In search of the perfect planning system

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
17 March, 2017

One decent policy rule is never to make the perfect the enemy of the good, but to always keep the perfect in mind anyway. But sometimes there really is the chance to aim for the perfect.

The Productivity Commission’s Better Urban Planning report is due for release in two weeks. The Commission’s blue-skies remit was a thorough restructuring of the urban planning system.

There is reasonable consensus now on the current system’s problems.

While the RMA provides a flawed framework for developing reasonable urban plans, it broke thoroughly in implementation. Urban planners shoehorned restrictive development plans into the new framework, with onerous consultation mechanisms layered over the top. This was partially due to planners’ existing outlook, and partially to very real infrastructure financing constraints.

Councils consequently dribbled out zoned land to ensure development contributions would more quickly cover infrastructure costs. And they saw little gain in fighting back against NIMBY opposition to intensification.

They also saw little gain in other obvious approaches: While Auckland Council could fund at least a billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure development, debt-free, by selling off Council-owned golf courses for housing development, people living in tarpaulined carports in South Auckland are less likely to vote in Mayoral elections than are more affluent golfers.

A better planning system would start from the ground up, setting incentives so Councils would want to allow development. Better infrastructure financing would let the owners of new developments pay those costs off, over time. Levies on the increase in property values that comes with upzoning could sometimes be appropriate for funding infrastructure needed for increased density. And planning processes should look rather more like the speedy Independent Hearings Panel.

But even if the Productivity Commission delivers us a high-level vision of the perfect planning system, it would be a long time until it helped ease the housing crisis. Legislative drafting alone could take years.

Worse, the prospect of better rules to come could encourage people to delay development.

Easing the housing crisis requires faster measures: ones that are good, but might not be in the perfect plan. Giving Councils the GST collected on new residential construction in their districts for the next few years, as Jason Krupp suggests in our Insights 1 column, would encourage them to bring forward development, and help cover infrastructure costs.

And, hopefully, at the end of that period, a far better planning system will be ready.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates