The audacity of National’s “u-turn” over housing intensification is an extraordinary slap in the face for Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis.
If it does nothing else, it raises questions about their political judgement, not for the first time..
Some in the Caucus have still not forgiven them for their role in promoting the luckless Todd Muller as the leader in 2020.
But yesterday’s housing announcement gives leader Christopher Luxon some much-needed plaudits for practical political common sense in reversing the 2021 bipartisan housing intensification policy championed by Willis and Bishop.
The Medium Density Residential Standards were introduced in October 2021 after a bipartisan deal between then-National Leader Judith Collins, then-housing spokesperson Nicola Willis and Labour’s Housing Minister Megan Woods.
Simply, the standard provided for Councils to allow three storeys, three-unit residential buildings on any urban site in main cities.
The consent applications were not required to be notified, and there was no right of appeal.
While Bishop defended the U-turn on “Q+A” yesterday, Willis failed to mention it at all in her keynote speech to a party regional conference in Rotorua.
Back in October 2021, she had been an enthusiastic booster of the policy.
“These measures are not about a one-time increase in housing stock, but a permanent shift in the flexibility of the supply of housing, and over time, it will deliver more affordable housing,” she said.
“The difference may be small at first.
“It will be noticeable within a decade and enormous for the next generation.”
But speaking yesterday, only an hour after her at the Central North Island Regional conference, Luxon told a different story.
National’s new housing policy would require Councils to provide for housing for the next 30 years.
Importantly, Luxon has swung the focus back on greenfield developments on the city fringes.
“Councils of major towns and cities are going to be required under us to own enough land to accommodate its 30 years’ worth of housing demand immediately,” he said.
“Councils will then have a choice about where those costs go.
“Some will go onto greenfield developments.
“Some are going to create a density along transport corridors in particular.
“But they will have to deliver the increase of houses because we need to make more land available for housing.”
This is a stark contrast with the Willis-Collins policy, which emphasised putting more houses on to existing residential land.
The current housing spokesperson, Chris Bishop, earlier this year was almost contemptuous when it was suggested to him at a Select Committee that this policy would see the demolition of large swathes of character 19th and early 20th century villas.
During hearings on the Natural and Built Environment Bill, Bishop asked the deputy chair of Devonport Heritage, Trish Deans, whether she accepted that heritage protections on private property had an impact on people’s property rights.
“What is the rationale for that? If I owned a turn-of-the-century villa and I want to demolish it. Why can I not do that?” he said.
But there were also practical objections to the policy.
Fletcher Residential, one of the country’s largest homebuilders, in a submission earlier this year on the Natural and Built Environments Bill, which would enshrine the 3-storey – 3 property dictum, said the blanket approach effectively up-zoned almost all existing lower-intensity zones, particularly in Auckland.
“In many locations, these existing lower-intensity zones are not well serviced by existing (or proposed) infrastructure, including public transport, wastewater, stormwater, and schools,” they said.
“The company said that in many areas of Auckland, and particularly those in areas located at a distance from centres and public transport routes, infrastructure in Single House zones had not been planned for the level of density proposed.”
There were other pressures. Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown opposed the densification proposals.
He argued that the Auckland Council had already zoned and consented sufficient land to build 90,000 houses.
“The (Auckland) council had taken years to come up with a Unitary Plan at a huge cost that allowed for way more new houses than needed given the slowdown in Auckland’s growth trajectory,” he wrote in an Op-Ed in the NZ Herald in March.
“The bi-partisan government mandate forcing councils to accept three homes of up to three storeys on most sites, regardless of whether the infrastructure was in place, now looks quite ridiculous.”
And closer to home for Luxon, Christchurch MP Gerry Brownlee told a radio show that the Caucus was are of objections in Christchurch to the intensification policy being implemented in inner city suburbs.
“Inside the party, we’ve heard that response from the public,” he said.
Luxon yesterday was reluctant to concede that he had caved in to pressure to make the u-turn.
“We’d always said we would listen to sensible changes,” he told reporters.
“And so we have been listening to communities and also councils up and down the country.
“But importantly, we’ve also been working for months on actually what is our housing policy we want to take to the election and what would we do in government.”
That last sentence jars with the comments that Chris Bishop, the housing spokesperson, was making as recently as March at the Select Committee, which raises questions as to how much he had been kept in the loop.
There are also questions about where this leaves National’s position on the Spatial Planning Bill, which is due back in the House from the Select Committee soon.
That Bill provides for the kind of future planning for population growth and transport corridors that Luxon is talking about as being factors in the location of new housing.
However, POLITIK has learned that despite that, National is highly likely to oppose it.
National has now completed its round of regional conferences, and the Central North Island one was very different to the Auckland conference at the beginning of the month.
The nervousness was gone; remit debates were open to the media, and delegates wanted to propose realistic solutions to current issues.
Proposals to increase defence spending, increase health funding, fund more upgraded highways, and rationalise the myriad of agencies farmers had to deal with all passed with barely a murmur of dissent.
The remits, with their calls for more spending, were at odds with speeches from both Willis and Luxon, which promised a crackdown on Government spending.
Willis is blaming Wellington bureaucrats for what she says is the Government’s excessive spending.
“We will bring back responsible management of government spending,” she said
“First, we will stop the excessive speeding of the Wellington bureaucrat machine.”
That was greeted with widespread applause.
She went on: “Let’s bring back targets for government departments. Let’s hold them accountable for delivering authentic accountability.”
Luxon’s replies to questions from POLITIK about how a National government could fund the proposals in the remits went along similar lines to Willis.
“ We’re going to end the wasteful spending,” he said.
“We’re going to give people tax relief, and we’re going to make sure that we make sound investments in our public services.
“We want a strong economy so that we get the public services that New Zealanders deserve.
Asked about the remit calling for defence expenditure to be raised to two per cent of GDP, Luxon, for the first time, suggested that circumstances after the election could limit a National government’s ability to fund new initiatives.
“We are going to inherit a huge economic mess that has been left behind by Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson,” he said.
“So we need to work our way through our relative set of priorities.
“The books are bad today, and they’re only going to get worse.
“And that is obvious to me.”
Delegates to the regional conference saw a much more assertive Luxon, whether that was because he had decided to try and end the criticism over his leadership with the unstated corollary that if he counited to fail, Willis could replace him or whether it was because National’s polling is getting better was impossible to tell.
He is continuing his “Back on Track” tour; his election campaign has begun.