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Key promises more affordable homes

National has moved to claim housing affordability as one of its key election planks, just a week after Prime Minister Helen Clark signalled her Government was putting the issue near the top of its agenda in its battle for survival.

The move - which came during leader John Key's showpiece speech to his party's annual conference in Auckland yesterday - means the National Party has again marched into the turf of its rival to claim votes.

Mr Key signalled a National-led government would improve housing affordability by embarking on a programme of personal tax cuts, changing the building regulatory regime, keeping interest rates lower, reforming development rules to free up land, and allowing state house dwellers to buy their homes.

Little detail was offered, but the focus on housing appeared to be well received by the around 600 party faithful at the conference.

Over the weekend they also heard the National frontbench team outline a tough approach to law and order and the likelihood of more private enterprise involvement in the prison and health systems.

But yesterday all eyes were on the performance of Mr Key who was making his first address to an annual conference as leader - and unfortunately for him not everything went according to plan.

As he highlighted that National would strengthen the court sentences handed down to child abusers in the wake of the death of 3-year-old Nia Glassie, the impact of Mr Key's statement on the highly sensitive issue was dampened by an embarrassing gaffe.

"I want to send the clearest of messages," Mr Key said.

"Under a Labour government I lead, child abusers will be severely punished."

Mistake aside, the National conference had a confident feel despite pressure now coming on the party's caucus to release more policy to the public.

Several broad hints of future policy were on show, but Mr Key made no apologies for the lack of detail and told reporters they had written similar things about Helen Clark when she was Opposition leader several years ago.

"I don't feel pressure from that situation," he said.

"We're giving New Zealanders very clear policy directions, my view is they are responding to those policy directions."

National's decision to stride into the housing affordability issue drew an immediate response from Labour.

Housing Minister Chris Carter criticised National's plan as "a retreat to the failed policies of the 1990s", and said reducing compliance costs could risk another leaky building type of crisis.

Mr Key brushed off concerns about construction quality, saying he was confident that standards could be maintained.

The struggle to buy a house has become a nationwide issue as soaring prices shut people out of the market and rising interest rates threaten to stretch some who do own homes to breaking point.

New research reported by the Sunday Star-Times yesterday showed half a million New Zealanders were now spending more than 40c in every after-tax dollar their households earned on the mortgage.

Only last weekend Prime Minister Helen Clark told the Weekend Herald that housing affordability was one of the main areas her Government was working on.

Mr Key appears to be trying to seize political ownership of the issue, and his statement that National would keep the state housing stock at present levels has also neutralised one of the potential attack platforms for Labour.

"Unlike Labour, National has a concrete plan for making housing more affordable," Mr Key said.

"We are a party founded on the principle of home ownership and we intend to deliver on that principle."