First principles on planning

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 6 November 2015

planningLast weekend was significant on two fronts: The government announced a major review of our planning system; and the All Blacks won the Rugby World Cup.

While the latter was celebrated and received all the attention it deserves, the former may be the more important event in the long run.

Under the guidance of the Productivity Commission, we will see a complete, first-principles analysis of all acts relevant to urban development. The Local Government Act, the Resource Management Act and the Land Transport Management Act will all be subjected to the test whether they help or hinder the economy and housing affordability.

You cannot overestimate the significance of the government’s announcement. Minister of Finance Bill English has invited the Productivity Commission to go back to the drawing board and imagine what a planning system should look like. This is an opportunity to bring decades of plan-led development to a close and explore something radically different.

Modern town planning was heavily influenced by British planners of the mid-20th century when planning was the fashion of the day. Through strict planning the UK won the War (with a bit of help from the United States), and through planning it hoped to manage the peace as well.

There was a Keynesian inspired and semi-socialist spirit that guided the government of British Prime Minister Clement Attlee. One of its outcomes was the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, whose impact and influence was felt worldwide.

If you like, our Resource Management Act is the Kiwi grandson of the Britain’s post-War planning legislation.

Much in the world has changed since those post-War days in 1940s Europe – except the idea of plan-led development for our cities is still with us. If anything, the belief in urban planning must be even stronger today than in the 1940s. Otherwise, how would you explain the hundreds of town planning positions existing within Auckland Council alone?

Town planning has become some sort of modern, civil religion. It promises the path to a good life, a clean and responsible future, health and happiness. And yet, its practical results are often underwhelming, starting with poor housing affordability and traffic congestion.

The Productivity Commission should welcome Minister English’s invitation to look at the first principles of planning. It should ask the most basic question: What, if any, planning system does a country like New Zealand really need?

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