What is the District Plan? 

The District Plan is the rule book for the city – it decides where (and what!) you can (and can’t!) build. It decides how the city will grow, where we’re going to build more homes, how we’re going to protect biodiversity, where we’re going to invest more in infrastructure, what that infrastructure will look like, how the city will respond to climate change, and how the risk of risk of natural hazards will be managed. 

Wellington City hasn’t written a new District Plan in decades – this opportunity to completely rewrite the rule book doesn’t come often! 

The council consulted with the public on the draft District Plan twice already – at the end of 2021 and in the middle of 2022. They’ve read all the submissions, and held hearings so that members of the public could share their thoughts. Read our original submission, our further submission, or watch City for People present at the hearings (01:54). 

Based on all this feedback, they will be making changes to the draft District Plan. Then, in March 2024, our elected Councillors will have to ‘enact’ the new plan (vote to approve it). But the councillors can also vote to make changes to the plan before they approve it. We want to make sure that any changes they make are for the better – changes that will enable a city built for people

Our Vision

How does the District Plan relate to the Spatial Plan? 

The Spatial Plan was agreed to in 2021. It sets out where Wellington’s growth will be located, both upwards and outwards. This plan is really sensible, but it’s not legally binding – it’s just the direction-setting blueprint. Now, the council needs to implement the Spatial Plan in the rulebook (the new District Plan), and through Council investment in things like transport, parks, community centres, and pipes. The actual building of homes is a different thing – these Plans can only enable and control it. 

What do the government's new density rules have to do with the District Plan? 

The central government passed two new policies in the last couple of years that direct local councils to allow for more housing in their district plans: the National Policy Statement on Urban Development 2020 (NPS-UD) and the Medium Density Residential Standards 2021 (MDRS). These policies set new rules for density that the Wellington City Councils needs to implement as part of the new District Plan, but there is some flexibility on how they implement these rules. Check out our asks to find out more. 

Our Asks

Will the District Plan fix the housing crisis in Wellington?

We can’t fix the housing crisis without building more homes, and the District Plan can help get those homes built close to where people work, study and socialise. But intensification alone won’t fix the housing crisis. It’s a complicated problem with lots of dimensions and no silver bullet solutions. Generation Rent explains these other dimensions really well.

Shouldn’t we do rental reform first, or fix the Building Code?

There’s so many complexities to New Zealand’s housing crisis that if we hold back progress on any one component until we’ve made progress on other stuff, we’ll never move forward. For the most part, rental regulations and the building code are the responsibility of the central government – Wellington City Council doesn’t have many levers to change those. But the council can pull all the levers to change zoning! 

Do people actually want to live in apartments?

Yes, many people do! There is high demand for apartment living because people know they can have a good life in a well-designed, well-located apartment. Wellington has a gap in its market for apartments, but also for most of the other types of housing besides standalone homes. Plenty of people would be delighted to live in smaller homes if it meant they could live closer to the centre of the city – close to the places they work, study, and socialise. Lots of people like gardening, but not everyone wants to have a backyard – mowing lawns is hard work. The District Plan aims to see a range of housing available that gives people choices, including apartments, townhouses, and standalone homes. 

Is this just a way for property developers to make money?

No, this is about getting more homes built. Some developers will make money by doing that, but that’s not the point: we have a housing shortage and developers build housing. Changing the rules will make it easier for the council and central government to build more homes too. But because we lack other large investors, developers making profit is the only meaningful way right now to get large numbers of new homes, at pace. We don’t object when a plumber makes money providing a service. See “People, Property and Public Good” on Talk Wellington. We hope that the District Plan will mean more community housing developers and non-profits will build homes too. When Auckland changed its zoning with the Unitary Plan in 2016, it enabled all kinds of cool new developments like Cohaus in Grey Lynn and 26 Aroha in Sandringham. See more on this sector on Community Housing Aotearoa.

Won’t developers just build luxury apartments that none of us can afford?

Right now, the planning rules are complex and cumbersome which makes it expensive for developers to comply, incentivising them to focus on building homes at the luxury end of the spectrum. If we change the zoning rules and make it easier and cheaper to get consent to build, it will make investing in more affordable housing-typologies more attractive to developers. This is one way we can unlock more choices for people at a more affordable range of prices. 

