31 May 2023

National agrees to meet with Labour to discuss bipartisan housing accord changes

10:19 am on 31 May 2023
National Party leader Christopher Luxon

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

National's leader has painted Labour's offer to discuss the backdown on their bipartisan housing deal as an offer by the government to poach his policy.

Housing Minister Megan Woods on Tuesday said she had twice written to National asking to meet and discuss potential changes to the rules in an effort to keep a consensus.

Luxon told Morning Report on Wednesday his party would be accepting that offer - but as a means of enacting his policy, rather than discussing National's backdown on their previous housing accord.

"There's a letter going back to her today from [Housing Spokesperson] Chris Bishop, so she'll receive that today," Luxon said.

"We think we've got a plan that's got to the underlying causes of why we can't build houses in this country and we think it's an improvement on what we have in place today as a proposal and we're comfortable with the government to sit down and talk them through it and get bipartisan support for it."

He pushed back on suggestions his policy was giving in to 'nimbyism', the 'not in my backyard' approach to housing.

"Well what we have said very clearly is we need to build houses in this country and we can expand our cities into greenfields development but we can also densify tremendously over our transport corridors, and we give the councils more discretion as to how they do that.

"But be under no illusion - what we are doing here is delivering more houses and having more ambition."

The Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS), passed with the support of both Labour and National in late 2021, made it easier to build up within cities aiming to ease the housing shortage.

The bipartisan nature of the agreement was intended to avoid wild policy swings after a change of government and give developers confidence to go ahead with new builds. National Party deputy leader Nicola Willis was one of its strongest backers, calling it "an emphatic yes to housing in our backyards"].

But last week National backtracked on the deal, with National's leader Christopher Luxon saying they "got the MDRS wrong". Instead he wants councils to be allowed to opt out of the MDRS, with the flexibility to instead more easily expand into greenfields areas outside city limits.

"[MDRS] was a big improvement on the status quo back then two years ago, no doubt about it," Luxon told Morning Report.

"Nicola and the team really argued for a lot of the principles that we've now got in our policy but we couldn't get the government to fully agree with all of that. But that was a big improvement on the status quo and we think this is a big improvement over the MDRS plan that we have today."

Woods told the New Zealand Herald on Tuesday that National's U-turn on the MDRS had spooked some developers, the uncertainty putting hundreds of planned affordable homes "on ice".

She claimed "back of the envelope calculations" suggested National's new policy would cost "tens of billions of dollars" in infrastructure, which councils could not afford.

Luxon said the costs would be covered by targeted rates on greenfield developments, plus $25,000 bonuses to councils for every property they consent over and above their five-year average.

"Part of the problem has been a drip-feed of land that gets rezoned from farmland to residential land, and as a consequence there's a massive gain for, you know, someone who's landbanking that land.

"But actually being really clear and saying, let's get that clear now so that people have real clarity about that land use and what can happen, then a developer could go in and do a development, but they need to fund and build the infrastructure themselves, and actually the residents of that new development would pay for that rather than other ratepayers and then if councils actually get the approvals away and get them get the consents away, we reward them with some incentives as well."

National Party leader Christopher Luxon and deputy Nicola Willis at the scene of the Loafers Lodge fire on 16 May, 2023.

Christopher Luxon and Nicola Willis. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

He said there was no reason why housing in New Zealand should be more expensive than in countries like the UK and Japan, which have vastly larger populations.

"We've got some systemic underlying issues that we've got to address and deal to, and that's what our policy is doing."

Te reo Māori

Luxon also reiterated his opposition to Waka Kotahi's proposed new bilingual signs.

As old signs are replaced, the transport agency wants some new ones to have both English and te reo Māori. Labour Party leader and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins accused Luxon of dog-whistling to racists, noting many other countries have bilingual signs. Luxon has also previously spoken out against government departments having both English and te reo Māori names.

He said he thought the dog-whistle criticism was "rubbish".

"What's really important to our voters is actually fixing potholes, maintaining roads and improving safety and the reality ... is that, you know, talk to anyone outside of Wellington across New Zealand and you'll find that they are very fixated on why is it so difficult to get to work," Luxon told Morning Report.

The issue hit headlines after the party's transport spokesperson Simeon Brown was asked about it at a public meeting in Bethlehem, Tauranga.

"We all speak English, and they should be in English," he told the crowd, reported to be full of "disgruntled road users".

Simeon Brown

Simeon Brown. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Luxon said te reo road signs were "not a priority".

"The priority needs to be fixing potholes, investing in our roading network and improving safety. And that's why we're gonna be 100 percent fixated and focused on that.

"I don't want anybody coming to work today at the NZTA or the Ministry of Transport that is not 100 percent focused on the outcomes that matter to New Zealanders in our roading network," he said.

NZTA is an acronym for Waka Kotahi's English name, the New Zealand Transport Agency. The Ministry of Transport also goes by the name Te Manatū Waka.

Luxon said he was trying to learn the language himself and the party was a big advocate for it.

"I'm really proud about te reo, I think it's a fantastic language and I think we want to encourage more people to learn it, but the point here is actually the priority is all wrong because there's been a lot of meetings with sausage rolls, there's been a lot of discussion and consultation and time and money and wasted resources doing this rather than doing what they should be doing which is fixing potholes."

Road maintenance is provided for from a different funding source than for consultation, which government agencies are typically required to carry out with the public.

A number of National's Māori MPs this week told Newshub they had no problem with bilingual signs.

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