Election 2023: National proposes significant change to historic bipartisan housing policy

The National Party is proposing a significant change to a housing density policy it teamed up with Labour to support in 2021.

The Medium Density Residential Standards (MDRS) allow for greater housing intensification in inner cities without bundles of red tape. Three homes of up to three storeys can be built on most sites without the need for resource consent.

It was part of a bipartisan housing accord between Labour and National focused on boosting housing supply. A press conference was held in 2021 announcing the policy, fronted by Labour's Megan Woods and David Parker, and National's Judith Collins and Nicola Willis.

But, nearly two years on, National's housing spokesperson Chris Bishop on Sunday confirmed that the party wants to allow councils to be able to opt-out of the MDRS, calling that a "one-size-fits-all approach to intensification". 

"We have received feedback that councils and communities want greater flexibility about where new houses are built. National has always said we are open to sensible change that still delivers a massive increase in housing, and this policy does that," Bishop said.

Under National's plan, cities and some large towns would be subject to 'Land for Housing Growth Targets' - a requirement for councils to zone land for 30 years' worth of housing demand immediately. This still includes any council that pulls out of the MDRS.

"In other words, 30 years' worth of developable housing capacity for housing growth will become available very quickly," National's policy statement says. 

"Councils will be required to zone land where houses can actually be built, rather than 'future zoned' for possible zoning changes sometime in the future. "

If councils don't fulfil this requirement, Bishop said central Government will step in and "do it for them". 

"Councils will either do this through greenfield development or greater density, particularly along transport corridors," Bishop said.

On the density side, National still supports the National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD), which requires high-density housing around rapid transit catchments. To reach their targets, National expects many councils will have to increase density in these areas beyond what's required

With regard to greenfield developments - essentially new suburbs or sprawl on previously undeveloped land - National would allow more development on productive land. It doesn't believe the Government's got the current balance right between limiting development on productive land and allowing cities to grow.

But building new greenfield developments means more costly infrastructure. The party argues that councils need to currently either wait for a hand-out from central Government - like through the Infrastructure Acceleration Fund - or increase rates to pay for it.

To deal with this, National would require councils to fund infrastructure for new greenfield developments from rates or levies applied to only the new development. This means other communities wouldn't have to pay for the infrastructure of other developments. It also proposes streamlining processes for developers to fund infrastructure.

A $1 billion performance-based fund would also be introduced, with any extra house build above the long-term average in some areas entitling the council to $25,000 from the fund.

"In the near term, funding for Build-for-Growth will be fixed – so councils will be competing against each other to become eligible for more financial support. This controls any fiscal exposure to taxpayers, while offering certainty to councils about any available funding. 

"While new land supply targets are important, Build-for-Growth will additionally encourage councils to improve their consenting processes – ensuring developments and approved faster and cheaper."

This would be funded by stopping programmes like KiwiBuild and the Affordable Housing Fund. 

National would also make housing growth an explicit goal of the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport and a funding criteria in the National Land Transport Plan.

"These changes will ensure government investment in new roads and public transport is prioritised in growth areas, unlocking vastly more housing," the policy document says.

New state highways that enable housing growth will also be partly financed by levies on the land unlocked by the roads. National said the same could be true of major new public transport projects in urban centres.

The changes announced on Sunday come after National leader Christopher Luxon this week said the party had got the MDRS "wrong". 

ACT has always been against the MDRS. Its housing spokesperson Brooke van Velden welcomed Luxon's comment.