N.Z. in lock down: DAY 13

Yesterday was DAY 13 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

As a result of the course work for my university paper, I have been doing some thinking about how what I have learned about urban planning in the last 48 hours could affect my own views. Having had a diverse range of people speak to myself and my class – economists, council planners, N.G.O. and government agency staff – I feel as though my whole understanding of housing policy and the challenges it poses has been revamped.

There is no simple or singular solution to the challenges facing New Zealand housing, but a combination of changes as laid out below will certainly be a start. They are an attempt to acknowledge the legal, economic, market, policy and societal needs. Understanding how they are interconnected and understanding what the ebbs and flows are in terms of how these needs output and receive input is important.

In terms of legal obstacles or challenges that I think are potentially significant is in the area of covenants on land. Many are well established, and place restrictions on the nature of the housing that can be constructed, such as perhaps requiring nothing smaller than a 4 or 5 bedroom home to be constructed. That excludes potential buyers who might have been wanting to have a 3 bedroom house and a big enough area that they could later subdivide. Covenants might also be used to keep the “riff raff” out – people who come from lower socio-economic classes, but who might have, through a combination of hard work and assistance, to know how to get some finances together and enter the market.

There might well be good uses of covenants as a legal instrument – I would be keen to hear them – but I think I have just demonstrated that something that has uses, also has abuses.

One of the notions that I am certainly not sympathetic to is the market idea that all houses need to be 4-5 or more bedrooms in size. Multiple speakers pointed out that there is now a glut of large houses and it also does not represent an emerging trend that is expected to grow of smaller families after 2-3 bedroom dwellings. Developers want their money’s worth, so they build bigger more complex houses, which may be beyond the ability of most New Zealanders to purchase, or their needs.

Developers, perhaps unwittingly or perhaps deliberately, through not sharing data they have with council planners make it quite difficult for councils to anticipate land use needs. Because of that land use zoning, which normally requires a plan change, public submissions and a hearing to determine the suitability of the change, sometimes becomes an unintentional snag.

It is not to say that planners are always correct as sometimes resource consent applications are not properly notified – i.e. the consenting council underestimates the potential adverse effects and goes for either a non-notification or partial notification. This is never a welcome outcome for a council because it means a now potentially hugely expensive hearings phase with public submissions, reports summarizing those submissions and so forth. And it does happen – Mackenzie District Council is currently facing a legal challenge over a proposed hotel in Tekapo that was not publicly or partially notified.

Rio Tinto decision full of dross

Several years ago, a company linked to the Tiwai Point smelter illegally dumped thousands of tonnes of dross at several sites across Southland, after going into liquidation. Last week flood waters invaded a paper mill in Gore, Southland, where a large portion of the dross had been dumped illegally several years ago. A decision had been reached to remove it, and then Rio Tinto, one of the key players reneged. Citing corporate poverty, they have threatened to shut down the smelter, if made to participate in the clean up. So how did it come to this?

What is dross and how did it come to be in Gore?

It is the solid body of impurities that solidifies. Dross forms on the surface of metals with a low melting point by way of the metal oxidising. It should not be confused with slag, which is the glass like by product left behind after metal has been separated from its raw ore.

10,000 tonnes was dumped in a short time frame says the Mayor of Gore District by the operators of Taha Asia Pacific. It is part of 22,000 tonnes that was deposited at sites around Southland. Dross is a category 6 substance used to create phosphate fertilizer. Shortly after

What was the problem?

The 10,000 tonnes of ouvea premix is located in the old paper mill on the bank of the Mataura River in the town of Gore. Ouvea premix, when mixed with water, reacts to form gaseous ammonia. The gas fumes are lethal at 500 particles per million (ppm). Flood waters reacting with ammonia would have created gas concentrations much higher than that. The Mataura River flooded on Wednesday last week in a substantial event that partially flooded the paper mill.

What needed to be done?

Following the floods, the message from the public to Gore District Council was get rid of it now. It cannot remain in a location now demonstrably exposed to flooding, and in old, poorly maintained mill buildings where exposure to water leakage may cause lesser concentrations of gaseous ammonia to happen.

What happened?

Gore District Council, New Zealand Aluminium Smelters and another unknown party agreed in a meeting that the dross needed to be removed. N.Z.A.S. said it would put up $1.75 million to assist with the removal.

But Rio Tinto who are the majority owner of New Zealand Aluminium Smelters vetoed the decision.

What has been the reaction?

The reaction to the Rio Tinto refusal has almost uniformly been one of outrage. From the Gore District Council which naturally wants to ensure that its ratepayers and the environment are not jeopardised to the Aluminium Council, which was at the meeting and backed the removal of the dross, there has been palpable fury. From Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office and that of the Minister for the Environment and the ordinary resident in Gore there has been fury.

People – Ministers and members of the public alike – are demanding Rio Tinto come to Gore and explain their stance. Thus far no word from Rio Tinto has been received. Social media are suggesting that Rio are holding New Zealand to ransom over the dross.

