Monday, 18 August 2014

Property rights v development?

Guest post by Mark Tammett

Unfashionable I know, in this election period, but I’d like to talk about policy. Specifically, new policies affecting residents of Christchurch – possible precursors to policies in the rest of the country.

I’m talking about the council’s Christchurch Central Development Unit’s new "Liveable City" plan that, according to one objector, treats existing residents as expendable:

This proposal has the worthwhile aim of increasing the number of people living in the central city to between 12,000 and 24,000, but proposes using deeply unfair means… The sole mechanism the Liveable City Plan hopes will fix everything is to remove any obstacles in the way of developers - including those annoying neighbours… The main changes include … an attack on the rights of existing residents by:
- imposing a single taller maximum building height, and steeper set of recession planes…;
- enabling developers to exceed even the newly increased heights, by tightly limiting the matters which can be considered if a developer applies to exceed the limits…; and
- ensuring that affected neighbours cannot hinder proposals which violate the height limits, by specifically blocking neighbours from being consulted….
[T]he Liveable City Plan also favours developers by dropping any requirement for Urban Design consultation about the appearance of significant redevelopments, and greatly reducing the minimum permitted size of apartments… Clearly, the Liveable City Plan hopes that removing regulations will free "the market" to deliver a range of small and large dwellings built in attractive styles…

The whole thing's a mess, and as a defender of property rights I'm not sure what position I should take on the Christchurch Central Development Unit’s proposed  changes.

On the one hand, property rights are being infringed by an increasingly complex RMA regime which stops you developing your land as you should - often granting a say to third parties who should have nothing to do with it. This is the main reason we have so many empty spaces around the city - it's simply too hard.

To the extent this change removes some of the bureaucratic complexity, and stops third parties who have nothing to do with your property having a say over what you can do on it, then it's restoring property rights and that's a good thing.

On the other hand, the recession plane and shading requirements that affect your neighbours are one of the few aspects of our planning regime that aren't complete BS, as they do protect the property rights of your neighbours.

I’d suggest the best approach, if CCDU actually cared about property rights (which they don’t) and about development (which they claim to) would be to lock the existing rules in this area as a starting point, but then allow more flexibility to negotiate a change to these rules with your neighbours.

For instance if you're a developer who wants to infringe on your neighbour’s recession planes, you may offer a change to your design in some other area that is acceptable to them, or perhaps even a cash payment or easement if they agree to that departure - or a combination of both.

This approach would provide more flexibility and freedom to allow the city to redevelop, whilst still protecting property rights of existing residents.

In fact, I see no reason why this couldn’t happen elsewhere in the country.

After all, property rights when properly defined don’t conflict. The difficulty is finding law that establishes them correctly, if at all.

Mark Tammett is a Christchurch civil engineer.

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