N.Z. in lock down: DAY 15

Yesterday was DAY 15 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

At the time of writing this, it was 2130 hours N.Z.T. on 09 April 2020 and I expect that the streets of Christchurch, like the streets of every other town and city in the country will be effectively deserted. As today is Good Friday, effectively only the service stations around the country will be open. Most dairies have shut because the absence of foot traffic does not justify them staying open. No doubt for a few in the lowest socio-economic groups, it could be a quite grim weekend.

There is no doubt that this Easter is going to be a very sedate, rather boring affair for New Zealand. Instead of Wanaka rocking to its bi-annual airshow, the streets will be empty. Instead of thousands of New Zealanders pouring onto the roads to reach their holiday homes, the Police have been turning the few silly enough to try, back at check points. Instead of people like myself going to the pub and staying there until being told to leave because the staff have to have locked up and left the building themselves by midnight, everyone is at home.

But – and I cannot emphasize this enough…

Yesterday I saw – or maybe I imagined it but still want to think its true – that just maybe the darkness in the COVID19 tunnel has just started to get either so slightly lighter. For a few days now, the rate of cases has been slowing. It will probably take another few days to taper right off, but instead of an exponential growth in case numbers and a matching explosion in hospital cases, the numbers have been quite linear in their growth. The one death recorded over a week ago was an elderly lady with pre-existing medical issues, and there has not been any since.

For staying the course and going in hard and early, New Zealand now has a realistic chance of becoming the first western nation to not so much beat COVID19 as completely eradicate it. This would be a major feat.

However, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the countries that New Zealand has drawn inspiration from in terms of making sure it was ready for a pandemic. Particular acknowledgement has to go to Singapore. Following the outbreak of SARS, Singapore realized that it was very vulnerable if it did not reinforce its medical system, have a plan for rapidly ramping testing up and a way to get the population on board.

It is also important to note work that was done in New Zealand preparing the country financially for a rainy day situation – natural disaster, pandemic, stock market crash, and so forth – that both National-led and Labour-led Governments contributed to. The last two Governments both set aside money for emergencies, but also they tried to keep the debt owed by New Zealand to relatively low levels compared with other countries. Without this, New Zealand probably would not have been able to so rapidly open to the extent it has the Government cheque book.

When I look at other countries and how they are handling the pandemic, I sometimes have trouble believing how lucky we have been here:

  • In the United States, 50 different states have 50 different ideas about what should be happening whilst the President is constantly undercutting those with medical knowledge, and more worryingly, trying to promote hydroxychloroquine as an effective vaccine.
  • In Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in the Intensive Care Unit, and whose government initially wanted to try “herd immunity” – a rather dystopian and quite backward theory – that would have let hundreds of thousands get sick, the National Health System is critically short on protective gear.
  • In India, as far as I can tell India has no plan for how it will address the pandemic – its vastly underfunded health system is in no way ready for the millions of tests that will need to be conducted, and the nation wide lock down for 21 days will only be effective if the borders were closed.
  • In Spain a worsening situation has seen nearly 10,000 people die with over 100,000 cases. The country is in full lock down, but there is evidence that the curve in the new cases figure is starting to flatten, with hospital admissions slowing down.
  • In Italy, one of the first countries to feel the lash of COVID19 and one of the worst affected around the world, 17,700 have died from the pandemic. However like Spain, the hospitals are reporting a decrease in new patients coming in and a full lock down has been extended.

As the late New Zealand comedian Fred Dagg said in a moment of vivid wisdom that seems to getting brighter by the day here, of living in Aotearoa:

We don’t know how lucky we are

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 14

Yesterday was DAY 14 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

In the last few weeks, hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders have seen their jobs get put on ice as their employers brace for what might be the single biggest economic hit to the country since before 1987. Estimates have been made that 400,000-500,000 New Zealanders might lose their jobs as a result of the COVID19 pandemic.

Whilst the vast majority of employers are trying to protect their staff from the impact as much s they can, there are a few employers whose methods have attracted negative media attention. Fletcher Building, which has had several turbulent years as a result of mismanaging a host of projects and finding its balance sheet to be a sea of red, is one of two employers I want to look at a bit more closely in this article. The other is Sky City.

