Opinion: The cross-party consensus on housing density has fallen victim to a tight election race, with National withdrawing support for Medium Density Residential Standards, returning urgent urban planning issues to a state of limbo.

National says it has a superior policy for developing in greenfield land. It involves requiring councils to zone enough greenfield land for 30 years of development, increasing mixed-use zoning, and giving councils the option to opt out of the medium density standards. This provides more flexibility and will lead to more affordable housing, say National leaders.

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The Green Party disagrees, stating that National’s plan promotes urban sprawl, which is expensive, inefficient, and damaging to the environment. The Greens advocate for more density in existing urban areas.

National’s approach in effect pits increased sprawl against the need for more compact cities. In among the political debates and disagreements, the real issues of housing and urban sprawl seem to be caught in a never-ending cycle, unresolved and overshadowed by differing ideologies and approaches. This has significant implications for local authorities, developers, and investors who want stability and clear guidelines to make informed decisions, and to plan to meet a growing need for housing and develop a sustainable model for urban growth.

These ever-circling debates highlight three crucial issues: the lack of consistency and certainty, a missed opportunity for comprehensive and long-term solutions, and the persistent delay in taking action that ultimately perpetuates the problem of housing unaffordability and urban sprawl.

Under the new building intensification rules that came into effect last year, three homes of up to three storeys can be built on most sites without the need for resource consent from local councils. These rules apply to all tier 1 territorial authorities (Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch) and some specified tier 2 (Whangārei, Rotorua, New Plymouth, Napier, Hastings, Palmerston North, Nelson Tasman, Queenstown and Dunedin) where councils would be required to adopt medium-density standards. All tier 1 territorial authorities needed to notify their plan changes by August last year.

The new intensification rules are designed to boost housing supply and enable the construction of more homes closer to workplaces, public transport, and community facilities. However, the medium density standards come with their own risks, including increased strain on existing infrastructure, reduced privacy and sunlight for neighbouring properties because of taller buildings, of more noise and traffic, loss of neighbourhood character, as well as potential legal consequences that can severely affect the overall quality of life and wellbeing of urban residents.

We need to strike a balance between facilitating development and ensuring responsible construction – find ways to ensure investors and developers are sensitive to the neighbouring environment and local communities, and can make informed decisions that not only benefit their own interests but also contribute to sustainable development, positive environmental outcomes and community relations, and related legal compliance.

National’s proposed policy would require councils in major towns and cities to zone for 30 years’ worth of growth immediately, with the option to opt out of the medium density standards law. This would promote greenfield development but unfortunately risks causing more harm than good. One of the main concerns is the promotion of urban sprawl over compact, well-connected cities.

Urban sprawl contributes to a range of issues, from increased traffic congestion to higher carbon emissions, unsustainable land use, increased strain on public services, and loss of valuable green space. This can lead to poorer air quality, longer commuting times, and a diminished quality of life for residents. It also may deepen social inequalities as wealthier residents move to the outskirts, leaving lower-income households with less access to quality services and infrastructure.

A more balanced, holistic approach to urban planning is needed, one that takes into consideration both the current and future needs of our communities, while also ensuring the preservation of our environment.

The lack of political consensus among key parties creates uncertainty, hinders comprehensive solutions, and hampers the development of comprehensive solutions to pressing urban issues.

Robust debates and disagreements between political parties are a healthy aspect of democratic governance, and of any election. The exchange of different perspectives and ideas can lead to better policy outcomes. By challenging each other’s proposals, parties can refine their approaches and ultimately arrive at more effective and balanced solutions. At least in an ideal world.

However, our current political environment, marked by conflicting viewpoints and competing agendas, and possibly political opportunism, only contributes to a state of inaction and delay in addressing critical and urgent matters that are important for all our cities’ citizens. Such ‘debate’ only perpetuates existing problems and also hinders the exploration of innovative ideas and compromises that could lead to meaningful and sustainable solutions.

Iresh Jayawardena is a lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning, Creative Arts and Industries, University of Auckland.

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