Sprawl lobby takes a swipe

Posted on January 25, 2012 by


A few days ago there was an article in the Press about a recent survey which suggested that house prices in Christchurch were too high, and that land-use policy being pursued by local government, which imposes an urban area limit, was effectively to blame.

The annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey appears to be a kind of lobby tool to support relaxed land-use planning rules – or in other words, it supports policies that allow unmitigated urban sprawl. If you wanted anymore proof of that consider this:

“Co-author and Christchurch resident Hugh Pavletich said that for metropolitan areas to rate as affordable and ensure housing bubbles were not triggered, housing prices should not exceed three times gross annual household incomes.”

Hugh Pavletich is or was a commercial property developer, so no surprises that he backs such concepts (a quick google search brings up a lot of lobbying for sprawl).  Who wins when fringe land can be developed unhindered? More importantly, who loses? Who pays for all the infrastructure used by so few people, or the congestion that sprawling auto-dependent areas would cause?

According to the survey, the recovery in Christchurch has been delayed because authorities have failed to release affordable fringe land. I simply don’t see that as being the case. Apart from the fact that I don’t think housing affordability is actually what is “delaying” any recovery right now, there are simply dozens of housing developments going on around Christchurch, particularly in the north-east, south-west, Selwyn and Waimakariri areas. I have never seen anything that remotely suggests that these developments can’t handle people shifting from red zones and expected population growth during the rebuild. Sure, there are possibly some issues with prices as demand goes up in some areas, but I see no link between availability and affordability overall. It appears that there is plenty of land within the metropolitan limits to develop for future growth, and there is enormous scope for urban renewal in existing suburbs. We should always be open to some tinkering of the limits where it makes sense (who is to say we got it right the first time or that situations won’t change, I guess) but they are actually there for a good reason.

Flexibility of the urban limits I feel can have some benefits, but unmitigated urban sprawl brings a lot of negative impacts onto the table, including increased infrastructure costs, increased transportation costs (in this day and age??!!), increased living costs, and overall poor planning outcomes. Urban limits were put in place for a reason, to avoid all of the above. Further, as I have already mentioned, I have yet to see any real evidence that there is a chronic shortage of land in Christchurch. Just because there is a limit in place, doesn’t mean there isn’t land that can be developed on the “fringes” (or are they more concerned with what land they can develop, and how much land they could make money off into their retirement years?). As previously noted, the evidence seems to show that there is plenty of land either currently being developed, or in the planning stages. Just look at the huge developments planned for Kaiapoi, or the Prestons and Highfield developments, or even Rolleston. Therefore, using housing affordability to justify unmitigated fringe development just does not cut it with me. Perhaps their definition of “Christchurch”, much like Statistics NZ’s, is a little more confined than reality (to suit their argument?).

I warned a while ago that the earthquake would be used by property developers to lobby for the relaxation or total abolition of urban limits. This seems to be yet another attempt to do just that. Perfect timing too as we currently have a local government crisis at hand, which makes it very easy to manipulate the issue as “just another Council cock-up”. We have good foundations in place (the Greater Christchurch UDS, the draft Central City Plan) that will serve us well in the recovery and rebuild period. Lets not mess with them too much, they were put in place for a good reason.