Fletcher Building has asked its 9,000 staff to take a staggered pay cut, of which 8,600 staff agreed to. Its senior staff were initially going to take a 15% cut and then raised it to 30% when it was realized how much impact was being felt by other staff. Concerns were raised that there would be hardship issues for staff who live from pay check to pay check. The workers union E tu believes the conduct to be unlawful and indicated it would be reporting Fletcher Building to the Ministry of Business Innovation and Enterprise.

Sky City has come to my attention after reading a Stuff article, where a lady working as a food and beverage manager and union leader describes how she has in effect been fired. Julia Liu talked about a letter that had been sent to staff that ruled out any discussions, any exploration of alternatives. In her case a 21 year career was being brought to a close. The letter, according to Unite Union National Secretary effectively told the staff that they are fired. Ms Liu said no effort had been made by Sky City to apply for a wage subsidy to assist employees.

In this case another article suggests that Sky City actually is assisting staff to find new jobs and that the company did apply for the wage subsidy.

These are tough times and the speed of the onset of the lock down had to be fast in order to start slowing down COVID19. However I believe that the warning signs were around for a bit longer than either employer have indicated and that as a result, had they been better organized they could have talked to staff in greater depth.


N.Z. in lock down: DAY 13

Yesterday was DAY 13 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

As a result of the course work for my university paper, I have been doing some thinking about how what I have learned about urban planning in the last 48 hours could affect my own views. Having had a diverse range of people speak to myself and my class – economists, council planners, N.G.O. and government agency staff – I feel as though my whole understanding of housing policy and the challenges it poses has been revamped.

There is no simple or singular solution to the challenges facing New Zealand housing, but a combination of changes as laid out below will certainly be a start. They are an attempt to acknowledge the legal, economic, market, policy and societal needs. Understanding how they are interconnected and understanding what the ebbs and flows are in terms of how these needs output and receive input is important.

In terms of legal obstacles or challenges that I think are potentially significant is in the area of covenants on land. Many are well established, and place restrictions on the nature of the housing that can be constructed, such as perhaps requiring nothing smaller than a 4 or 5 bedroom home to be constructed. That excludes potential buyers who might have been wanting to have a 3 bedroom house and a big enough area that they could later subdivide. Covenants might also be used to keep the “riff raff” out – people who come from lower socio-economic classes, but who might have, through a combination of hard work and assistance, to know how to get some finances together and enter the market.

There might well be good uses of covenants as a legal instrument – I would be keen to hear them – but I think I have just demonstrated that something that has uses, also has abuses.

One of the notions that I am certainly not sympathetic to is the market idea that all houses need to be 4-5 or more bedrooms in size. Multiple speakers pointed out that there is now a glut of large houses and it also does not represent an emerging trend that is expected to grow of smaller families after 2-3 bedroom dwellings. Developers want their money’s worth, so they build bigger more complex houses, which may be beyond the ability of most New Zealanders to purchase, or their needs.

Developers, perhaps unwittingly or perhaps deliberately, through not sharing data they have with council planners make it quite difficult for councils to anticipate land use needs. Because of that land use zoning, which normally requires a plan change, public submissions and a hearing to determine the suitability of the change, sometimes becomes an unintentional snag.

It is not to say that planners are always correct as sometimes resource consent applications are not properly notified – i.e. the consenting council underestimates the potential adverse effects and goes for either a non-notification or partial notification. This is never a welcome outcome for a council because it means a now potentially hugely expensive hearings phase with public submissions, reports summarizing those submissions and so forth. And it does happen – Mackenzie District Council is currently facing a legal challenge over a proposed hotel in Tekapo that was not publicly or partially notified.

N.Z. in lock down: DAY 12

Yesterday was DAY 12 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

A rather short post today. I spent much of yesterday attending my university block course, which is being delivered on line. It replaces a block segment that was meant to be delivered at Massey University in person but was cancelled when COVID19 escalated in mid March.

