Will evidence and reason prevail?

April 28, 2024

OPINION PIECE by Jane O'Loughlin, convenor of LIVE WELLington.

Very soon Chris Bishop, the Minister for RMA Reform, will announce his decision on the Wellington District Plan.

In front of him is a choice between a set of recommendations made the Independent Hearings Panel, who have been vilified across social media for being out of touch, and on the other side amendments coming from self-described ‘pro-housing’ Wellington City councillors. 

This situation must have initially appeared to Mr Bishop like a fantastic opportunity for an early political win. Under fast-track provisions, the Government is the final arbitrator.

What a triumph, so early in his tenure, to deliver a populist rule change to enable so much more housing.

At the same time as he delivered an impassioned speech about wanting to “flood urban housing markets” in big cities with land zoned for development he announced he would take over the decision on the Wellington District Plan from the Environment Minister.

Unfortunately, the facts are quite different to what he had been hearing about on social media, and this is what he will be confronting now as he considers advice from officials.

Mr Bishop will discover that the difference in housing provision between the proposal put forward by the independent hearings panel and the councillors’ alternative recommendations over a 30-year period is a mere 2%.

He will find that both options for the Wellington District Plan deliver more than the required level of housing for the next 30 years, and both will achieve his goal of ‘flooding the market’ with appropriately zoned capacity.

He will find out that – far from being incompetent - the IHP is an experienced body of respected professionals who carefully considered the submissions presented to them, including from a large number of experts, and tested evidence in the open public forum of the hearings.

He will find that the reasons put forward by the Wellington City Council for rejecting the panel’s recommendations are not grounded in good evidence.

And he may be advised that the group of people opposing the councillors’ point of view include not only hundreds of submitters over several rounds of consultation, but also the council’s own planning staff.

In summary, he will find there are not many good reasons to support the views of the Labour-Green council, normally his ideological foes.

A key amendment he will be asked to consider is the extent of the character areas. Commissioners were comfortable with retaining 67% of current character areas (rather than the mere 28% councillors are asking for) after learning that the District Plan overall had provided far more capacity than is required to satisfy Wellington’s growth needs over the next 30 years.

Councillors, however, did not engage with that evidence.  They did not discuss the merits of the streets and houses in question but instead stubbornly stuck to a decision they made nearly 3 years ago at the time of the spatial plan, that character areas should be decimated to just over a quarter of what they are now – no matter what evidence was brought to bear.

The arbitrary way councillors made their call, and the scant reasoning put forward to support it, makes the decision highly unsafe.

Minister Bishop will be well-advised.  His legal and policy expert will have considered the options and know that the difference between them is stark.

The hope is now that we finally see a fair and evidence-based decision on this matter being made.