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Image: Archi Banal
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BusinessOctober 22, 2021

The National-Labour coalition on housing should expect a big election backlash

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

The cross-party deal shocked every one this week, not least National’s own supporters opposed to development in their leafy inner-city suburbs. Bernard Hickey predicts blowback in local elections in 2022, and ultimately in the 2023 general election.

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After this week’s “townhouse nation” shock coalition deal, it’s not going to be an easy year or two for Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop. 

Their usual opponents on the young and progressive urban left should take some time to acknowledge just how big a hornets’ nest of Nimbys the two Wellington National MPs have just stirred up. They should also understand just how tempting it must have been for the opposition led by an unpopular leader to just leave Labour and the Greens to take all the blame for a housing crisis turning into a catastrophe, if not an outright emergency. Opposition is much easier when things are going badly in a core area such as housing.

Consider this: an underwater opposition just called a truce on one of the few avenues to gain traction with angry, urban conservatives looking at their options to vote Act or NZ First instead. That takes some sort of courage and discipline to resist a reflexive oppositional impulse and do the right thing for the long run, especially when there are plenty in their caucus who are no lovers of trains, buses and densification. After all, National’s favourite photo-op uniform is the high-vis jacket and hard hat for the motorway opening. Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce, both staunch and effective opponents of the City Rail Link for a decade, are no doubt fuming and thumping their traffic-jammed dashboards.

But Willis and Bishop have had some practice.

National MP Chris Bishop
National MP Chris Bishop (Photo: Getty Images)

National’s housing spokeswoman and her predecessor in housing and transport have never had an easy ride at National’s regional and annual conferences when they’ve tried to explain the benefit of densification of housing and beefing up train and bus services to National’s older, more conservative supporters.

But they’ll be coming in hot to the next gatherings of the faithful after this doozy of a deal with Labour that has the potential to reshape their fellow National voters’ leafy suburban idylls completely. The shock will be amplified because there is nowhere for the Nimbys to turn. The deal removes the usual avenues of the Environment Court to shut down new housing supply, and the rates-inflation infrastructure spending that will go with it.

There’ll also be nowhere for Willis and Bishop to hide when “Outraged of Mt Victoria / Remuera” stand up with their party conference handheld microphones to rail against rail, “shoebox apartments” and the death of the “Kiwi dream” of a backyard, a boat, a BMW and a barbecue.

They’ve heard all the arguments before:

  • “Where will everybody park?”
  • “Grammar is already full up. We don’t need any more people clogging up our roads.”
  • “Why should we sacrifice our backyard sun so someone can live in a cramped, leaky monstrosity?”
  • “We paid to live in a nice, quiet suburb close to the CBD. Why do you want to change that?”
  • “Why should I have to pay more rates just so it’s easier to get on a bus? No one I know ever gets on a bus!”
National MP Nicola Willis at Parliament on October 20, 2020 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Nicola Willis is ready with her rebuttals and appeals to the greater good, and genuinely believes that allowing the suburbs of Mt Eden, Parnell, Remuera, Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and Thorndon to be slowly transformed with a smattering of townhouses is the right thing to do.

She’s even ready to offer them some non-specific financial advice to help their family’s finances.

“This will create a lot more choices. I envisage a range of scenarios occurring. One is potentially you have a boomer couple who decide that they’d actually quite like to stay living in their current community, but they need more of an income in retirement,” Willis says on the afternoon of the announcement that anyone with standalone house on a section will be able to build up to three three-storey townhouses up a height of 12 metres, and cover half of the section.

“So they get rid of the rundown villa and they replace it with two lovely modern townhouses. One which they live in, one which they can sell or rent out as a home and income,” she says.

“Another option is the family who have teenagers or people in their 20s who want to come and go from home. Well, this will allow them to put a proper granny flat out the back with a kitchenette with a bathroom.”

If Willis ever finds herself out of a job in politics, she could do well in a real estate or property development partnership with former National deputy leader Paula Bennett.

And for those Nimbys still shaking their fists at the speeded-up and beefed-up National Policy Statement for Urban Development that will be passed under urgency before Christmas, Willis says they’re not forced to leave their home. If anything, the deal strengthens their property rights.

“You go ahead and keep your home and garden if that’s the lifestyle you like, and that’s the way you like to live. There’s nothing in these proposals that will make you change there,” Willis says.

“But I know that you are invested in ensuring that your kids and your grandkids maybe have the aspiration of owning their own home. And I know you’re invested in actually having a community where we don’t have rampant housing inequality growing, so that we have thousands of families raising their kids in motel rooms,” she says.

“That’s not the New Zealand we want. If we want to address our housing challenges, we have to allow our cities to grow up and to grow out.”

Willis also points out the new medium density residential standards (MDRS) will still allow truly heritage homes, rather than wide swathes of suburbs, to be carved out of the rules.

Image: Tina Tiller

Environment minister David Parker expects the numbers of exempted villas and bungalows to be much smaller than those that were “protected” in the Auckland Unitary Plan and in Wellington’s new (soon to be out-of-date) District Plan.

Auckland’s Heritage Coalition chairwoman Sally Hughes confirmed this when she said this week that the “character exemptions” proposed in the existing NPS-UD would only protect one in seven of those currently excluded via the character overlays inserted into the Auckland Unitary Plan at the last minute.

You can smell the fear of the Nimbys and Bananas (Building Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone) wafting from their barbecuing backyards. Finally, the Resource Management Act cannot be used as a blunt instrument to delay new housing to death because this very-specified type of development is not notifiable and can’t be opposed in the usual broad and easy way.

The old leafies are not the only ones unnerved by this rarest of things: a bipartisan coalition of the two big parties.

Act leader David Seymour, the MP for Epsom who has knocked on every Nimby’s door at least three times, was immediately on the defensive when it became clear his bluff was being called by his natural opposition partner and he was in a place he never wanted to be: opposing the removal of rules restricting new house building.

Seymour’s libertarian instincts have allowed him to call loudly and often for the removal of the RMA’s rules stopping section redevelopments on the grounds it restricts the property rights of landowners and prevents the usual market instincts of a supply response dealing to a spike in prices. 

The dirty little secret in the Epsom MP’s position is that all this unfettered development is fine, as long as it doesn’t overshadow the backyards of the good Act (and ex-National voters) of Epsom. He’s never really had to reconcile that conflict: until now.

Seymour was nimble in saying the removal of the rules had to be done in tandem with infrastructure funding reform, but it wasn’t long before he was forced into arguing that property owners in Epsom shouldn’t have their property rights altered after they had bought them. The irony of a self-professed libertarian progressive arguing in favour of a sort of social and economic conservatism best suited to the National Party was not lost on many.

David Seymour in the house (Photo : Getty Images)

Willis took the high road when asked if this coalition had neatly allowed National to snooker Act and expose Seymour’s apparent hypocrisy.

“This policy enhances property rights by giving people greater rights to build on their own land. I would encourage David Seymour to more closely read this proposal,” she says with a sly grin.

“Because if, as he has said previously, he is on the side of those wanting to see more affordable housing in New Zealand, he simply must support these measures. Without these measures, we won’t be able to deliver modern cities that have a range of affordable homes for the next generation. 

“He represents a party that has historically talked about getting government out of the way, cutting regulation, cutting red tape. This proposal does exactly that. It gives freedom back to property owners in the market to put houses where there is demand for them. It’s about getting government out of the way, not putting government in the middle. So I welcome David’s support at a later date.”

There are some benefits in challenging the supporters in your own party.

For Willis and Bishop, this coalition has the centrist-seeking and pragmatic tone of the last big surprise coalition: John Key’s agreement with Helen Clark to pass anti-smacking legislation over the top of his own caucus and many National Party supporters.

It cemented his reputation as a nimble pragmatist able to do a deal and win the centre. That will be useful for Willis and Bishop in the months and years to come. For Judith Collins, it is also one of those topics she can genuinely say she has taken a high road that put the dog whistle at the bottom of the junk cabinet. 

Now Willis, Bishop and Collins will have to stand together on a National Party conference stage and stare down “Outraged of Remuera, Fendalton and Herne Bay”.

There will be a reckoning of sorts with a backlash at next year’s local elections, for which the first-term young progressives who have long campaigned for the NPS-UD are ready. The big question will be whether the Citizen and Ratepayer councillors now fall into line with the National Party line in Wellington.

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