A game of policy leaves Hamilton architect crestfallen

Andrew Bydder's heart sank when he read the Statement on New Zealand Urbanism.

OPINION: I am not a fan of politics and the games politicians play. I am, however, very interested in policy.

This is the framework that defines our future, so it is important to get it right. Over the last year, I have been trying to get my head around how government and council organisations actually create policy. Yes, a lot of good gets done by the public sector – education, health, police, roads, et cetera – the basics generally work well, and compared to Venezuela, we are doing okay.

But some parts don't make sense and others are clearly not an efficient use of public money. There is room for improvement. A 2018 conference on Urban Design in Wellington summed up the major failings of policy development in a single event. Don't worry, you don't need to know anything about urban design to read this, it is about the all-too-common process.

The 200 attendees were a mix of architects, developers, council planners and government officials. Forum leader Alistair Ray from Jasmax, New Zealand's largest architectural company, proposed the benefits of a four-page rulebook instead of 350-page tomes that councils produce. The private sector was prepared to be provocative and generate new ways of thinking.

Afterwards, a workshop of 22 people stayed on to come up with a policy statement. Three quarters were council and government representatives (private sector people left because they have to earn a living).

The first step was, sensibly, to identify the problems. Number one was the affordability crisis. As I have pointed out, this is the product of council planners forcing a "compact city" ideology. Maybe this was an opportunity for some positive introspection. It sounded like a good start.

Next came our planning systems, described as "complex and dependent on legalistic language", with "consultation that is slow, expensive, and makes genuine community input difficult". A burst of honesty that I didn't expect! Perhaps some really good policy could come from this.

It was followed by obesity. Apparently this is now the fault of our buildings. My hopes dived. "Health and safety" has become a crutch that government lifers lean on. It is abused to justify so much spending and manipulation of rules. Here was the ubiquitous health issue. Sure enough, it was followed by the inevitable safety one - increasing number of traffic accidents due to poor building design.

Except that a quick look at the actual statistics contradicts this statement. There has been a steady decline since the mid-80s as deaths, injuries, and accidents per 10,000 motor vehicles each year have more than halved. It hadn't taken long for the process to get subverted as the old bureaucratic mentality took control.

A couple of other trivial issues were discussed, but they didn't even define what good or bad urban design was. Out of this, they managed to write the "Statement on New Zealand Urbanism". My heart sank when I read it. Starting with the usual waffle about "fully aligned policy frameworks", it proceeded to utterly fail in real policy development.

There were two stand-out examples demonstrating how public servants strangle thinking and initiative. We are all sick of buzz-words borrowed from successful businesses and applied out of context because it looks professional. Here was "better evidence-based decision making backed by measurements of value."

Ordinarily I would applaud this as it is the basis of practical solutions. Yet urban design is one of the few areas where quantification is all but impossible. The workshop was simply regurgitating a phrase pointlessly.

Then, of course, urban design needs to apply Treaty principles. As someone who is actually working on Māori social housing projects, this virtue-signalling tokenism is frustrating because it distracts from real solutions and misdirects scarce resources.

The statement was duly presented to Housing Minister Phil Twyford and will no doubt be referenced in further policy development across the country. Staff will present reports that nobody will read, and our elected representatives will make quick decisions based on staff recommendations.

Don't hold your breath for urban design, or any other major policy area, to be improved any time soon.

*Andrew Bydder is a Hamilton architect.


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