Minister for the Environment, David Parker is considering legal action against Rio Tinto. The company

Who are Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto is a company that formed about 150 years ago and has turnover of about U.S.$40 billion per annum. It has a chequered record in terms of corporate responsibility despite claims to being a good corporate citizen, in that it has been accused of being complicit numerous human rights abuses and environmental negligence cases. Social activists have awarded it two Roger Awards for what they view as poor corporate conduct in New Zealand.

Are there side issues

One of the problems, which seems to be a recurring theme in New Zealand in terms of third party operators, is cowboy operators coming in, doing a dross job – for lack of a more literal description – taking the credit and disappearing. In this case Taha Asia Pacific, which had a contract with N.Z.A.S. to syphon off the dross and reprocess it to extract more aluminium for recycling at the main plant. The company’s owners were based in Bahrain. The company went into liquidation in 2016, costing 22 people their jobs.

This is where New Zealand’s regulatory system falls critically short in a number of areas.

  • The regulatory body is short on staff and resources;
  • The rate of investigation and trying of suspect cowboy operators is not flash;
  • The penalties (or lack of) and the imposition of them tell such operators that they can probably get away with it

Kaikoura District in danger of implosion

Kaikoura District is struggling to stay afloat. As the new decade begins, New Zealand smallest district in terms of rate payer base is facing rate increases of up to 50% in the current council term, or about 16-17% per annum.

This problem is not new, and nor are the calls for amalgamating with Marlborough District Council. In October 2019 a report came out that said if Kaikoura District Council maintained its current funding model it would run the real risk of imploding within a matter of years.

It is true that Kaikoura District Council has some huge – and largely unresolvable – matters not necessarily of its making. The earthquake of 14 November 2016 caused $2 billion in damage around the district, most of it being to State Highway 1, the railway line, council infrastructure such as the water supply, community amenities. There was also widespread damage to private premises.

The natural effects of such a large earthquake also made themselves known. the harbour and South Bay marina were effectively left high and dry within a couple of minutes as hundreds of square kilometres of sea floor was uplifted from Cloudy Bay near Blenheim as far south as Oaro. Paua beds were left high and dry as well, causing a large amount of paua to go to waste.

And there were the inevitable economic effects. On top of the repair bill, which the then Government said it would foot since it involved infrastructure of national importance, there was several billion dollars in lost revenue. The closure of the road and railway by a combination of rock falls, displacement by rupturing faults and uplift virtually crippled Kaikoura. Even when the road and railway reopened, constant closures have afflicted them both. Ongoing repairs are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Also affected was Kaikoura’s world famous Whale Watch operation, which takes tourists out on boats to see sperm whales taking advantage of a deep sea canyon that comes in to within a few kilometres of the coast.

As Kaikoura has struggled back to its feet its District Council has faced some tough economic decisions. It cannot afford to just lump rate rise upon rate rise simply because it suits. Aside from locals having limited finances, the population in a District that extends from Oaro to Kekerengu in the north and is dominated by Kaikoura with little communities dotted along the coast, is a tiny 4,030.

Faced with these huge hurdles, no one should be too surprised that there are suggestions it should amalgamate with the Marlborough District Council. Historically this is a logical suggestion as the coastal communities north of the Clarence River typically identify with, Marlborough rather than Canterbury. They might have amalgamated earlier with Hurunui District Council, to the south, but for the rejection of the proposal by the Local Government Authority in 2009.

Rather than saddle Kaikoura with rate rises that might push the local rate payer base into an untenable position, I support investigating whether K.D.C. can actually change its funding model. If it cannot, the Council should approach the L.G.A. and ask for permission to hold a referendum on merging. At the end of the day, things are coming to a financial head that no one really wants, but the risk of implosion if the Council cannot change is very real.

How well do we understand local government planning in New Zealand?

Over the course of my Planning Theory paper I had 12 core readings (one a week) and on average two additional readings. Some were dry, Northern hemisphere papersĀ  written in the context of post World War 2 Europe. One or two – in the words of another student – “just about broke my brain”. And there were others that were rather dark, such as that by Kamete (2012), which talks about how planning law was used to aid Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe’s Operation Murabatsvina, which cleared out large slum areas of Harare in 2005.

And then there were a couple that resonated with me. One came from Australia and the other one was from New Zealand. The Australian one (Lane, 2005), examined an idea I have committed to memory because it is where I think some councils are failing badly. Sherry Arnstein (1969), who was an American social worker noticed how out of tune authorities seemed to be on social matters. Arnstein developed the “Ladder of Participation”, which I want to explore a bit.

Lane drew upon Arnstein’s idea and explored it further. Lane suggested that planning fell into three schools – blueprint; synoptic and pluralist. The blueprint type which most western countries abandoned from about the late 1960’s, was basically about developing new settlement forms with question or interference. This triggered some interesting discussions among the students on the course. One said that her parents live in Poland and have no concept of civil planning. They have only ever known “blueprint” type and synoptic and pluralist planning ideas that western countries have gravitated towards were completely foreign to them.

The Harvard paper by Beckert (2016) looks at “Fictional expectations and the crisis of contemporary capitalism”. Beckert argues that capitalism is about expecting to be bettered by a competitor and therefore trying to continuously come with new ideas, products or services. What one is trying to develop has to be of greater value than what was invested so that a return can be made on it. But Beckert noted a potential crisis of confidence caused by the growing disparities that undermine the motivation to partcipate, which might hinder long term market development.

