The Corruption of Local Government: Plimmerton Farm, Porirua

A whiff of corruption hangs over moves to urbanise Plimmerton Farm, a 384 hectare greenfield property within the Porirua district that has been bought by Plimmerton Development Ltd (PDL). The Porirua City Council and PDL are working together to get the property rezoned under the district plan from rural to an urban zone and pave the way for a 2,000 unit residential development. For several reasons, which I will touch on below, the site is wholly unsuitable for urban development. That is not just my opinion; the process for changing the district plan has attracted 138 submissions, mostly hostile to parts or the proposal as a whole. Big-hitters against the plan change include Forest & Bird and the QEII National Trust.

The corruption I’m talking about is not the cash in brown envelopes type; it’s a political corruption.  The collusion between Porirua City Council and the developer may even be legal, though the legality needs to be challenged. Nicky Hager’s exposé concerning Wellington City Council, The Long, Sorry Saga of Shelly Bay, published 4 July, begins with the question of corruption. Hager said that in New Zealand we don’t expect to have to bribe public officials, “But our luck in living here can make us complacent about the kinds of compromised and non-transparent processes that we do have. The classic area where this occurs is local government (e.g. city councils) which has the dangerous combination of not many people watching closely what goes on but decisions worth massive sums of money to contractors, property developers and others.”

Hager is right. Regarding “not many people watching”, consider the decline in press reporting of local council business. Traditionally, the physical arrangement of council meeting chambers included a prominent press bench for journalists. Today, at many council meetings around the country, those seats are vacant. Meetings are unreported, the local newspapers have long gone along with the accountability of elected representatives to the public. There has been a decline in local democracy during the neoliberal era. Much was done by local councils directly and was hived off to the private sector. Insidiously, bit by bit, legislation has weakened local democracy. 

Porirua City Council has long had an unhealthy relationship to the real estate business with former mayors and councillors coming from that occupation. Currently the mayor and two councillors (three out of eleven on the council) come from the real estate profession. Naturally, real estate businesses are very much in favour of private residential developments.

Theoretically, the citizens of a local government area should democratically determine how their area is developed. Theoretically, the role of local councils is to facilitate democracy. This role is enshrined in the Local Government Act 2002 which states the purpose of local government “to enable democratic local decision-making and action by, and on behalf of, communities”.

Porirua City Council should be safe-guarding the community interest, not working hand-in-glove with PDL whose only motive is private profit. But that is exactly what has been going on. A Memorandum of Understanding, an agreement between Porirua City Council and PDL, has been obtained by the QEII National Trust under an official information request. It makes interesting reading and is summarised well by the trust in their submission on Plimmerton Farm. 

  1. QEII is concerned that Porirua City Council (“Council”) is unable to independently discharge its functions with respect to sustainable management of the district’s natural and physical resources due to having entered a Memorandum of Understanding with Plimmerton Developments Limited regarding conduct of the PC18 process. 
  1. The MOU describes how PDL and the Council will work together in relation to the Plan Change. It records that PDL has agreed to reimburse the Council’s reasonable costs of PC18 – but this reimbursement is conditional on PDL being satisfied with the Plan Change content. The MOU says that PDL is “seeking a proposed plan change that enables it to meet certain commercial requirements to enable a viable development to be undertaken at Plimmerton Farm” and that PDL “will not be able to agree to support, or continue to fund, a proposed plan change that will not accord with those commercial outcomes”. This is of particular concern to QEII as development of the site should be driven by the site’s environmental constraints not by commercial outcomes. PDL’s commercial outcomes are not a relevant RMA consideration.
  1. Under the MOU, the Council and PDL have agreed to work together to address issues raised in submissions and expect to reach agreement on any amendments to the proposed plan change that are offered by the Council. If agreement is not reached and if PDL considers any amendments that will be proposed by Council to be adverse to its interests, PDL can elect not to make any further reimbursements of the costs of PC18. Council has also undertaken to agree the contents of its reply submissions, and any amendments to the Plan Change that it intends to offer at that point, with PDL. 
  1. QEII submits that the Council’s evidence and its response to submissions should be considered in light of this compromising agreement with PDL. The Council’s position is not independent.

Forest & Bird make these points on the MOU in their submission:

  1. We raised this concern in our letter dated 3 March 2020. In the Council’s response dated 17 March 2020, it is stated that “the Council’s intention in entering into the MOU was that its statutory functions or regulatory powers would in no way be limited as a result of its cooperation with PDL to reach an agreed position on suitable proposed plan change provisions”. While it is not required under the MOU that agreement is reached, the wording is such that it implies agreement will be reached. 
  1. Not only that, the proposed plan change as notified is already prejudiced because the MOU agreement was that PDL and Council would agree entirely on the text of the proposed Plan Change that was put to Council for resolution.
  1. The Council is now in a position where it cannot be impartial in the PC18 process. Indeed the Council intends to rely on consultants engaged by PDL for its evidence in relation to the plan change, with Council witnesses providing only a peer review function. This appears to be the approach already adopted where the supporting documentation to PC18 has all been prepared by consultants engaged by PDL. Further evidence of this partiality is set out in the MOU wording that “Council and PDL will work together to address issues raised in submissions and expect to reach agreement on any amendments to the proposed plan change that are offered by the Council.” 
  1. In our view the hearing panel charged with making decisions on PC18 will not be able to rely on the Council providing an unbiased position on the Plan Change. This is particularly problematic where the only expert evidence is that provided by PDL. The hearing panel will therefore need to engage its own experts.

Another aspect of the MOU between Porirua City Council and PDL is the stipulation that the Council must request the Minister for the Environment for the Streamlined Planning Process to be used for the plan change. The SPP provisions were brought in by National in 2017. They scraped through Parliament by one vote against opposition from Labour and the Greens. The SPP is undemocratic; it means that the minister, not the Council, takes the decision on district plans or resource consent applications, there is less time than prescribed in the Resource Management Act for public submissions and there is no right of appeal to the Environment Court. Yet in early May the Labour minister, David Parker, approved the SPP.

The SPP obtained the Plimmerton Farm plan change and was publicly notified by the Council on 20 May. Only one councillor, Geoff Hayward, voted against this step. Submissions closed on 4 July. The next stage will be a hearing in front of a panel appointed by the city council. The panel will make a recommendation to the minister, probably towards the end of the year.

So, what is wrong with the urbanisation of Plimmerton Farm? The site is one of slopes and valleys that drain into the adjacent Taupō Swamp, a recognised nationally important wetland, one of the few remaining such wetlands in the Wellington Region. The development of the site, as foreseen in the proposed plan change, would interfere with the hydrological system and expose the swamp to siltation from the massive amount of earthworks needed to build roads and building platforms on the hills. Many submissions make a compelling case against the urbanisation on ecological grounds. 

My submission concentrated on the linked issues of climate change and urban design. Porirua City Council declared a climate change emergency on 26 June 2019, but the hollowness of this window dressing is borne out by the proposed rezoning. There is nothing in the plan change that challenges the business-as-usual approach of the backward development industry that prevails in this country. The development, situated far from the shops and services in Porirua’s city centre, and far from schools, will be a car journey generator. There is nothing in the rules of the proposed urban zone for buildings to be highly energy-efficient. There are no requirements for buildings to be designed for solar gain and built-in solar or wind power. There is not one measure in the plan change proposal aimed at minimising greenhouse gas emissions. My submission exposes how the mandatory evaluation report omits consideration of the high-level principles of the Resource Management Act in general and in particular excludes consideration of the amendments brought in by the Resource Management (Energy and Climate Change) Amendment Act 2004. This is what happens when a local council allows a developer to write the rules of a plan change to suit themselves and hire the specialist consultants. 

The proposal runs counter to urban design principles. The development of Plimmerton Farm would be another example of the blight of urban sprawl. Developers like large greenfield sites because they are profitable. Modern urban design, however, places emphasis on redevelopment within existing urban areas and using up brownfield sites. As long as central and local government allows greenfield sites to be urbanised the private sector has no incentive to look at redevelopment on generally smaller sites. It would be better if there was no reliance at all on the private sector and the public authorities undertook redevelopments themselves. Modern urban design promotes walking and cycling and higher residential densities in and around centres. The existing Porirua city centre zone is absurdly large to cater for commercial needs and is badly designed. There are no residences in the central area, making the area lifeless after business hours and generally soulless. Instead of expanding urbanisation onto greenfield sites there is a great deal of potential to develop housing in the city centre, and in existing suburbs too, and make efficient use of existing infrastructure.

The best use that could be made of Plimmerton Farm would be for it to revert to forest by natural regeneration and judicious planting of native species. There should be public access and walkways for enjoyment. One benefit of such reforestation would be that Taupō Swamp would be protected. The reforestation of Plimmerton Farm would turn the site into a carbon sink, where carbon is sequestered out of the atmosphere and stored in plants and soil. A serious approach to climate change in New Zealand means cutting back on grazing and the methane emissions and converting hillsides to forests.