But ultimately, any new supply of homes helps with the affordability crisis (yes, even luxury homes!). If developers build high-end, luxury apartments, it’s because they believe there are people who want to buy these new apartments: they’re meeting a demand, and that’s a good thing. The people who move into these new apartments will vacate the older homes they were living in which then become available for other people to move into. Research conducted in cities overseas has shown that these ‘moving chains’ triggered by new housing can improve affordability for everyone as older homes move down price-ladder – check out this great explainer from CityLab.  

How will we make sure new buildings are not ugly?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – what’s “ugly” or “looks good” is culturally and socially-defined, and varies over time, between people, and around the world. But it is important we make sure new homes are well-designed and nice to live in. 

This is why New Zealand has a building code. Every new home built under the new zoning rules will still need to apply for a building consent to make sure they’re following the rules. These rules include standards like natural light that requires homes to have enough windows to let in a good amount of daylight. 

For larger developments, the council officers can also have a say on the design when the project submits for a resource consent. This extra layer of scrutiny helps make sure new buildings are nice. 

But at the end of the day, there is no guarantee that you will find all the new homes beautiful. We think that’s a risk worth taking. The members of our communities who are sleeping in cars and in garages need homes now. 

Will the plan mean that any beautiful heritage home can be demolished?

No. Heritage-listed buildings will remain protected. Older, wooden villas that aren't heritage-listed, but are located within the special “character precincts” will continue to be subject to rules that control demolition, significant alterations, and additions to buildings built before 1930.

How will water and sewerage infrastructure keep up with new housing development?

The New Zealand Infrastructure Commission thinks that, for the most part, the existing infrastructure in our cities can cope with some more density. But in some parts of Wellington, the old pipes do need modernising, which was overdue well before the District Plan update. While councils bear a lot of the responsibility for delayed maintenance, New Zealand’s system of funding for infrastructure like water and sewerage pipes is not fit-for-purpose, and any city’s initiatives must be seen in that context. Having said that, the single most efficient way to fund upgrades and maintenance of horizontal infrastructure (roads, pipes and suchlike) is by having lots of people living near them and paying rates to help pay for the infrastructure. The District Plan enables better efficiency in infrastructure investment by concentrating growth around existing centres, and making forward planning easier. Finally, newer buildings with denser use can also be made more water-friendly, with things like retention systems [PDF] for stormwater and sewage, reducing the burden on the pipes.

Won’t more homes mean more traffic too?

Not necessarily. Much of Wellington’s traffic comes from outer suburbs that aren’t well served by buses and trains. More homes close to where people work, study, and socialise can reduce the need to drive a car, meaning less traffic on the road. The lowest car ownership and car use rates in Wellington are (unsurprisingly) people in central Wellington – where the proximity of places to work, learn, rest, and play makes car-free or low-car life much easier. 

Building more homes at higher densities closer to the inner-city will also make it easier for the council to invest in other transport options – like more frequent buses or light rail. The business case stacks up better when there will be more potential riders! 

Building more housing in well-connected areas, as proposed under the District Plan, will mean more people can choose not to own and run and store their own private car, which enables a host of good things. In Wellington we’re in a transition phase heading towards that; we’re definitely not there yet, and in the short term there may well be a blip upwards in car traffic congestion in some places. A small step forward is the removal of the current Minimum Parking Requirement: providing car parks encourages car ownership and car use, so it’s good that the new Parking Policy will let a landowner or developer choose whether to provide car parking according to whether the prospective buyers are willing to pay for it (in the order of $20-40,000 per carpark on top of the dwelling cost).

Why do we need more homes?

We all have a moral obligation to enable more New Zealanders to live decent lives and contribute to our society and economy, and the single best way to do that is for people to be able to live in centres near to good stuff we all want to do. Even if no-one wanted to move to Wellington ever again, we already have a major shortage of good homes in Wellington. The council estimated in 2019 that we need 24,929 to 32,337 new dwellings over the next 30 years (and we think that’s a conservative estimate). It’s grossly unfair to shut out some disadvantaged communities – overwhelmingly the young, the less affluent, people of colour – from living in our centres. Furthermore, local governments in metropolitan areas (Wellington) are legally obliged to provide for growth by the National Policy Statement on Urban Development.

