Building Aotearoa New Zealand

TOP’s Policy for Sustainable Housing and Urban Development

Executive Summary

Aotearoa New Zealand is facing both a housing crisis and a climate emergency. Confronting these two challenges will require nothing less than a fundamental re-engineering of our cities. We need them to be affordable, liveable, and energy efficient. That means building densely around public transport networks. Permitting sprawl may reduce house prices in the short term, but it is a false economy when it comes to transport costs and climate emissions.

The housing crisis has been intensifying for decades under governments of all shades. Both house prices and rental costs have been growing faster than incomes since 1990. According to Demographia, all our major housing markets are considered “severely unaffordable”, and we have the highest house prices in the world. High rents are the leading cause of poverty, and demand for social housing only continues to rise.

TOP’s Housing and Urban Development Policy aims to tackle these issues.

Housing is part of our critical infrastructure. Our towns and cities should be climate friendly, sustainable and foster social connection. That is the Aotearoa NZ we want to create, and it can be done.

To create healthy, resilient housing and cities that all New Zealanders can enjoy, we must deal with issues on the side of both demand and supply. Housing in New Zealand benefits from the greatest tax advantage for any investment of any country in the OECD. No wonder Kiwis put more money in housing than any other country and we have the highest house prices!


In 2017, TOP released a swathe of policies to deal with the demand side issues, including:

  • Tax Reform – removing the tax advantage for housing over other investments and putting more money in people’s pockets.
  • Tenancy Reform – providing greater security of tenure to renters while we sort out the housing market.
  • Smarter Immigration – ensuring infrastructure and housing match population growth.

We will put all these policies forward again in 2020, with some updates.


We also need action on the supply side because the major political parties can’t be trusted to solve the problems we face. TOP proposes the following four changes.

1. A new Urban Development Act

The Resource Management Act has done a reasonable job of protecting the environment outside our cities. But within them it has prevented development, increased the cost of housing, and led to urban sprawl. This has ultimately damaged the environment, e.g. by chewing up fertile land and untouched ecosystems, and increasing emissions. We must separate urban planning and development from environmental management, as most European countries do.

TOP has a plan for environmentally, socially and economically sustainable cities. But we must separate our urban planning and development from environmental management.

TOP’s Urban Development Act (UDA) includes a national strategy and 30-year plan toward environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable towns and cities. It will:

  • ensure local authorities approve enough housing to meet population growth.
  • enable integrated planning, with denser development around new and existing public transport networks.
  • preserve as much of our remaining fertile land and ecosystems as possible.

Instead of a checkbox exercise of what not to do, TOP’s UDA will facilitate high-quality urban design that contributes to attractive, functional, memorable, healthy, and safe cities.

The two pillars of the more streamlined planning consent process will be early community engagement and urban design review for better, faster outcomes. Community input will be shifted to the beginning of the design process instead of only allowing objections at the end, making the process more consultative and less adversarial.

Expert panels of architects, urban designers, and landscape architects will assess the urban design merit of new developments. TOP’s UDA will rely more heavily on professionals, and be less influenced by NIMBY groups. The contribution of these expert panels will improve the function, design, and social connectivity of the spaces we frequent, creating a better living experience.

2. Empowerment of local authorities

Every new house build in New Zealand puts more pressure on local infrastructure. Local authorities need to have a stake in the growth they are enabling and the resources to build the necessary infrastructure. TOP will favour development of natural infrastructure that provides better public spaces, mitigates and adapts to climate change. Through redirection of tax on new developments TOP will ensure local governments get the operating revenue for infrastructure they need to play their part.

Everyone wants our regions to thrive, but local areas need some of the revenue from growth recycled to them. This will give local government a stake in that growth and the ability to invest and play their part.

3. Construction Industry Reform

The construction industry in New Zealand has run into some serious issues in recent decades and still faces several challenges:

  • Industry professionalism and training – The construction industry needs to be a good career option for young people. TOP will work to raise the status of vocational education among secondary students and their parents. On-the-job training will be balanced with more formalised courses and qualifications.
  • Consumer protection – TOP wants to make construction and building warranty insurance mandatory for all new residential builds. Quality liability will be gradually transferred from local authorities to a better-trained design and building industry.
  • Building standards and material supply – One cause of the high price of materials in New Zealand is the supply duopoly. This should not be exacerbated by restrictive standards for materials and performance. Adopting standards from proven overseas markets will reduce building costs and improve the quality (including energy efficiency) of our houses and buildings.

4. New Approach to Social Housing

TOP will explore two ownership models. Firstly, we will offer significant subsidies to not-for-profits, charities, and cultural organisations that want to build and own social housing. This will include gifting or long-term leasing of government land (primarily Kāinga Ora land), and guaranteeing access to low-interest loans. Secondly, we will explore European-style cooperative ownership models, which can remove barriers to home ownership and provide better social connection between neighbours. Our aim is to then develop a model that works in New Zealand.

