Bernard Hickey not on his game


Recently Mr Hickey interviewed Wellington City Councillor Rebecca Matthews and it was disappointing for the lack of critical thinking taken on housing. I want affordable housing for everyone but government and council policy is advocating a neo-liberal laissez-faire approach to urban planning.  But the failure of laissez-faire is why urban planning began as a discipline; think of Dickens.  Suburbs were a response to try and improve the quality of peoples lives and generally they did. 

But without evidence Mr Hickey and Ms Matthews criticise people using democratic processes to protect themselves from very real impacts like loss of character,  heritage, sunlight, privacy, and green spaces.  While there are increased community costs and risks from more flooding with less green spaces, more carbon intensive new buildings because of more concrete, more plastic in new buildings such as shown in TV1 Sunday programme 7 May.  And also it’s about a loss of a New Zealand identity.

Without a strong focus on heritage/character in our cities there will be a loss of a sense of place, of what is different about this place (e.g. Wellington and New Zealand) and the stories of the lives of past residents – that connect to this or that building or place. And without that sense of something that looks different and reflects our past we won’t have a sense of where we came from, of what makes us different and therefore what makes us special.  These urban planning changes are an attack on our identity as New Zealanders. 

‘Things’, buildings, places, stories, matter to identity. It was an absolute disgrace that our colonial government systematically destroyed every fortified Pa site in New Zealand. People at the time spoke of how impressive and inspiring they were. How they admired them. The destruction was one of settler control and domination, to destroy Maori identity and pride. Fortified Pa may have come from war but the preservation of them would have been a respect for the past and the people who used them. In the same way our leafy green suburbs have many older buildings from a colonial era but the buildings are not guilty of colonial crimes.  Neither are these buildings guilty of making the affordable housing crisis. 

Mr Hickey and Ms Matthews demonstrated no awareness of or engagement with identity and quality of life issues from these urban housing changes. Suburbs successfully built to deliver a better quality of life are going to be allowed to be destroyed on an intellectual whim that it must be privileged NIMBYism. That what will come will be affordable housing.

And so saddest of all is Mr Hickey from his economist angle will know that new builds will not be cheap/affordable, because building costs are so high, except there will be a small discount if they have no direct sunlight or suffer lots of noise or lack of privacy. He knows that the driver of a lack of affordable housing was from the high investment demand that drove up house prices; because housing was a safe investment compared with building society failures or share market crashes; better income too. And high house prices mean high mortgages which are simply passed onto renters. He knows high immigration drives up housing prices, and our huge tourism industry takes housing away from the long term rental market and into the short term rental market. 

He knows all this but it’s so much easier and less complicated to slander and scapegoat ordinary people as a reason to decrease quality of life by trashing green historic suburbs. To be blind to what these suburbs mean to liveability of a city and identity. In Wellington these green leafy suburbs (Newtown, Thordon, Mt Vic, Mt Cook etc) are already high density housing that can be done up without huge amounts of plastic. They already sequester carbon. Our existing housing stock is part of the affordable housing solution as they can be cheaper than new builds and are less damaging to the planet. But Mr Hickey and Ms Matthews do not engage on these issues of substance.

p.s. I have no direct conflict of interest as I do not own a separate house. I live in an apartment. But on visits to Auckland I have enjoyed walking through green leafy suburbs with character homes. And anyone can do that. 

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  1. Having seen large council blocks built in the 1960s destroyed in London after they became dangerous slums unfit for families and the majority of the population, building densely and destroying aesthetics isn’t the solution for everyone. Apartments will suit some people, but it is getting increasingly difficult to argue against easily maintained single level dwelling with a garden for the kids to kick around a ball in. I grew up in a relatively poor part of country in a house with a garden, as did most people and it wasn’t considered uber wealthy. Today you can grow up in Mt Cook or Newtown and those people are considered uber wealthy. These people aren’t extremely clever, they have lucked in where they could get into house, but it solely down to local and central government favouring density over single dwelling suburb and towns. They have caused the land price to increase by limiting the urban limit, and they don’t care the price of a house and land is no longer 3.5 x double income or 5 x a single income. By allowing this to continue we will have fewer communities because we will have eroded the path to becoming middle class. This will in turn erode our society and community. It’s important to remember if you grew up in a house with a garden in say New Plymouth you are not in real terms richer if you have a house and garden in Newtown, it is just a paper increase but has not changed your real wealth. However it is harder for an increasing number of people to get into their own place, and that will hurt us all.

  2. While I understand your perspective & know why those in the leafy suburbs do not want to be built in with high-density housing the alternative of continually expanding cities is not a realistic option. Unless you can provide a solution to the need for housing I suspect that the relatively easy option of increased housing density will continue.

    • Hi Bonnie, I have written articles on the solutions. I agree sprawl is not sustainable and not good. The problem is the sprawl and waste is within the existing city boundaries. Fields of car parks all over the place. Shopping malls could have mid rises over them so people come down the lifts and into the shops. Rates need to be higher in central commercial areas to encourage building up to maximise the use of the land. Semi industrial land has sprawled everywhere and is poorly used. Much of this could have a residential housing requirement placed over some of it. There are many ideas other than trashing heritage and identity.

  3. Yes. There are many “stately home” style houses which are worth preserving, but many suburban houses would not be missed. The problem is that land is so expensive now that we have many mediocre houses sitting on very expensive land, of which infill or high rise housing would make better use in the sense of housing more people, particularly in areas close to public transport and other amenities.

  4. Fair points Stephen.

    In my view we should be doing the opposite of intensifying Wellington because it’s a ticking timebomb. Instead, we should be uplifting entire government departments out of that city and relocating them to towns that aren’t a massive seismic and tsunami risk. With modern communications there is no need to cluster government departments around the Beehive.

    This would reduce cost pressure on housing in the capital. It would free up space for student accommodation. It would move economic activity to depressed regions. Lastly, it would force some of these ‘gliding on’ public servants to rub shoulders with actual real people instead of the being fully immersed in the circle-jerk that is Wellington. 😉

    • Wellington is located in an atrocious place for a large city. Very little land to build on, and the result is a city that is too narrow and too long, with too many hills in the way.

      Foxton was intended to be a port city, and is surrounded by huge amounts of flat, vacant land. The Chinese or the Emirates would be able to throw up a new city there within a few years.

      Even with many skyscrapers, Wellington is still short of parkland, and the roads/freeways are too narrow. If most of the town/suburbs were relocated to the Foxton ‘mega-city’, Wellington could become like Canberra — a small, low-density, planned satellite city.

  5. it’s not going to happen ‘organically’ by the mystical hand of the market…we need regulation and if neccesary compulsory purchase….it’s the only way to break the land for investment crisis

  6. There is nothing wrong with intensification if it is done to a more or less consistent three-storey level with courtyards and patios. Problems arise once tower blocks that are out of scale with the rest of the street go in, or in other words, once the townscape becomes snaggle-toothed. The interesting thing is that three storeys are all you need to achieve most of the gains of intensification, say, along an entire bus route, and not even necessarily in the streets behind.

  7. The issue is that all of these suburbs you talk about were developed way before climate change and rapid population growth were ever envisaged. We simply have no choice but to densify our cities to meet our needs going forward. This means building large amounts of housing close to transport links and amenity. Remember that by 2030, the emissions target requires a huge decline in the use of private motor vehicles so simply building new housing on Greenfields sites just isn’t sufficient. I disagree that our existing housing stock can meet demand, the rapid population growth (completely unrestrained as successive governments have never had a policy on migration) means intensification is urgent. I would also point out that there are numerous (especially European) cities that have developed excellent dense housing areas along with integrated public transport that have significantly improved the liveability of residents. I like seeing older residences and areas in cities but the desirability of those areas would diminish in a hurry if the streets are filled with people sleeping in cars or worse.

