It has been a while since property developers and their supporters last came out publicly against contemporary urban planning practices, but yes, it is time to roll your eyes and mutter: “here we go again”. Rodney Dickens, posting on the popular interest.co.nz blog, takes aim at “government-imposed town planning regulations, often dubbed the ‘smart growth’ approach”. While there is nothing new here, including the supporting cast of Pavletich, McShane, et al, who are the key drivers of this line of reasoning, with a National-led government in power, we do actually have something more to fear.
Earlier this year two advisory groups were set up to give advice to the Government on issues of urban and infrastructure development in New Zealand. Fair enough. However, in the very announcement of these panels, containment of urban sprawl was set up in opposition to the productivity and economic growth of New Zealand by none other than the Minister for the Environment Nick Smith. If this is the line taken by our government advocate for environmental issues, I submit that we are probably in a very poor position. And that’s not even taking into account the false dichotomy of his argument.
It is at least comforting to see that the results of the online poll being run by interest.co.nz, show that readers of that site have a more moderate view of the issue. While a third of respondents agree that ‘smart growth’ policies are responsible for housing unaffordability, a greater proportion (almost half) agree that the policies are probably partially responsible, but that a whole lot of things are also to blame. Some of these other factors include rising population, the existence of pre-recession easy credit, and tax loopholes that favour property portfolio investments. With the government having already opted out of fixing the latter by stepping back from a comprehensive tax overhaul (despite admitting that the system is broken), its priorities have been clearly laid bare. It could even be suggested that the quality of our designed environment is being ritually sacrificed to promote the twin gods of productivity and economic growth, simply because it is in the politically-too-hard-basket to fix economic issues by addressing the economic ‘environment’.
Rodney Dickens actually has nothing new to say, which is hardly surprising given his background in economics and risk analysis, but his article is a useful flag to remind us to be wary of lying down and letting financial experts shape the designed environment. Thankfully there are some designers on the urban advisory panel, including Wellington’s own Graeme McIndoe, but this is counterbalanced by the presence of such luminaries as Arthur Grimes – chairman of the Reserve Bank Board (The Herald has a more substantial article, including a list of all panel members: here). Accusations have been made that the advisory groups have been structured in such a way as to deliver to pre-determined outcomes, but I’d suggest that pre-determined outcomes will occur, in terms of policy, regardless of what advice is provided from this process. Recent dismissal of the most salient aspects of the tax working group advice, and Simon Power’s recently revealed ignoring of Ministry of Justice criticism of the contentious ‘three-strikes law’ suggest that the current government makes a show of soliciting expert advice, and then quietly ignoring it in favour of a more populist position.
Much of this government’s first term has been defined by the ‘swallowing of the dead rats’ of popular Labour policy initiatives. But some shifts in key policy areas, such as the relaxing of RMA regulations, are beginning to emerge which hint at a more significant move to right wing policy in the inevitable second term. This is, perhaps, just as it should be in the great scheme of things, but it would be rather sad to have our environments dictated only by the concerns of economics as an artefact of that process.