TOP’s plan is for social housing that will foster social connection and deliver better outcomes for those worst off in our society.

Real solutions

For all good policies, impact should be measured and managed. With four powerful housing-related policies behind us during negotiations, our commitment is to stabilise house prices at current levels. Over time incomes will increase and we estimate that, after 12 years, New Zealand’s housing will no longer be severely unaffordable. We will also track and eliminate undersupply in our key centres.

The housing crisis lies at the core of two of the major challenges facing our country: social deprivation and climate change. Offering real solutions to address both housing demand and supply, TOP’s policies will deliver more affordable housing and better living spaces in urban centres, while also reducing carbon emissions from transport. They will lead to a fundamentally better quality of life for all New Zealanders.

The TOP spokesperson for this policy is Brendon Monk.

Download the policy now

Policy chat on Facebook

Page last updated on 17-Apr 2020


Firstly, TOP realises that, to solve our housing crisis, we must consider housing and urban development (including infrastructure, amenities, public and active transport) both together and separately. That is, we need a coordinated approach from several angles. TOP has studied and learned from the best examples within New Zealand and from overseas. We then developed a housing and urban development policy that will set us on the right path for the next 30 years. Neither Labour nor National are even discussing this. Instead, Labour is centralising some large developments, which will result in a less coordinated approach. National is proposing abandoning the Resource Management Act (RMA) entirely, which will cause environmental degradation outside cities.

Secondly, neither Labour nor National are prepared to give local authorities a stake in growth. They expect councils to invest in infrastructure to support housing, but don’t allocate them any revenue to do so. As a result, local authorities have no incentive to enable development.

Thirdly, TOP aims to tackle the root causes of the housing crisis on both the demand and supply sides. None of the other parties want to address the demand side cause – our tax system – let alone propose a solution that would bring back true fairness and benefit the vast majority of Kiwis and our economy.

Finally, TOP has researched supply-side bottlenecks and come up with radical, but workable solutions. We won’t settle for simply tinkering with the status quo. Other parties continue to rely on working groups to do the legwork for them, only to ignore their recommendations.

TOP think the Urban Design Protocol (2004) offers a good definition:

“Urban design is concerned with the design of the buildings, places, spaces and networks that make up our towns and cities, and the ways people use them. It ranges in scale from a metropolitan region, city or town down to a street, public space or even a single building. Urban design is concerned not just with appearances and built form but with the environmental, economic, social and cultural consequences of design. It is an approach that draws together many different sectors and professions, and it includes both the process of decision-making as well as the outcomes of design.”

For us laypeople, good urban design outcomes include things like:

  • a range of building sizes and density – from high density around transport hubs, medium density throughout most cities, and of course there will still be lower-density areas for many years to come.
  • visually attractive buildings that enhance and enliven the streetscape, e.g. building closer to the street edge is often better for the feel of the street than having lifeless yards and houses set well back.
  • good public transport hubs surrounded by shopping areas, cafés, and other amenities.
  • expansive, high-quality cycling networks.
  • more parks and shared open spaces as part of or near new high-density and medium-density housing.
  • cool-looking bridges, public art, and other things that help us enjoy public spaces.

No. TOP’s proposed improvements to how we plan and build cities and towns will result in gradual intensification as the population increases. TOP’s Urban Development Act (UDA) promotes environmental and social sustainability. This will mean more trees, shared parks, and open community space in cities, which will lead to greater social connection and less social isolation.  The long-term goal is to stop wasting land on unnecessary sprawl.

As our cities slowly move toward more medium-density housing and developments over the next 30 years, the emphasis will be on well-designed housing that protects individual privacy within your own home and outdoor spaces, whilst facilitating better social connection in developments and public spaces. It is not density per se that can offend many people, it is the way it has been carried out in some cases. Involving our best-qualified professionals in the decision-making process more will reduce the chance of ruining the view from your deck.

Both the major parties have tended to override local authorities. But while TOP’s UDA would be a central government act, local authorities would create their own Urban Development Plans – based on the work done for the Auckland Unitary Plan. Councils would deliver their own local UDA package, manage community engagement, and run urban design panels. The aim is for all regions to work together, sharing ideas and urban design professionals who sit on panels. Auckland has blazed the trail, so this large-scale roll out would follow a national urban development strategy.

TOP’s UDA will achieve far less prescriptive Urban Development Plans throughout our cities and districts than our current RMPs. The new Auckland Unitary Plan has proven that removing minimum parking requirements for apartments and mixed-use developments can lead to better outcomes in the right places. If new developments are assessed in the way TOP proposes, to ensure proposals work for the specific location and urban setting, parking minimums can be relaxed throughout New Zealand.

