Mixed-use development now all the rage

OPINION: Last week's column was about the history of council planning. It affects us every day, having had a big impact on our house designs, sections, roads and where we work. Some people reading this are about to embark on the Monday morning commute across Hamilton's bridges and wonder why their CBD office or Te Rapa factory couldn't have been on the same side of the river as Rototuna. The zone system that planners dictated is to blame.

A new buzzword - mixed-use development - is now the in-thing. Urban designers looked at successful towns that evolved without planning rules and noticed they mixed work and living together. It is a pity that the buzzword is not "evolved without planning rules".

This money needs to be paid back, so the council will charge "development contributions" on new homes in these areas. That is only fair. Existing ratepayers should not be subsidising new houses. But at around $50,000 for Peacocke and up to $90,000 for a large house in Rotokauri, the costs are not reasonable.

This is on top of $113,000 compliance costs added to the price of bare land (council's own estimate). You cannot escape a building consent fee of around another $10,000, but 10 years ago, most people avoided a resource consent fee. Now that has become difficult if you want good design.

After a decade of trying to force businesses to stay in the CBD, planners did a complete about-face and committed to a Rototuna town centre. Then they promptly blocked future growth in the northeast.

Instead, the council has planned expansion with new suburbs in Peacocke (south) and Rotokauri (west). This makes some sense in rebalancing the city, but Rotokauri is an old swamp, and $120 million worth of open drains (known as swales) is required to prepare it for development. Peacocke needs major infrastructure with a $290m loan from the government to get it started.

A bunch of rules now tells you where to have your front door, your garage, and your windows, with no consideration of the site, sun, views, privacy, or personal taste. These rules are applied under the Resource Management Act, despite the act's being written in 1991 precisely to get rid of these sorts of rules. Your front door is not a resource that needs managing, and thus the legality of these rules is highly questionable. There is a big cost to your lifestyle, but also to your pocket, as a simple consent application fee is $3000 – after you have paid a planning consultant and architect $10,000 to prepare the paperwork. A more complicated notified consent has an application fee of $17,000 and even more consultant costs.

There is a real danger that people will decide not to build in these new suburbs. It is much cheaper to buy in and commute from Cambridge, Ngāruawāhia or Morrinsville. If development stagnates, then it is left to existing ratepayers to repay the council loans. The rates rise risk is scary.

The problem compounds when you consider the attractiveness of a suburb without basic facilities like a shopping centre. An average size (2000m2) supermarket faces development contributions of nearly $700,000 in Peacocke. There becomes a chicken-and-egg situation where people won't want to buy until there are shops, and shops won't want to buy until there are people.

I am worried, alongside plenty of others with property experience who have contacted me, that the development contributions are too high, and that the planning restrictions are too intrusive. There needs to be a careful rethink of costs and a new evaluation of the planning process.

My proposal is two-fold. Council needs to listen to land developers about ways to streamline the subdivision process. A 20 per cent reduction in the compliance cost is equivalent to bringing Peacocke's development contributions in line with the rest of the city.

Also, returning to simpler planning rules for residential areas where houses are controlled by boundary setbacks and height. This will eliminate most resource consents and is supposedly cost-neutral to council, as consent fees are meant to be actual processing cost, not revenue-gathering. Yet it will save homeowners not only the council fees, but the consultant fees as well. I am one of those consultants. It will mean less money for me, but I would rather be designing the house people really want than working to arbitrary rules.

These savings might be just enough to make Peacocke and Rotokauri a success.
* Andrew Bydder is spokesman for the Hamilton Residents & Ratepayers Association and an architect. 


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