David Hargreaves says the Government needs to regroup over the holiday period and come back with a more clearly articulated plan for its flagship housing policy

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By David Hargreaves

It’s probably about time to start thinking (already!) about New Year’s resolutions; yep, even as we are realising we didn’t do enough about the ones we made apparently about five minutes ago regarding this year.

If I can make an early suggestion for this Government, it would be to get itself sat down (once the turkey and trimmings have been digested) and come up with a very clearly articulated plan for early next year on what is happening with the flagship KiwiBuild policy and where this Government is going generally on housing and shortages etc.

The situation that’s sprung up in the past few days around leadership of KiwiBuild is frankly bizarre and it’s not a good look for the Government that it seemingly can’t do something about it.

Nobody should have expected that an undertaking as ambitious as KiwiBuild, with the stated intention of building 100,000 houses in 10 years, would be achieved without teething problems and bumps along the way.

And perhaps the boundless enthusiasm and easy manner of Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford has in some ways worked against him. That’s because maybe we were at least at the start a bit swept along with his zeal for how this would be accomplished and how he perhaps had a secret for unlocking the New Zealand housing shortages that had not been identified before.

Well, Twyford’s finding it tough clearly. But that doesn’t mean we should, as perhaps some already are, be already writing the whole thing off as a bad idea.

We never should have expected to see houses immediately mushrooming all over the place. Readers and commenters who have traversed the bumpy path of building a house will be able to explain full and well the vagaries of house building in New Zealand.

And the best will in the world was not going to resolve the difficulties within the New Zealand landscape overnight.

We really do need to tackle what seems to have become the untouchable and uncontrollable monster that is the Resource Management Act. But we need political consensus and the RMA seems to have fallen into the same territory as superannuation. You get the impression sometimes that political parties would not ever like to reach consensus on some issues because they would then give up their ability to score political points with them. 

So, we are for now stuck with the situation we are stuck with and a Government that’s – despite the vagaries of the RMA – promised to build loads of houses. And it’s off to a rough start.

My concern is that the Government itself might get a bit discouraged by some of the roadblocks its seen in its way and start losing its nerve. I just sense that is already starting to happen and that maybe there’s an – at this stage unspoken – moving of the goalposts going on.

I was, as I opined a couple of weeks ago, disconcerted about the announcement of the new housing and urban development authority (which remember was originally styled as a housing commission). Can I say for a start that I don’t like the idea of Governments announcing very major policy decisions and initiatives on weekends. The attraction of doing so is presumably to get unfettered media coverage. But within that also is perhaps an element of the announcement not getting the kind of scrutiny it might during the cut and thrust of a working week.

And that particular announcement was worthy of more scrutiny than it got because it did clearly signal to me, I think, a very definite shift. From the ‘new’ authority (originally housing commission) being a completely new organisation, we suddenly have something that is instead founded around and including the ‘old’ Housing New Zealand. That’s very different to what I thought we were getting and I don’t see how it’s going to function optimally in terms of getting all those houses built.

If there is some thought though that the Government is already losing its nerve, then a ‘new’ authority that includes all the old Housing NZ bits would be a good way of fudging the issue and perhaps, as I’ve already suggested, leads the way for KiwiBuild to become a gateway for a proliferation of new state housing. 

Don’t get me wrong, there’s always going to be a need for social housing – and I completely disagreed with the direction the last Government tried to head on this one and it all turned into a complete dog’s breakfast.

Aspirationally though, we as a nation should be trying to get our young people into their own homes and being strongly incentivised to ‘climb the ladder’. And that’s what KiwiBuild was all about and the Government had the right idea and it should not lose it’s nerve just because it ain’t nearly as easy as the Government tried to convince itself it would be.

So, I think there needs to be a pretty decent sit-down by this Government over the summer period and come back with a plan. 

If targets have to be redrawn then so be it. 

The Government should not feel forced into announcements and decisions simply to be seen to be meeting targets – and in order to escape the inevitable sniping from the Opposition. 

We need to know, firstly who is running KiwiBuild – that would be nice – and then where it fits into this new-old collaboration with Housing NZ. 

If new targets need to be set up then so be it, I say. Do the costings of the houses need to be revisited? Is there some problem with the current balloting process? Are young people losing confidence in the whole idea – is that one of the problems?

This was an ambitious plan, but it was also one on which this Government put a lot of its credibility at stake. 

I think the public will forgive the Government if it does rework the plan, starting from early next year, with some new targets. But we need a clear plan and we need to know what is happening.

And again, at risk of sounding like a scratchy old record, I would say that the Government should look at finding more money for this initiative. That’s probably the heart of the problem. Yes, problems aren’t simply solved by ‘throwing money’ at them, but equally, you need to be realistic. And $2 billion was never realistic no matter how many times you attempt to ‘recycle’ it.

Perhaps also, Twyford should be given more help with some designated ‘KiwiBuild’ associated ministers alongside him – since to me his workload is looking beyond ridiculously heavy.

I don’t think there’s any harm in a Government saying that something’s not gone all to plan and that some changes are going to be made.

What I think is harmful is a Government that keeps pretending everything’s going to plan, when demonstrably it isn’t, and then tending to keep the public in the dark. 

If KiwiBuild as a concept loses the confidence of the NZ public then there’s probably no way back for it. And that would be a loss for the country, I think.

So, is this a crisis?

I don’t think so. But I do think a good New Year’s rethink and reprioritising with some clear strategies and targets – even if they are reduced ones – would be absolutely the right thing to do.

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