Labour and National have shared a stage to announce major changes to turbocharge urban density rules, laying down the gauntlet to councils and raising hopes for first-time buyers.
In a rare show of bipartisan cooperation, MPs from New Zealand’s two biggest parties joined forces at the Beehive Theatrette today to announce an overhaul of planning rules designed to dramatically accelerate growth in medium density housing. Housing minister Megan Woods and environment minister David Parker stood alongside National leader Judith Collins and housing spokesperson Nicola Willis to unveil plans to slash red tape and force councils to move towards greater urban density.
It is the first time National and Labour have shared a stage to announce a policy breakthrough since then opposition leader John Key joined then prime minister Helen Clark in 2007 to announce a compromise on the controversial “smacking bill”.
New legislation will free the way for up to three homes, each as high as three storeys, to be built on almost all sites without requiring a resource consent. The government says modelling by PwC suggests the changes will lead to “at least 48,200” and “as many as 105,500” new homes being built within the next five to eight years.
The parties have agreed to bring forward implementation of the National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD), which obliges councils to allow intensification.
“New Zealand’s housing shortage is being made worse in our biggest cities by limits on the number and types of houses that can be built,” said Woods. “These changes will enable more homes that are attractive to first home buyers to be built in areas closer to their work, public transport and community facilities.”
There will be some exemptions to the medium density rules, “where intensification is inappropriate”, said Parker. “Such as where there is a high risk of natural hazards, or a site has heritage value.” In most cases, he added, the new rules “will have immediate legal effect as soon as plans are publicly notified by councils by August 2022”.
National’s housing and urban development spokesperson Nicola Willis said the Housing Supply Bill is a “win-win” for home buyers and renters alike.
“New Zealand has some of the most unaffordable housing in the world. The impact of our housing shortage reaches right across our communities, robbing too many of the aspiration of home-ownership, leaving thousands homeless and fuelling inequality,” she said.
“Today National and Labour are coming together to say an emphatic ‘yes’ to housing in our backyards.”
Collins said the new legislation will remove the ”time, cost and complexity that too often greets those who want to build new dwellings”.
She added: “It is important to note that nothing in the bill forces people to build more density. This is simply about removing barriers that can get in the way of sensible development. I am pleased that in addition to measures supporting intensification the bill will also allow local authorities to fast-track private-plan changes for new greenfields development.”
Local Government New Zealand spokesperson Jason Krupp said the organisation was disappointed not to have been consulted before the announcement. “We are the main planning institution in New Zealand and we would have been eager to help the government refine its proposal before the announcement rather than afterwards,” he said.
“This is particularly because with the amount of reform currently underway there are real capacity constraints across the sector and we need to work in a coordinated way to get through them.”
Hamilton city councillor Dave Macpherson said housing intensification was already happening to a certain extent in Hamilton. However he would be concerned if developments that were not well planned were allowed to go ahead under the new laws.
“The worry is you’re going to end up with some of these banana box flats where you can’t swing a cat and there’s no green space.”
Emma McInnes, an urban designer, city planner and former member of the advocacy group Generation Zero commended “an outstanding strategy” for making housing more affordable “in a way that reduces our impact on the climate”.
She said research revealed a household living closer to the core of the city spends less than 25% on fuel than a household on the fringe of West or South Auckland, which will make a “massive difference for both affordability and emissions. It’s the kind of grown-up city-building that Tāmaki Makaurau desperately needs”.
She said people shouldn’t see the changes as spelling the end of special character or heritage-home areas.
“It’s critical to remember that zoning changes don’t force anyone out of their heritage homes overnight, and that over time we need to celebrate a diverse mix of new and old buildings. As that is what makes great cities – not blanket suburb of villas with white picket fences.”
The National Policy Statement on Urban Development is part of a wider programme of reform that impacts areas traditionally overseen by local bodies. The “three waters” reforms overhaul management of waste, storm and drinking water, while work is under way to replace the Resource Management Act, one of the country’s most important and divisive pieces of legislation, with the Natural and Built Environments Act. The government is also reviewing the future of local government as a whole and working through climate change provisions.
Work to achieve consensus between Labour and National has been closely guarded, with many MPs on both sides only learning of the plans in recent days.
Political commentator Ben Thomas, a former press secretary in the Key government, said such cross-party announcements have proven to be good for opposition politicians in the past, noting that both John Key and Todd Muller benefited from supporting the government on the anti-smacking and zero carbon legislation, respectively.
“If you look at the smacking bill, the government’s intention was to get some political cover, as they didn’t need it to pass the legislation, but by bringing the popular leader of the opposition along, it was seen as a bit of a masterstroke by Clark at the time,” he said.
“In this instance, the flipside is that for Judith Collins, it’s very good for her position and creates that sense of gravitas. And it’s very good for Nicola Willis in terms of her reputation and in terms of the visuals, to be standing there with the government announcing policy, which is something opposition parties just don’t get to do by definition.”
Thomas said local councils will be pushing back against this policy as it will be seen as taking away their decision making power and “overriding the popular will, which of course is nonsense when it comes to local government.
“Putting aside housing costs and inflation, the biggest growth in Auckland house prices has been in land, so by letting people put more houses on the same amount of land has to be a good thing.”
Additional reporting by Natalie Akoorie, Local Democracy Reporting Editor