29 May 2023

National's housing backdown: Preserving character or ditching a fit for purpose framework?

7:36 pm on 29 May 2023
Chris Bishop

The National Party has listened to concerns raised by councils, Chris Bishop says. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

There are mixed feelings about National's decision to back-track on a bipartisan housing policy that it helped draft.

The party has withdrawn from the Medium Density Residential Standards, and wants to allow councils to be able to opt out.

The policy allows up to three homes, up to three stories, to be built on most sites in major cities, without the need for a resource consent.

While some say the move will help preserve culture and heritage, others are concerned about what it could mean for the future of New Zealand's cities.

Auckland's Character Coalition, which represents heritage groups and residents' associations, were celebrating, happy the move could mean fewer shovels in the ground.

Chair Sally Hughes said the blanket policy would have seen some of the super city's most precious buildings, destroyed.

''It would have meant the loss of a lot of quite a lot of character heritage in special character areas, so we were never in favour of that legislation, so we are pleased to see the bipartisan accord has unravelled."

She doubted the policy would have worked how it intended to.

''We know that developing housing in those areas will never result in affordable housing because the land is too valuable in those areas, so we were very concerned that because it was a sweeping measure across the whole of Tāmaki Makaurau, that character and heritage areas would be destroyed in the process."

Portrait of Timothy Welch standing in a street

Timothy Welch says Auckland city can handle higher levels of density. Photo: Supplied

Auckland University Architecture and Planning lecturer Timothy Welch believed the framework was fit for purpose.

"We have the infrastructure pretty well developed in the city to handle higher levels of density, we start to see trouble when we start to expand out and build in areas that don't have any infrastructure at all."

It was better to build up, rather than out, Welch said.

"Rain doesn't care how high a city is, but it does care about how wide it is. If we take away all the greenfields, if we take away wetland and flood-plains then we really put ourselves in a very vulnerable position than if we just get denser just inside the city."

AUT Construction Management professor John Tookey was calling on policy makers not to get ahead of themselves when planning for more housing.

''The water articulation infrastructure, the roading set up and everything else is inappropriate, inefficient and incapable of being able to cope with the additional load and we should be working on delivering that infrastructure in the first instance place, before we get excited about more and more houses.''

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni said the decision to withdraw from the Medium Density Residential Standards was "a massive flip- flop" - although National denied it was a backdown.

"It's really a slap in the face to Nicola Willis and Judith Collins who at the time signed the agreement. They were really clear at that time that we needed to come together to address urgency of housing and that this was the plan to do that."

National Housing and Infrastructure spokesperson Chris Bishop said the party listened to councils' concerns about wanting more discretion and flexibility, which was why it made the decision.

The party would still be firm on ensuring there was enough land for development. he said.

"We're going to make council's put 30 years of demand growth into the market straight away in the short term, which will create abundant development opportunities and drive down the price of land which is artificially inflated by these planning restrictions which have held out cities back for too long."

The government said it did not want to back down from Medium Density Residential Standards - and said it would revisit its plan.

Speaking at the post-Cabinet media briefing today, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said "we're open to that conversation with them. I note that when this proposal was first put before the Parliament, the National Party were claiming it was all their idea and this was something they had pushed the government to do and there's an element of truth in that.

"The compromise that was reached had a lot in it that the National Party had been asking for, and now they've walked away from many of the things .. that they themselves were pushing.

"We will take a moment to consider whether we're willing to stand behind some of those things they proposed in the first place."

He said the government's preference was to provide greater certainty.

"They've walked away from that now. What that's done is create huge uncertainty for landowners, for prospective homebuyers, for developers. We would rather give them back certainty."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs