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Dunne Speaks: Labour Snookers National Again

The Labour-led Government must be rubbing its hands with glee after the announcement earlier this week of its housing deal with the National Party. In one fell swoop it has effectively both taken increasing housing availability and affordability – issues the government was becoming increasingly vulnerable on – off the political agenda, as well as burying the spectre of its own much-ridiculed Kiwibuild programme.

Kiwibuild spectacularly failed to achieve the overly ambitious target Labour set for it of 10,000 new affordable homes a year for ten years. However, undaunted by the past, this week’s agreement is holding out the even bolder prospect of 105,000 new homes in just the next five years. And, if this plan fails, the responsibility will be shared equally between the two old parties who devised it. In the meantime, for that reason, neither will have any incentive to criticise the other over it, meaning housing provision has effectively been removed from the short to medium political agenda.

The pressures on both Labour and National to make this agreement work are strong, but not identical. For Labour, this deal is a chance to recover some momentum in the housing field, given the failure of Kiwibuild, runaway housing prices showing little real sign of slowing significantly despite various government tax changes and the Reserve Bank tightening lending rules, and steadily rising homelessness rates. For National, it is much more a case of being taken seriously once more, important for its own credibility and relevance as more and more of its supporters appear to be defecting to ACT.

The importance of this deal to both parties is underscored by its coming as a surprise to Labour’s support partner the Greens, and the Mayors of major cities whose own housing development plans have now been undercut. As might be expected though, the Labour Mayor of Auckland, while complaining that he was not aware of the agreement before it was announced, sycophantically immediately threw his support behind it before he had even seen the details. The Mayor of Wellington was grumpy that this new plan cut right across his own Council’s still being finalised intensification strategy. But since the Wellington City Council’s plan looked set to sacrifice the heritage aspect of many Wellington suburbs to multi-storey neo-Stalinist apartment blocks, the National/Labour agreement curtailing that lunacy may be no bad thing.

Leaving aside a measure of cynicism that this week’s agreement will in fact amount to much, given the number of national and local elections and possible outcomes over the next five to ten years, there are nevertheless a number of concerns about what appears to have been agreed. The emphasis on building more homes is an understandable public policy priority at present. However, the intention to gut the Resource Management Act and the good planning and environmental safeguards it has ensured is likely to be regretted over time.

The rush to free up urban land to enable developers to build up to three three–storey dwellings on existing sections on a non-consented basis has serious implications. Not only is it effectively an open invitation to developers and speculators to do what they like, it has the potential, as a consequence, to further escalate house prices, as well as changing the character of many of our suburbs forever. The appeal of quiet suburban streets giving way to more and more apartment blocks side-by-side, with more cars parked on the streets, and less playing space for children where once were homes, lawns and gardens is likely to be short-lived.

Yet this is the future Labour and National are effectively signing us up for. While New Zealanders are concerned about housing and do want to see real moves to improve both affordability and accessibility, it is doubtful that too many will, over time, favour the fundamental change in the nature and form of our major cities, let alone the consequential lifestyle changes, the new Labour/National plan will engender. In that regard, it is extremely disturbing that such a major potential change to our way of life was developed by the two parties, effectively in secret, without any public or local body consultation.

While the inherent collectivism of close-quartered, multi-storey living, with little private external recreational space for people to develop as their own (a breeding ground for airborne viruses like Covid19 if ever there was one), might be closer to Labour’s ideological heart, it runs contrary to National’s historic policy of promoting a property-owning democracy, with its implicit commitment to land, space and opportunity.

If one of the intentions, from Labour’s perspective at least, and now by implication it would seems National’s as well, of this policy is to create greater equality by eliminating over time the diversity of our suburbs, it is almost certainly doomed to failure. Indeed, it is likely to have the opposite effect – currently attractive suburbs are likely to become even more so, thus pushing up their prices, and thereby dragging up prices throughout the rest of the housing market. The only long-term winners are likely to be the speculators and developers whose eagerness over many years to get rid of the Resource Management Act should have been a warning to be noted, rather than embraced the way it now has been.

For Labour, though, none of this apparently matters. By the time these new policies reach absolute fruition, if ever they do, their time in government will most likely have passed, so the consequences will no longer be their responsibility. In getting National on-side with these plans, Labour has not only removed a currently ongoing contentious issue from immediate debate, but in so doing has once more snookered National.

It is a further sign that politics has always been at the forefront of this government’s agenda.

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