Shouldn't the Council focus on social housing?

Councils can do more than one thing at a time. Wellington needs more homes for everyone. The supply of new housing has been lagging behind growing demand for decades. Social housing – publicly-subsidised housing for people in direst need – is a vital part, but many others are also locked out of affordable housing to rent or to buy. The approach of the draft District Plan is to remove unnecessary barriers to building all kinds of housing, including social housing. Community Housing Aotearoa has useful definitions.

Why don’t we up-zone in a more targeted way?

We want the District Plan to up-zone across the whole city by raising building height limits. Some people would prefer this upzoning be targeted, or perhaps phased in over the next few decades. But this wouldn’t work very well because upzoning enables development, it doesn't force it. Which means that not every section eligible for higher density will actually be re-developed to that higher density – when they drafted the Spatial Plan, the council assumed that only about 14% of property owners in up-zoned areas will build additional homes on their properties. The 14% is because the government cannot force owners to sell their property and / or make the large capital investment to develop it into housing. The conditions have to be right for people to choose to do so. Which means we need to upzone a larger area in order to ensure enough housing gets built to meet Wellington’s needs.

Broad upzoning that raises building height limits across a large area is also important for affordability outcomes. Targeted up-zoning, that only raises building height limits in small areas, adds value to the sections in those areas because the owners get permission to do more with their land. Developers will pay more for these permissions when the permissions are rare. So, while targeted up-zoning does enable more housing-supply, it also makes the price of land (and the houses on it) spike, which is not great for affordability. But if we up-zone all the land, the sections that have permission to build at higher densities won't be scarce and there’ll be less competition to buy them. So we’ll get more housing supply (great for affordability!) and the price of land won't spike as much.  

Why not just focus on all the empty homes that investors are hoarding?

Wellington needs to have a decent number of empty homes at any given time – otherwise it would be impossible to move house! There is no evidence of a ‘ghost homes’ crisis that would contribute meaningfully to Wellington’s housing situation, and even if there was, there are serious challenges with forcing people to develop or rent out their property. 

We don’t actually have thousands of holiday homes or empty apartments like some cities do – that’s a myth. What we do have is an overheated housing market that makes it far more lucrative for a property owner to sell or rent out a dwelling than to sit on it, uninhabited. There’s no evidence that ‘activating’ under-utilised homes would make any meaningful contribution to fixing the problem because there simply aren't enough empty homes. There is currently no government power that can force owners to ‘activate’ an ‘underutilised’ property (sell it, or develop it for housing, or rent it out). 

Why not develop the outer suburbs instead?

The council doesn’t actually have a choice on this. The central government has set a National Policy Statement on Urban Development that directs councils to enable more homes in city centres and inner-suburbs.

Besides, the Planning for Growth engagement about where and how Wellington should grow was conclusive: heavy majorities favour developing around existing suburban centres, and Wellington city centre. It would be unfair to lock anyone out of suburban centres and city centres. We all have a moral obligation to enable more New Zealanders to live decent lives and contribute to our society and economy, and the overwhelmingly best way to do that is to live in places near to good stuff we all want to do.

Transport costs can quickly cancel out the cheaper cost of renting or buying in a far-flung suburb, and as there are fewer amenities in these suburbs, people will be compelled to go elsewhere to work and socialise. So they’ll be forced to swallow those high transport costs. And not just financial costs – all that travel chews up leisure time. Wellington’s public transport can be especially inaccessible and unreliable for people with disabilities, so by making our housing more accessible in the inner city, we are making the city more accessible for people with disabilities.

Once our far-flung, low-density suburbs intensify and start providing some benefits of agglomeration [PDF], they’ll be able to offer more people a village or a “15 minute-neighbourhood” life. But until then, it’s not fair to lock people out of living in the places where it’s possible to have a full life without travelling heaps.

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