We were able to hear from a respected New Zealand economist named Shamubeel Eaqub, who talked to us about an economists, perspective on urban planning. A lady working for Kainga Ora discussed how the organization which is a combination of three housing agencies that merged was trying to deliver the government agenda on affordable housing. Then we heard from the C.E.O. of Community Housing Aotearoa about social housing, the use of financial and legal instruments to enable affordable housing. Another gentleman working for Harrison Grierson who are one of New Zealand’s leading engineering consultancy firms showed a case study that examined housing growth in the rapidly urbanizing south Auckland/Waikato area.

It was great to hear a range of different perspectives on how New Zealand should move forward in terms of urban planning. Several of them mentioned that affordable housing should not take up more than 30% of disposable income in a household. Also noted was a glut of big houses with 4+ bedrooms being built when the market is screaming for smaller dwellings.

With more teaching content to be delivered today and tomorrow, it also admittedly makes it easier for me to decide what my next blog article will be about.



N.Z. in lock down: DAY 11

Yesterday was DAY 11 of New Zealand in lock down as we try to fight the COVID19 pandemic.

Over the last several days I have seen people starting to comment on the need for a healthy functioning political oppositionĀ  in times like these. The commenters are from both sides of the divide, which I found encouraging because it means that both the right and the left understand that healthy democracy cannot exist if there is no one asking the hard questions.

Right now are unprecedented times. Never before in my life time have so many civil liberties been suspended, and certainly not for the compelling reasons we find being used to justify the lock down. Before we progress further I want to briefly look at some of those freedoms that one could argue have been suspended.

  1. Although there is nothing to stop online assemblies, freedom of physical assembly is effectively suspended as it is too dangerous to have contact outside of your bubble.
  2. With the exception of going for walks or going to the super market or the doctor or pharmacy, freedom of movement is effectively suspended – you cannot go to your holiday house/bach/other secondary property
  3. Freedom of association outside of your bubble, on line communities you belong to, is also in respects suspended as one cannot meet for any length of time except from a distance – people sitting on either sides of the road in deck chairs having a beer/wine with 2 metre distancing; are okay, but one cannot go to a bar with a bunch of mates

Yet we can be thankful we live in New Zealand. In some other countries the measures that have been taken are even more draconian. In China people who had COVID19 had steel frames physically welded to their door frames so that their front doors could only open a certain distance.

New Zealand also has legal protections that Chinese do not. The most important is a functional democratically elected Parliament. It has a media that enjoys one of the highest freedom ratings in the world, and has (for the most part!) independent watch dogs. New Zealand also permits N.G.O.’s such as Amnesty International, Transparency International and Human Rights Watch to operate on New Zealand soil without fear of persecution.

A State of Emergency has been declared here, but there is a strong legal framework in which it operates. If after 1221 hours 08 April, reasonable grounds no longer exist for the activation of Civil Defence Emergency Management Act powers, the State of Emergency must expire. Any renewal must happen before that time, and shall be valid for no longer than one week before another review happens.

Does that mean New Zealand is perfect? Absolutely not.

For example, I believe there needs to be an amendment to how Parliament passes legislation that requires long term emergency legislation such as the Canterbury Earthquake Recover Authority Act 2011 to have a sunset clause or a review clause. This is a mechanism that is triggered by certain conditions being met or exceeded and must be acted on. No such requirement currently exists, and the 5 year sunset clause in the C.E.R.A. Act was inserted after resistance in Parliament.

Another issue is not being able to get up to normal autumn pursuits, such as the duck shooting season in May. As hunting, swimming and surfing are non essential activities, Police have the power to tell people partaking in those activities to go home and desist until restrictions are lifted. Both the Police and the Government could have been better at communicating this.

As mentioned on Sunday, I believe New Zealand has some challenging decisions to make in a few weeks time when the four week lock down period will end. The real test of our democracy will be in how we handle the end of this period, when public compliance will no longer be a certainty.

But for now, with 18 days still on the clock, New Zealand’s compliance is for the very most part guaranteed.