Which brings me to Menzies (2018), where the subject is “A partial history of futures thinking in New Zealand”. The paper examines how New Zealand is struggling to build a futures research capacity which can be found in other countries, but notes people significant in New Zealand’s early history certainly had ideas about the future. People such as the explorer Kupe who one imagines thought about coming to an entirely new land; the Treasurer Julius Vogel correctly imagined people being able to fly (in airships as opposed to aircraft)and made the not yet fulfilled guess that America might have had a female president by 2000.

Another paper that struck me as possibly being useful was one by Joe Painter (2006) called “Prosaic Geographies of Stateness”. A striking paper this one because it sought to understand the impact of the everyday bureaucrat – whether a planner, an enforcement officer or gathering/collating data – and their actions. It drew on literature from Britain, but I am going to put this in a New Zealand context.

We have the Resource Management Act. The planner, that some of you refer to as bureaucrats has a testing job. Juggling the obligations of the Act is not as easy as it looks, and friends who have processed resource consents have told me it is a never ending conveyor belt. Speed it up then, some of you say. Okay, but are you prepared to see more ratepayer dollars spent on staff you call bureaucrats? No, stuff it some of you will say. The planner in the middle then finds themselves struggling to meet R.M.A. imposed deadlines. In carrying out the mundane actions Painter describes, we see how the ordinary job of the planner and the mundane decisions they make actually wield power in our lives. A planner finding a developer wants to build inside a set riparian margin can send the developer away to reset their boundary, or the developer may ask for a plan change. If the applicant does not supply sufficient info the planner can exercise S.92 which requests more information under the R.M.A.

Before anyone grumbles about processing times, I understand 90-95% get issued. But it might pay to check the quality of the decision. This is one reason why we get so many inane council decisions that seem to be half cooked. Another is because city/district/regional councils hire people who have a narrow planning background. As a result New skills are not being brought to the fore. But also a staff that do not have time for due diligence, are going to be the first to make a mistake.

As we look towards next decade it is worthwhile asking yourself and ourselves collectively, what a planner is – what do we expect of them and their profession; do they need to be more visible and what kind of planning frame work do we want?


  • Beckert J., “Fictional expectations and the crisis of contemporary capitalism”, 2016
  • Kamete A., “Interrogating planning’s power in an African city: Time for a reorientation?”, 2012
  • Lane M., “Public participation in planning: An intellectual history”, 2005
  • Menzies M., “A partial history of futures thinking in New Zealand”, 2018
  • Painter J., “Prosaic geographies of Stateness”, 2006

Democracy the real loser in 2019 Local Government elections

So, the elections of 2019 are over. The new District, City and Regional Councils as well as the new District Health Boards have been decided. Many of the Councils have had their first meeting’s – formal or otherwise and photos of the elected bodies have been posted to Facebook.

As with all elections there are winners and losers. In 2019 though the real losers were not actually the defeated board members/councillors/mayors – although they certainly lost – but the democratic principle which lies at the heart of New Zealand politics. When a country has an average voter turnout of only , that is not democracy IN ACTION, but as a headline on the Sunday Star Times said, “Democracy INACTION”*.

And I have been left wondering what it will take to make more New Zealanders vote in these elections. Will it take compulsory civics in school to learn about how the system works and why, say in Year 12 place of one of the five optional subject slots students can take? Will it require more places to cast ballots – I thought that for one weekend at some point in the campaign period perhaps the locations that are used for General Election voting could be opened for casting ballots. Others have suggested using online voting systems to get people to vote, something has been used in the United States with controversial results.

We cannot make them come to the ballot box, but one thing that could be done is automatically enrolling all citizens upon their 18th birthday. That would ensure that the thousands not on the roll are put on it and are not subject to fines. It would also give the Electoral Commission a better idea of who lives where and make sure that appropriate election resources are applied to that ward/seat.

I wonder what it will take for small electorates to have more than one person standing in some wards. Kaikoura District for example the entire council was re-elected unopposed simply because a district with only a tiny rate payer base almost completely in Kaikoura township was simply not enough to squeeze out any more candidates. Same goes for districts across much of the northern South Island and parts of rural North Island.

Fortunately one certainty still seems to exist irrespective of voter turnout: say or do anything really stupid during the campaign or ones term and you will probably be toast. Just ask Siggi Henry in Hamilton, who wore an anti-vaccination t-shirt to a function and deliberately parked in a disabled carpark. She lost her job on Saturday. Just ask John Tamihere, the former Labour cabinet minister opposing Phil Goff in Auckland, who made the mistake of saying “Sieg Heil”, which is closely linked to Nazism. His election bid to be Auckland Mayor failed handsomely. Just ask former Christchurch City Councillor Deon Swiggs who sent inappropriate text messages to a 15 year old, getting him banned by his boss from council functions for youth and ultimately losing his seat on Saturday.

But all in all, this is not how New Zealand elections should be going in terms of voter turnout and the negative commentary about this sorry state is justified.

*Emphasis is mine