out-of-scope debate has been characterised by images of tower blocks looming over little cottages, and maps showing big swathes of suburbs where humble homeowners will have three-storey apartments built on their back fence. Neither of these things is true, but there’s no reason to think such nonsense won’t get worse.
Cr Sharon Stewart, a Quax acolyte, distinguished herself in the debate by saying: “Some of these leafy suburbs are absolutely beautiful – why would we want to destroy them?... We’re just trying to destroy our Auckland.”
It’s hard to know what to say, once an idea as patently absurd as that takes hold.
As it happens, the body pushing for the greatest density is not the council planning department, or Generation Zero, or in fact anyone in Auckland. It’s Housing New Zealand. They believe the UP could leave the city 200,000 homes short by 2040, and their own submissions to the IHP involve quite a bit more density than the council was proposing.
One example: the existing UP zones 19 per cent of the city for Terraced Housing and Apartment Building (THAB). It’s a zone for town centres and transport hubs. But Housing NZ wants THAB zoning to cover 28.7 per cent. That really would see tower blocks rising where people don’t expect them.
Housing NZ is now potentially more influential with the IHP than it was, because the council is weaker. By withdrawing some of its submissions the council has diminished its ability to take part in the hearings.
Councillors knew this when they voted, although some of them said they didn’t believe it. Was that wishful thinking? It’s not yet clear if the IHP can find a way to invite the council to play a full role. But remember, it can’t bend the rules – any of that and the whole process will end up in court.
There should be little comfort in this for supporters of greater density. What will happen if the IHP reports back in July with a version of the UP that follows Housing NZ thinking? They’ll be worse off.
The backlash would be enormous, of course, and that could lead to a collapse of council decision-making. And if that happens the government will have little choice but to step in.
But Auckland really does not want commissioners appointed to run the city.
There’s a big takeout from all this, and it’s surprising it hasn’t been better understood before now. Politically, we live in the Age of John Key, which follows the Age of Helen Clark. The core truth of both ages is that electoral success is founded on the art of the possible. You can lead, influence, guide the people, but if you get ahead of them you will not survive. And, worse, when they get rid of you they will undo all your good work.
That’s the reason Generation Zero and other supporters of the compact city should not despair of that vote on Wednesday. There’s a reasonable chance it has realigned the council with the wider population, and that gives the whole project of building a more compact city more chance of surviving the election. Yes, progress will be slower. But not catastrophically so.
There will be no slowing of denser development in the inner city and in New Lynn, Grafton, Eden Terrace, Albany… in the many, many parts of the city where mixed housing and townhouses and apartment blocks will provide a range of more affordable homes.
And yes, it’s likely that over time we will learn that supply is not equal to demand. But the UP won’t be set in stone forever. As models of successful compact housing proliferate, it will become easier to have them zoned for more suburbs. The UP will be regularly reviewed.
There are two more takeouts from the day. One is that political programmes founder where there is no trust. For many reasons, but particularly because of the public view of Len Brown’s affair, the story of the Auckland Council since late 2013 has been the dissolution of trust. It needs to be rebuilt, and it will take a little time.
The third lesson is that in politics, you can never give your enemy a weapon you can’t defend yourself against. The centre-left can’t defend undemocratic behaviour, as Helen Clark discovered, and now Auckland Council has too.
Late in the debate on Wednesday, councillors queued up to declare themselves good learners of these lessons.
Cr Chris Darby, usually a Brown loyalist, said: “Carrying the confidence of the public is really critical. Wherever possible you do your damnedest to carry the public with you. When you have a good process, your outcome is more likely to endure. Previously I have erred in my decision-making, I have to say, and I have put too much weight on merit. I have decided to pay more attention to process.”
Cr Reg Clow, also a Brown loyalist: “I’m quite confident that if we do it right it will be accepted.”
Cr Mike Lee: “We will ensure that people and communities are put back at the heart of planning in Auckland.”
What happens now? Auckland 2040 and everyone else opposed to the compact city will gather their forces for the election. But this vote makes it harder for them to win, because they’ve got less to attack the UP supporters with.
Put it this way: Richard Burton now cannot accuse Cr Chris Darby, who represents him in the Takapuna ward, of trying to subvert the democratic process in order to destroy the Shore.
The best thing that came out of the whole saga was an almost universal commitment by councillors to the Unitary Plan itself. Quax, Stewart and Cr Cameron Brewer were silent on that, but they have always been unequivocally opposed to it.
But Cr Denise Krum, who will be on the Auckland Future ticket, declared: “We’re not anti-Unitary Plan. None of us are. We’re not nimbys.”
And Cr Christine Fletcher said: “No one on council is opposed to intensification. It’s not about left and right. We all want to house young people. We all know we have a housing shortage.”
Surprising as it may seem, there’s a consensus that can and must be built out of this, and it accords with a consensus that already exists in the city. Most people know Auckland has to become denser – to grow up as well as out. Most of us welcome the economic, cultural and social opportunities that a larger population will bring. We’re worried about the process, but not the fact of it.
It’s a good place to start. Candidates for public office need to be telling us now how they see the new city being realised. Not with scaremongering. But with an articulated vision of what should be. Let’s hear it, and let’s vote for whoever has the courage to rally voters to it.
Who are the winners and losers in this battle so far? It’s not as obvious as you might think.
Auckland 2040 and the residents associations of the eastern suburbs scored a clear victory, but it could be their high-water mark. Nimbyism is natural when it’s reasonable, but deeply unattractive when it’s just selfish and based on callous misrepresentation of facts.
Crs Casey, Clow, Darby, Lee, John Walker, Wayne Walker and John Watson, all of whom have usually supported Brown’s position on the Unitary Plan, have enhanced their electoral chances by voting against him this time.
Deputy mayor Penny Hulse is much loved out West, so this fracas probably won’t impact her electorally. Although it’s also possible she’s getting so sick of all this she’ll want to go and do something else.
Penny Pirrit is a big loser. She’s been a most valuable leader in the whole process of creating the new plans for the city, and yet the council has now effectively passed a vote of no confidence in her stewardship of the process.
And Len Brown? He’s retiring so it’s no skin off his backside. Which is a pity, because if he still thought he had skin in the game he might have managed this better.
Vic Crone? Curiously, although she spent six hours in a room with almost all the most influential local-body politicians and activists – on this issue and many others – she spoke to almost no one. No attempt to work the room at all. Even more curiously, Crone told RNZ's Morning Report two days later that Auckland needs a proper plan for future growth. No word yet on what she thinks has been happening over the last five years.
As for the Miserables of Kohimarama, despite their win on Wednesday they will not remain immune to progress affecting the whole city, and nor should they. Density, done well, will come to the eastern suburbs too.
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