Is opposition to a hospital a sign of insanity in planning laws?

Dr Eric Crampton
The Dominion Post
7 August, 2022

In Douglas Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Wonko the Sane realised that the world had gone mad. He had seen the instructions on the side of a packet of toothpicks.

So he built a wall around his beachfront property, decorated the outside of it, and put up a sign welcoming visitors to the Outside of the Asylum.

In a world going increasingly mad, I had thought New Zealand could do well by hanging similar signs at the airport. “Welcome to New Zealand: the Outside of the Asylum.”

But would a sane place layer three years of consenting and appeals processes onto a hospital expansion during a pandemic?

Southern Cross has been trying to expand its hospital at Brightside Rd and Gillies Ave in Auckland.

The problem isn’t that the hospital is trying to take other people’s properties for an expansion. Southern Cross owns the properties it wishes to use.

A special character area residential designation sits on top of the properties it wishes to demolish to make way for the hospital expansion and intensive care unit.

People who do not own the properties consider them to be “significant”.

And a precedent of allowing development in a special character area might allow other bad things, like houses.

Southern Cross Hospital’s chief of property and development, in 2019, noted that the expansion had been planned for some time “to help meet the growing need for comprehensive healthcare services in Auckland, where there are severe capacity constraints in both public and private hospitals”.

Auckland Council notified the proposed plan change on March 21, 2019.

The Eden-Epsom Residential Protection Society organised meetings to block it.

A spokesperson for the society, who did not want to be named, was quoted on March 31, 2019: “We are not opposed to hospitals per se and part of our case is there are suitably zoned areas of the city laid down under the Unitary Plan which could accommodate this activity.”

Hospitals are fine, you see, but Not In My Backyard – even if they are situated on a reasonably major thoroughfare.

Auckland Council approved the plan change in May 2020, with a few modifications.

Think back to May 2020.

New Zealand had just finished its first substantial lockdown.

Building more hospital capacity, so we would be ready if Covid got here, is the kind of thing that a sane place might do.

And May 2020 is exactly when the Government, and a lot of economists, were expecting unemployment to be heading toward double-digits. The Government planned a lot of make-work projects, some of rather dubious value, to ensure that construction workers would not flee overseas.

The hospital project could have been shovel-ready. It would have been a perfect project for May 2020.


The Eden Epsom Residential Protection Society appealed the decision.

It has been working its way up through the courts. The High Court is scheduled to hear the case in September of this year – more than two years after Auckland Council had provided its initial stamp of approval.

In its submission of May 9, 2022 to the unitary plan team, the Eden Epsom Residential Protection Society highlighted the importance of the three affected properties to the designated special character area.

Later in that same submission, the society argued that “intensification is best directed to the CBD and metropolitan centres rather than the fragmentation and ultimate destruction of irreplaceable areas of special character”.

Allowing a hospital in the area would not just affect properties considered significant, it might also set a precedent of allowing people to build things.

It is an indictment of our resource management system that a hospital expansion can be tied up in the courts for two years during a pandemic.

Can a country that worries more about a special character designation than about hospital capacity in a pandemic really be considered sane?

The Government has wished to progress an ambitious urban growth agenda, including a National Policy Statement on Urban Development requiring councils to enable more housing, and the Enabling Housing Supply legislation requiring Tier 1 cities to allow far more intensification.

David Parker, the Minister for the Environment, launched a comprehensive review of the resource management system in July 2019.

Tony Randerson, QC, chaired that review, which was completed and has been reported back to the Government. He is eminently qualified. There will not be many who better understand the system.

His panel’s review forms the blueprint for the Government’s approach to resource management reform.

The Eden Epsom Residential Protection Society’s submission of May 2022 lists Tony Randerson, QC, as the society’s president.

In answer to a written Parliamentary question on any potential conflicts in Randerson’s appointment to chair the RMA review, Minister Parker stated that, “Hon Tony Randerson CNZM QC declared that he was the president of an incorporated society that was going to oppose a private plan change request by Southern Cross Hospitals. A management plan was put in place to address the potential conflict and the treatment was that Hon Tony Randerson will not be involved in any hearings.”

Given the obvious distinctions between a high-level RMA review and a dispute over the desirability of hospitals in places like Epsom, it's arguable whether any such conflict really existed. The impartiality of a retired judge should be taken as a given.

But surely the irony speaks for itself.

If we still are the Outside of the Asylum, Nimby arguments nevertheless spill over into the very review of the law which, in my opinion, made those Nimby arguments possible in the first place.

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