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DON BRASH: IN DEFENCE OF “URBAN SPRAWL”

In Newsroom today (8 June 2023), Dr Iresh Jayawardena, a lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland, has a column criticizing the National Party’s recently-announced housing policy.


He notes that the National Party’s proposed policy “would require councils in major towns and cities to zone for 30 years’ worth of growth immediately, with the option to opt out of the medium density standards law [which National and Labour had agreed on more than a year ago]”. He went on to note that:


“This would promote greenfield development but unfortunately risks causing more harm than good. One of the main concerns is the promotion of urban sprawl over compact, well-connected cities.


“Urban sprawl contributes to a range of issues, from increased traffic congestion to higher carbon emissions, unsustainable land use, increased strain on public services, and loss of valuable green space. This can lead to poorer air quality, longer commuting times, and a diminished quality of life for residents. It also may deepen social inequalities as wealthier residents move to the outskirts, leaving lower-income households with less access to quality services and infrastructure.”


Unfortunately, it is this kind of academic nonsense that has created one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the English-speaking world.


In American cities which have not tried to limit urban sprawl, median house prices are three or four times the median household income in those cities, making house prices “affordable”. In Auckland, the median house price reached eleven times the median household income in 2021 and is not much lower even now. In Tauranga, the median house price is close to twelve times the median household income. So in both cities – and in Wellington and other cities – houses are wildly unaffordable.


And it isn’t the houses themselves which are ridiculously over-priced, it is the land on which they sit, often tiny sections of 300 square metres or less. The Property Editor of the Herald has noted that the relatively small houses/apartments built by Williams Corporation in Auckland averaged just $180,000 in 2021; the larger houses built by GJ Gardner averaged $350,000. The reason why “house prices” average around $1 million is simply that the land the houses sit on is absurdly over-priced, all because of a silly fixation about “urban sprawl”. The one thing that New Zealand is not short of is land, and tightly restricting its availability for housing development means that a substantial proportion of the population has not a hope in hell of ever owning the roof over their heads.


Dr Jayawardena asserts that allowing urban sprawl would mean higher carbon emissions from increased traffic congestion. That is certainly a possibility if transport systems are not built to accommodate additional traffic, but he fails to acknowledge that stand-alone homes in the suburbs, made of timber, almost certainly involve less carbon emissions than high-rise apartments built of concrete and steel, which require 24-hour lighting, elevators and electric clothes-dryers.


In any event, as Roger Partridge, chairman of the New Zealand Initiative, pointed out in a Herald column (30 May 2023), because New Zealand has an Emissions Trading Scheme, any reduction in carbon emissions from having people living on top of each other simply frees up carbon units to be emitted in some other part of the economy: it doesn’t reduce overall emissions.


One of the political ironies which would be funny if it were not so tragic is that radically freeing up land for residential development was one of the very specific commitments made by the Labour Party prior to the 2017 election: indeed, a commitment to abolish the Metropolitan Urban Limit around Auckland was a promise spelt out in so many words in the Labour-New Zealand First Government’s Speech from the Throne after the 2017 election. Labour ignored that commitment and indeed Jacinda Ardern later made an explicit promise not to abolish that limit.


All New Zealanders who care about citizens who do not own their homes – and who currently have not the slightest chance of ever owning their own homes – must hope for a change of government in October, and must hope that, unlike the present Government, the new one sticks to the commitment to radically free up land availability. Only then will one of New Zealand’s most serious social problems have any chance of being solved.


Don Brash

8 June 2023

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