Wellington changes tack on plans to tackle its housing crisis

Wellington is nearly 3600 homes short of what it needs to meet population growth and demand.
ROBERT KITCHIN/ FAIRFAX NZ

Wellington is nearly 3600 homes short of what it needs to meet population growth and demand.

Deputy Mayor Paul Eagle is making a major U-turn in his efforts to solve Wellington's looming housing crisis.

New housing developments in Wellington have been lagging behind population growth and demand, leaving the city 3590 dwellings short of what it needs.

Only last year, Celia Wade-Brown's council trumpeted the creation of an Urban Development Agency, working in the private property market to make land available for urban renewal, housing, and local economic development projects.

Deputy Mayor Paul Eagle says bringing development work into an in-house council unit will speed up the process.
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Deputy Mayor Paul Eagle says bringing development work into an in-house council unit will speed up the process.

But now a taskforce chaired by Eagle has decided the council can do a better job on its own, and has brought the work back in-house.

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Eagle said the council needed to "hurry up" and start building, and this could be done quicker without an urban development agency, or UDA.

Eagle, left, and mayor Justin Lester recently announced a social/affordable housing scheme at the Arlington Apartments ...
ROBERT KITCHIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Eagle, left, and mayor Justin Lester recently announced a social/affordable housing scheme at the Arlington Apartments site on Hopper St.

Wellington Chamber of Commerce and the Registered Master Builders Association have given a cautious welcome to the move, saying what really matters is results.

Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Milford, who previously supported the idea of a UDA, citing Melbourne's Docklands as a good example, said the chamber was interested in actions and outcomes.

"The UDA seemed to be a mechanism to kick off action and, if the taskforce believe they can accelerate and achieve the same outcomes as a UDA, and quicker, that's even better."

Registered Master Builders Association chief executive David Kelly said builders would like to see a more streamlined approach from the council towards housing.

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He suggested fast-tracking developments via a set of criteria, such as using builders with good track records.

"I'm heartened to hear what mayor Justin Lester has been proposing. I think he is making all the right moves."

In recent announcements, Lester has said he aims to introduce a one-stop shop approach for consents that would be managed through a simple online portal; offer $5000 rates discount for new first homes and apartments; and build 750 units of social and affordable homes.

Eagle said a document prepared for the Mayor's Housing Taskforce warned a UDA could end up competing with the private sector and not complementing it; end up duplicating existing council functions; and risked becoming politicised and unable to operate with sufficient agility.

"As chair of the taskforce, I have learned that a UDA is no silver bullet, and has a narrow focus."

A better way forward was to create an internal council unit called Build Wellington, which would be a restructure of existing units that looked after consenting, urban design, city-shaping and aspects of the property team, he said.

"This is the quickest way, instead of spending time creating and setting up a new entity … councillors are also keen to retain control of the masterplan for the future of Wellington, which is the core role of council."

In Britain, Canada, and Australia, direct intervention from UDAs has been used to repurpose greenfield land, improve the housing supply, and deliver social and affordable housing.

In New Zealand, the Government is currently preparing UDA legislation with special powers of compulsory acquisition.

However, Eagle said that, apart from the special powers, there was nothing an in-house council operation could not do right now.

"The use of compulsory purchase powers are more of a threat than utilised."

In the future, the council might set up a "vehicle" to give it powers to help deliver housing more quickly. "We'd have them in our back pocket if we did not get the co-operation needed," he said.

The taskforce, which combines iwi representatives, the construction industry, community organisations, tertiary education, property developers and Housing New Zealand, will hold a forum on May 4.

It will then hold its final meeting on June 14 before reporting its recommendations to councillors.

 - Stuff

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