The same applies to things like minimum balcony sizes. If a proposed design can demonstrate its merits to the urban design panel, options with or without balconies may well be acceptable. Under this type of assessment process, developments will be considered more on a case-by-case basis.

Housing subdivision covenants have often been designed and implemented by people who are not trained urban design or architecture professionals. Any such unnecessary design restrictions would not be possible or necessary under TOP’s UDA. The final say would lie with the expert urban design panels, not subdivision developers, lawyers or real-estate companies.

It will lead to much more consistency across NZ’s urban areas (towns and cities). The UDA will be much more focussed on town and city development. The resulting Urban Development Plans (UDPs) will be based on the work done to create the Auckland Unitary Plan but customised by each city or district council.

Because the UDA is aiming to increase the quality and density of our urban areas and reduce our urban sprawl across our best fertile farming and orchard land, there will (over time) be more of a boundary and distinction between our rural and urban areas. This is a good and necessary thing if we are to aim for true sustainable cities.

Our heritage is important, and buildings with significant heritage value should always be protected or treated with respect. Such buildings and any proposed developments affecting them can be considered on their merits by the urban design panels (including heritage specialists as required) on case by case basis. We don’t want to limit high quality urban development in any area with unnecessary heritage zones, however. Again, TOP want our best experts to decide on this, rather than undue influence from NIMBY groups.

All modes of transport have their place once we move more toward lower emission options, including cars. TOP’s policy is about providing other options.

Cars are particularly well suited to rural areas. The problem is that we are far too reliant on them in cities due to urban sprawl and lack of infrastructure for alternative options, such as good public transport and cycling networks. Too many people in cars causes congestion and is a significant contributor to our carbon emissions. We want to offer more and better options that will make Kiwis and our cities healthier.

We can build higher-quality houses for less money. The big problems here are once again the lack of quality design, and specifically insulation.

TOP proposes raising the minimum Building Code requirements (including how we deal with building waste) and adopting better overseas standards for materials and systems. This will create better competition in the material supply market and consequently lower costs. Having developments assessed by top-notch professionals will also ensure better-quality designs, rather than a race to the bottom of urban sprawl.

All housing types have their place and will play a part in TOP’s 30-year urban development vision. TOP recognises that for some New Zealanders, small houses and mobile homes are a way to do housing differently. TOP supports those who choose this for lifestyle reasons.

When used as minor or secondary dwellings (e.g. placed in backyards), small homes will also play an important part as cities grow toward urban maturity. To date, many city and district councils have imposed unnecessary and frustrating planning restrictions on this. TOP wants all residential properties within urban boundaries to be permitted to add minor or secondary dwellings as of right.

The phrase "tiny homes" is also used to refer to custom built mobile homes or trailer homes. These are generally classed as vehicles under the Land Transport Act. There have a been a few cases where this has been drawn into question, resulting in dispute between owner and council. TOP believe the legal distinction is clear but acknowledge it can be difficult for councils to make correct rulings in some cases, particularly on whether a home is deemed “moveable” or not. TOP will work with MBIE to ensure the best guidelines are available to both councils and homeowners.

One of the causes of the housing crisis is the way local authorities are funded. Central government has repeatedly put demands on local authorities without funding them accordingly. A good example is the Government allowing rapid population growth but not allocating local authorities funds to invest in infrastructure, e.g. water, public transport, cycleways, local roads, parks.

Most local authority revenue comes from rates, so they have had to borrow to build infrastructure. Now some local authorities have hit their debt ceilings and can’t afford to invest any more. Meanwhile, ratepayers (who overwhelmingly tend to vote for local authorities) don’t want higher rates, so they vote in councils that limit investment in infrastructure and curtail housing supply.

The exact mechanism is subject to debate. Several experts have suggested giving local authorities the GST on new builds, while Infrastructure NZ has suggested that regions should bid to a fund. TOP’s proposal is a hybrid of these two ideas.

Infrastructure is a long-term investment. If the business case stacks up, it should be permissible to fund infrastructure by taking on debt – particularly while interest rates are as low as they are now. The Government’s debt position is viewed very favourably by most international rating agencies. The extra investment we are talking about here should not increase New Zealand’s debt as a percentage of GDP in the long run, as economic growth should generally be greater than increasing debt.

The introduction of TOP’s UDA and other supply-side initiatives would create far more new housing options for firsthome buyers and more opportunities for renters.

TOP wants house prices to hold steady for a generation to let incomes catch up. Our proposed tax reform would reduce the incentive to buy houses for short-term capital gain. Owning rental property would of course still be a viable business option for rental return, but we don’t want tenants evicted if they are paying the rent and looking after the property. These changes would also likely increase the options on the market for people renting to choose from.

In short, the rental market would become a good place for good landlords and good tenants.