    • Hi Grant Edmonds, I have never said we should build more greenfield sites; and I agree densification is necessary. Can’t you see the waste all over our cities within the existing boundaries? The huge field carparks. The possibility of building mid rises over commercial areas, down the lifts and into the shops, the amenities, no transport needed. It’s how we are using our existing semi-industrial and commercial spaces that is the problem. We need higher rates on commercial areas to encourage they go up and use their land better; or are required to have residential over some of their land (depending on activities). And where would your vandalism of the liveability of the city end? And you believe that nicely planned cities like in europe will simply arise from allowing developers to bully build? Your ideas are wishful thinking and not planning.

  8. I give Stephen Minto top marks for consistency: nearly every essay he writes thunders against proposals to densify city centres, necessary though that is to limit urban sprawl and the growth of motorways.
    Sorry, Stephen, it must be done. Instead of battling against it, focus on encouraging town planners to do the densification delicately, with many trees, and squares where people can gather.

    • Hi John Trezse, You clearly have not carefully read my essays; I have repeatedly said the issue is the wasteful use of land within the cities limits. This waste is in the commercial and semi-industrial areas. Residential mid rises could be over shopping malls, customer on your doorstep without having to drive. Over the carparks that sprawl everywhere. The heritage suburbs are few and are a finite number. They are a huge asset to any city in terms of liveability, water retention, keeping temperatures lower. Your idea of destroying it to then rebuild with parks doesn’t align with reuse, recycle; and it is just wishful thinking. The governments law changes are simply a permission to bully build they are not proper urban planning. With no guarantee a nice well planned European city will arise.

      • Unfortunately @ Stephen, you’ll not convince him. (He’s done his research, and is an expert).
        Around here (an area you’re well familiar with), folk have no objection to the demolition and rebuilding of ancient shit that is beyond preserving but see no reason for the demolition of heritage that is often NOW of superior quality to new builds.
        This 130 yo plus house, for example, that’s seen four genratikons of family is in a better state than many new builds I’ve come across.

        Some of those new builds (such as in Roxburgh (sic) Street have required almost total reconstruction, and even then, they’re still a bit suspect).

        Then of course travel down Adelaide Road on a major bus route, and ponder the potential for densification above car yards and other businesses that are not likely to last for much longer.

  9. It can be done without trashing history. Most of Great North Road could be intensified with no heritage impact and a huge increase in housing density in Pondonby/Grey Lynn plus being on good bus routes and hopefully eventually good tram routes.

  10. Harsher penalties are needed for slum landlords and greater powers ought to be available for both central and local governments to initiate legal action against slum landlords and also slum tenants, as there is an increase in tenants who do not leave their premises until they are evicted when they know that their accommodation poses a hazard. This could easily affect adjourning properties, neighbours, and other buildings and amenities within the immediate area.

  11. We definitely need proper planning principles that are of known importance, sunlight, air etc. We don’t want knee jerk slums, momentarily seeming to deal with problems. But why not crops of tiny homes on wheels that can be shifted before and after floods to appropriate temporary or permanent sites. Popup villages. Some living caring of each other as citizens.

    Not what sounds like empty-minded, fly-blown brains as I am going to describe the people who claim to have power and use it to step on those getting the short straw. For light relief I recommend again the Pawnee purpose in Parks and Recreation on tv. They fight and squabble over good/bad ideas from their different perspectives and try to do a good job. In the end we conclude everything is a compromise but the solution can be weighted and that’s where the fight begins. And there must be a fight – you can’t let those who have, get away with carelessly shaping the lives of those who haven’t.

  12. I’m right behind the great new trio of NZ economists responding to the neoliberal project with ‘NZness’. That Chris Trotter has spoken against all three says it all. Which of them did Martyn talk against?

    But there are no genuine Lefties here to respond.

    Sure Steve, but you’re talking for comfort. Which is a now but our end in our lifetimes. If you want to talk about comfort go to Kiwiblog. This now is an edge going over a canyon as per Wile E. Coyote. It won’t go on beyond his sprint.


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