Let the city sprawl in splendour
A veteran of my trade, who now makes a better living promoting
the interests of an Auckland local body, looked me in the eye the other day
and said the city was running out of land.
He said it in that matter-of-fact way of people who have subscribed to a
point of view without ever really thinking about it. When I stared back in
amazement and stated the obvious - there’s plenty of land in every direction -
he smiled and changed the subject.
He started to describe his home - a nice rural block of native bush on a
secluded beach, quite a drive from downtown Auckland but it was certainly
worth the travelling time when you got home in an evening to the trees and the
tranquillity. He had a boat in the bay and at weekends it was bliss.
He hadn’t changed the subject at all, of course. He’s too smart for irony
to be unintended; he was conceding my point without committing a heresy
against today’s creed of urban planning. Everybody in local government these
days will tell you cities are reaching the limits of available land.
Land zoned for suburban housing they mean, and they do the zoning. It’s
entirely their decision that we are running out of land. They have decided
that not many more of us should live in the loveliest places, such as secluded
bays far from the city centre, or the cheapest places - new subdivisions
beyond the built edge. That is urban sprawl and cities are no longer allowed
Sprawl is said to be uneconomic for reasons I have never quite
understood. Services such as roads and drains have to be extended, but they
must also be expanded when more people are packed more densely into designated
zones. The idea that apartment dwellers will not want a car is an urban
In any case, it cannot be hard to ensure that newly subdivided sections
beyond the city limits carry the full cost of servicing them. The cost to
first-home buyers would be less, I’d wager, than the price they must now pay
for a restricted supply of residential land.
Property prices have rocketed by fully 50 per cent in the past five
years, far exceeding the growth of incomes over the period. After a pause
early last year, the boom seems to have resumed. A survey lately found the
median house price in Auckland is now nearly six times the median income.
Young people hoping to buy their first home must be looking at mortgages that
would terrify me.
Their plight has prompted repeated reports from a new one-man policy
think tank, David Skilling’s New Zealand Institute. It has become the subject
of numerous features in newspapers and magazines and it is likely to bring
some sort of Government response in the Budget next month. But all the
solutions suggested so far - subsidised savings in various forms - would
merely fuel the fire.
House prices are unlikely to return to affordable proportions until the
discussion ceases complaining about the cruelties of the market and
concentrates on the consequences of restricting the supply of land.
I am grateful to another one-man think-tank, Owen McShane’s Centre for
Resource Management Studies, who sent me a clipping from the Christchurch
Press of the results of an international house affordability survey initiated
by a local property developer, Hugh Pavletich.
The piece invited people to take a look at their house valuations. Though
the overall figure might bear little resemblance to the market value, it said,
the breakdown of land value and "improvements" (your house) could be
Back in the 1970s when many of us were buying our first home, the land
was about 20 per cent of the price. Look at a breakdown now, says Pavletich,
and the land is likely to be slightly more than half the total.
House price inflation has in fact been land price inflation. In the
United States and Canada, which like us have enjoyed high migration and a
housing boom, the split is likely to be 30 per cent land and 70 per cent
house. But in the fastest-growing US cities, such as Atlanta and Dallas-Fort
Worth, planners are trying so hard to strangle their expansion.
In New Zealand, says Pavletich, the land component of the cost of most
new housing "should not be more than 20 per cent, where it was back in the
1970s before local government started monkeying around with land supply for
irrational and ideological reasons".
The ideology is apparent to anyone who comes into contact with land use
planners these days. Their titles all now incorporate the word "environmental"
and they do not do land use planning any more, they do resource management.
And they have definite ideas of what a community should be.
It should be small and compact. People should be able to live entirely
within walking distance of all the shops and services they need and ideally
their workplace, too.
If they have to travel further, for mass entertainments for example, it
should be by public transport, preferably on rails.
Roads are a necessary evil, the private car is an abomination, ribbon
development along attractive coastlines is to be fiercely resisted. They have
drawn a line around Auckland’s existing perimeter and, but for a few vacant
corners within it, they intend for the city’s next million to buy into a more
intimate lifestyle within present limits.
They hope. Appealing as small-town life might be to an atavistic ideal in
most of us, it is not how we choose to live. We congregate in or near cities
because we prefer the anonymity of crowds, the variety and opportunities of
large markets and the cultural energy so many people generate. If we can find
a village within the city so much the better. If it is a village by the sea it
I love Auckland for precisely the reasons our local government is now
determined to resist. This is a place to sprawl. There are few other places in
the world as blessed with coastline as sublime. Why should it be the preserve
of my friend from the local authority?