A Capital Letter: Greens dodge a bullet over Wellington housing plan vote

OPINION: Senior Wellington journalist Georgina Campbell’s fortnightly column looks closely at issues in the capital.

When Green Party city councillor Iona Pannett voted to protect more character homes in Wellington, people were shocked, others outraged, and some said it was a bad look.

But actually, what would have been more strange is if Pannett had voted to kiss goodbye to heritage protection.

Pannett’s votes have been scrutinised after she and her colleagues signed off on the capital’s spatial plan, which outlines how Wellington will accommodate up to 80,000 more people over the next 30 years.

Her bio on the Wellington Greens website literally lists “robust heritage protection for our character suburbs” as one of her top priorities.

You don’t have to follow local government politics very closely to know Pannett has always been a massive heritage advocate. It’s no secret, she campaigned on it.

Pannett was first elected to the council in 2007.

Since then, housing in New Zealand has turned into a crisis. There is not enough stock, rents have escalated, and home ownership isn’t even worth dreaming about unless your parents can help you.

Labour’s KiwiBuild promise has only resulted in further disappointment.

It’s a defining issue for a generation of young people who are shut out of the market, making Pannett’s views on heritage more relevant than before.

The most heated debate in Wellington’s spatial plan was over how much protection character areas in the city should get and how much should be freed up for development.

Auckland is currently dealing with a similar debate, one which will echo around the country as councils work out how to implement the Government’s National Policy Statement on Urban Development.

These new rules allow things like building heights of at least six storeys within walkable catchments of the city centre and metropolitan centres as well as existing and planned rapid-transit stops.

In Wellington, Pannett voted against moves to reduce character areas and instead supported a proposal to increase them from what was proposed in the spatial plan.

The Greens expected this. Ahead of the spatial plan vote, local-level efforts were focused on their other two councillors, Laurie Foon and deputy mayor Sarah Free.

The party issued a press release two days beforehand “urging” the council to pass an ambitious plan allowing for more new homes close to the city centre.

Green Party urban development spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter acknowledged there should be some provision to protect significant heritage buildings and the character of the city.

But she said that shouldn’t be through a blunt, blanket approach that prevented the city evolving to be more equitable and green.

“As Wellingtonians, we know that our city’s character relies on a diverse mix of people being able to afford to live here, and for that we need an ambitious approach to more new housing,” she said.

The vote to shrink protected character areas by almost three-quarters ended up having a convincing majority.

Foon and Labour councillor Fleur Fitzsimons, who brought the amendment to reduce character protection, also knew not to bother with trying to get Pannett on board.

The numbers ended up being 9-6 in favour of less protection, somewhat surprisingly because councillor Sean Rush sided with left-leaning councillors.

He told the Herald he wanted to be remembered as a politician who was for the future and prepared to make things happen.

Rush said it was time to let go of such extensive pre-1930 demolition protections and allow people make choices about their own properties without the council putting barriers in the way.

Pannett’s vote on this issue was not like when Free, who was also the council’s cycling portfolio leader, voted against a proposal to triple the cycleway budget.

The move was narrowly voted down 8-7, with Free tipping the scales.

This truly came as a shock. The local party issued a “please explain” over the position.

“We are aware of concern from various members and branches about the position some of our Green councillors took when voting”, a newsletter distributed to Green Party members in the Wellington Region said at the time.

“Since this occurred there has been continued dialogue with the councillors, branches, party officials and others.”

Free later supported another amendment to spend the full $226m on the city’s cycling network.

The Greens dodged a bullet in that Pannett’s vote on character didn’t change the overall outcome.

Her vote on the spatial plan should be considered in the context of the stances she takes which clearly align with Green Party values.

She never misses the opportunity to talk about climate change, sea level rise, waste minimisation and her opposition to the airport’s runway extension or more motorways.

Candidate selection for next year’s local body elections will test whether Pannett’s views on heritage are considered a risk the party is willing to take as the housing crisis rages on.

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