Labour responds to challenge from Joyce that political parties should seriously consider ProdComm urban planning proposals in Election 2017 campaign; Notes similarities to current policies

Labour has responded to Finance Minister Steven Joyce’s challenge that political parties should seriously consider the Productivity Commission’s urban planning change recommendations, by saying many of the suggestions already reflect its Election 2017 policies.

Joyce Wednesday said the biggest challenge following the report was the politics of the situation, saying parties should think about the recommendations going into September’s general election. “You can’t complain about RMA (Resource Management Act) and then not be prepared to make changes,” he said.

The report, released Wednesday, made 64 recommendations, including using central government creditworthiness to guarantee council borrowing, imposing value-enhancement taxes and re-evaluating rates to levy them on the unimproved component of land – in essence a device to encourage land bankers to develop.

The suggestions were medium-term hurdles that should be referenced in Election 2017 manifestos, Joyce said. National will get current changes to the RMA through Parliament before the election before looking at what new suggestions it could take into the election campaign.

Labour pointed out that a number of the recommendations mirrored its current policies, including targeted rates, infrastructure bonds, making urban land markets more competitive, and urban development authorities.

“The National Government wasted eight years trying to weaken the RMA with constant tinkering, instead of tackling the real road blocks to urban growth that have been a major cause of the housing crisis,” Labour Environment spokesman David Parker said.

“This is a polite way of saying National has dropped the ball for eight years. Freeing up restrictive land use rules so our cities can make room for growth could have been achieved eight years ago by a strong National Policy Statement under the RMA. Labour has been calling for that for the last five years,” Housing spokesman Phil Twyford added.

Wellington’s Labour Mayor Justin Lester earlier this week hit out at private land bankers in the city’s northern suburbs, saying the council was looking at ways to “encourage” them to begin development.

Central vs local govt

Joyce on Wednesday said National-led government Cabinet Ministers would “have a pretty serious conversation” about how to react to the recommendations. Government had in the past looked at scrapping the RMA but decided the move could create complexity and uncertainty for a period of time, he said.

One of the debates required was how much extra power should central government take off local authorities, Joyce said. “You could argue that the way people shape their own communities is up to them,” he said. “But you could also argue that for some of the bigger communities, the urban communities, the way that those are shaped has an impact on the whole country, and we see that in Auckland.”

The example of central government allowing for the Auckland Unitary Plan to be assessed by an independent hearings panel – something the Productivity Commission has recommended nationwide – was an example of central government intervention working.

“There’s no doubt that we wouldn’t have ever got an Auckland Unitary Plan through without a process like that. It would have taken years, and years, and years, and years,” Joyce said.

On the issue of targeted rates, Joyce said the government is currently working with the Auckland Council on a “tricky area” of current law on whether the council would be able to use the measure to fund specific large infrastructure projects. He referenced undeveloped future urban land north of Auckland, near Orewa.

“At the moment the council is saying, ‘we can’t afford to build some of that infrastructure because our debt limits are there’. The idea would be, you get a targeted rate across that land up there, and that would be an income stream that would pay the cost of some of that infrastructure,” Joyce said.

Expand our funding toolkit – local govt

Meanwhile, Local Government New Zealand welcomed the report, in particular the Productivity Commission’s suggestion that the local authority funding toolkit should be expanded.

“Urban development authorities are a tool widely used worldwide and will not be the whole solution but can be the catalyst for change. We are keen to have this additional tool for councils to deliver our key projects and to cut through some of the hurdles associated with fragmented land ownership,” LGNZ President Lawrence Yule said.

Business NZ CEO Kirk Hope said a new approach to resource management law would be a positive move. “Planning problems evident in cities today have arisen in part because of the broad and unclear provisions of the current Resource Management Act. The Commission recommends that a new act should contain clearly defined and restrained objectives. Planners would then have clearer parameters to work within,” Hope said.

Environmental Defence Society gives qualified support

Perhaps the biggest surprise to many – including Joyce and those at the Productivity Commission – was support received from the Environmental Defence Society. It welcomed recommendations for new legislation containing separate objectives and principles for the built and natural environments. “Crucially, it acknowledges the need for clear environmental limits to apply everywhere,” EDS CEO Gary Taylor said.

“The report finds that resource management challenges in towns and rural areas are different. We agree: the current system, following a large number of ad hoc amendments over many years, has evolved into a clunky hybrid that satisfies few,” Taylor said.

“Echoing the OECD’s report from last week, the Commission asserts a clear need to reform the system of funding infrastructure. For instance, both entities support road user charges, which is an idea that is overdue for deployment,” he said.

However, “a range of other recommendations including a one-stop shop for planning hearings, with rights of appeal to the Environment Court limited to points of law, need more thought. Public participation rights should not be curtailed.”