Wellington’s District Plan debate: It’s got that 80s vibe and not in a good way

March 10, 2024


It may not be dressed in fluoro lycra, but sometimes the furore over Wellington’s District Plan feels like the 80s all over again, say LIVE WELLington convenor Jane O'Loughlin.

Those who lived through those tumultuous times may see the similarities. 

In the 1980s, the Muldoon government’s efforts to control the economy were becoming increasingly futile – and onto the stage stepped a new class of bright young things pushing for radical change.

Those impatient policy analysts and academics saw the need for economic reform – to break the import barriers and the subsidies artificially propping up industry in New Zealand - but they didn’t want to stop at a little change – they wanted a lot. Having digested the latest trendy international thinking on liberalisation they pushed their thinking on an unsuspecting country.

As with so many things in New Zealand we didn’t do it by halves.

We sold off state assets, introduced user pays, slashed benefits and cut subsidies. Thousands lost their jobs, and unemployment sky rocketed.  A generation of people never recovered.  We went from being an egalitarian society where homelessness was rare, to one where the differences between the haves and the have nots became stark.

Some positives emerged over time.  Those farmers that survived became more efficient.  We imported an exciting range of cheap consumer goods.

But many of us would contend that the extreme unemployment and economic misery wrought by the 1980s ‘reforms’ are still making their mark today, on a generation disconnected from their community and paid employment who went on to have children and perpetuate a cycle of unhappiness, low education and low expectation.

Forty years on, we have the benefit of hindsight.  Most people would agree that change was needed, but not that far, and not that fast.

As the saying goes, those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

And here we go again, this time with the way we plan our cities.

The YIMBY mantra has made its way to New Zealand where it has been supersized and turned into a gospel for young people struggling in an unaffordable housing market (or just struggling in general).

Are more houses needed? Yes. Is change needed?  Yes.  Does it need to be extreme? No.

You will have heard a host of commentators saying that unless a radical version of the District Plan is adopted in Wellington, then a generation of young people will be cut off from the housing market.

This is nonsense.

The version of the District Plan proposed by the independent panel of commissioners allows for plenty of change and tens of thousands more houses to be built.  Modelling shows that retaining the majority of character housing barely impacts housing capacity levels.

If accepted, the panel’s recommendations to the council would mean that 30 percent of the current character protections will disappear, but not 75% as some opponents are calling for.  Three-storey housing will be permitted across the entire city.  Many parts of the inner-city suburbs will have the ability to build six storey apartments.  It opens up the areas that are ripe for change, like Adelaide Road.  It enables more infill housing and it signals willingness for density done well.

The plan signals huge change for Wellington.  With it, we can become a denser, more environmentally friendly city.

But there is a noisy group arguing for extreme change, well beyond what the plan provides.  Deregulate and let developers loose, they say, and affordable housing will result. We don’t care about things like aesthetics, and urban design.  Get rid of the red tape. Leave it to the market to build where it likes.

Forgive us if that rings some bells.  And not good ones.

We don’t believe that letting the market loose is in the interests of Wellington.  Instead, we believe a great city needs good urban design, and that means rules: direction about where density should go, and where it shouldn’t.  It means taking steps to protect existing amenity. It means we respect the past; we don’t trash heritage and character for the sake of it, but look for ways to sensibly retain them, while still providing a lot more housing.

This battle is not between the modernisers and the selfish conservatives.

It is between those who believe in design, and those who want to rip up the rule book.

It is between those who want to curate a new Wellington for the 21st century, and those who want to deregulate and hope.

It is between those who have taken lessons from the past, and those who have not.

LIVE WELLington supports the proposals put forward by the independent commissioners, compiled after considering thousands of submissions from the people of Wellington, exhaustive hearings and consultations with experts.  This is the version that will deliver sensible long term change for Wellington, not Rogernomics reborn as housing policy.