New Zealand needs a revolution in land use planning

With all of the talk about housing going on, I find it somewhat surprising that no one has attempted to look at the idea of apartment living more closely. Given the lack of flat land in some urban areas and issues that go with reclaimed land, the current trend towards big single story houses and needless landscaping, and the development of infrastructure with more of this wastage in mind, strikes me as absurd.

I personally find the word revolution too emotionally and politically charged to use as a general rule. However there is coming a time in land use planning where it might be the most suitable way of describing the growing need to change how we approach land use planning.

The quarter acre dream is dead. If not it should be. The expansive suburbia ideals of the 1950’s and 1960’s need to be exited from planning. With our limited space, and geographical challenges such as the narrow isthmus in Auckland or the long corridor zones of Wellington, it is simply not realistic to continue to pursue. In its place we need to be prepared to go vertical with residential complexes, have communal vegetable patches in order to teach future generations about self sufficiency.

Planning law needs to become substantially more accommodating to apartment complexes. Too often politicians favour loosening up land zoning changes, such as changing industrial zoning to residential when it needs a substantial clean up first or zoning an area at high risk from flooding to something that permits intensive development. The current thinking  In doing so, the theorem around public transport will hopefully change so that cars have a less of a role in private transport. The idea that if you build where ever the roading network will simply follow suit and everyone can drive themselves, needs to go. Smart cities integrate with bus networks, and – where possible – railway networks.

Is the urban area a rough blob shape with a clearly defined centre? If so, a ring and radial network of roads and railways may work best. It looks like a bike wheel with the radial routes being the spokes, and the ring routes being the rim and so forth. In New Zealand the best example would have been pre-earthquake Christchurch. Globally Tokyo and Moscow provide good examples of such planning theory. This theory worked well prior to the earthquakes of 2010-11, where Christchurch’s bus network looked much like the model described. It might still work in the future if certainty about the reconstruction of the city centre can be obtained.

In the case of Auckland, urban sprawl and a growing motorway network with no real vision other than build more motorways is becoming an increasing problem. I was quite shocked in 1998 to see hectares of land disappearing under new commercial development displacing farms or fruit or vegetable growing businesses. The scale of the development, and the lack of regard that seemed to be given towards issues such as storm water run off, infrastructure and so forth.

I do not know how or when this revolution will start or what form it should take, but it plain to me that the status quo is not working.

Students vulnerable to housing crisis

Over the next few weeks tens of thousands of students will be going back to University, to Wananga’s, to Polytechnic’s to begin another year of study. They will be looking for flats, apartments, student halls and places where they can pay board to stay. Most will have no trouble finding a flat. But what about those who cannot compete, yet face a stark choice of either abandoning their study or studying at an entirely different institution?

Everyone has a right to housing under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and under the New Zealand Bill of Rights.

The theory is that the market is driven by demand, and the more that is paid, theoretically the higher the quality of the accommodation should be. The reality is somewhat different from the theory. The theory would be the case if were not for land lords – most of whom are quite fair and responsible people – asking for exorbitant rents whilst not necessarily using the money to maintain the property. The rents will be a challenge for many needing jobs to pay their way, or having to dig into hard earned financial reserves.

It should also be said that the market is not a silver bullet solution to everything, including and especially housing. We have seen in Auckland the damaging effects that a market gone mad is having on people and economic sectors – teachers cannot afford to work in Auckland because living costs are made too expensive by rent, causing principals in turn to worry about whether or not they will have enough qualified staff to deliver the curriculum.

Students are our future. Without trained teachers, doctors, police officers, and so forth the entire economy and way of life tips over. But if our students cannot afford inhabitable accommodation with electricity, running water and working sewerage, then it is difficult to expect them to continue studying, difficult for them to work to earn money to pay for study.

The Government should be concerned. It is election year, and National wishes to have a fourth term in office, yet it denies that the housing sector is in crisis. It denies that there is a teacher shortage in Auckland because of the crisis and it also insists that bringing a large number of migrants in to New Zealand, many of whom have poor English is a working solution. An effect of this influx is to add unnecessary demand to a limited housing stock.

An eight year old Government that has not made tangible improvements to the housing market now is not likely to do so in the foreseeable future. Housing will be an election issue in 2017.


How housing could make or break the 2017 election

Reading about the sale of housing to former high flyer, Mark Hotchin, I was drawn to wonder if there should be a limit on the number of properties a wealthy New Zealander can own. The flash in the pan only lasted a couple of seconds, but in doing so it raised a perhaps more important question about how much further the property market can continue to heat up before economic forces make it implode on itself without Government intervention.

This brings me nicely to an issue that I think will make or break the 2017 general election. New Zealanders are tired of being priced out of their own housing market. They are tired of going for broke just trying to pay rent and not being able to afford anything else, much less a decent quality of life.

It is going to be an election issue because housing rents are so high in Auckland that essential workers such as teachers are not able to live there without basically being broke. It is going to be an election issue because without those essential workers living there, the quality of the contribution those sectors make to New Zealand’s economy and overall well being is brought into question.

New Zealanders seem to like houses big and bigger, which anecdotal evidence from other countries suggests may now be becoming less fashionable as concerns about the environmental impact, affordability and lifestyle issues begin to take their toll. How far behind the curve New Zealand is when it comes to this is perhaps shown by the as yet considerable aversion to apartment living, which in parts of New Zealand such as Auckland may become simple necessity because of land constraints.

It is not that there are not alternatives to the trend for bigger houses. There are companies in New Zealand that design compact housing with minimal floor space. These properties might not suit a couple, and certainly not a young family, but individuals with a strong environmental conscience or simply no need for a larger property could be taken.

Finally state housing is exactly that. It is not private housing for sale. Contrary to what National, who are proposing the sale of hundreds of state houses, think, these properties should remain in New Zealand hands. It is Government built and owned housing that has one purpose and one purpose only – to house those who are unable to afford rental properties. The Government should award New Zealand companies the contracts for designing, building and – if the private sector really must be involved – maintaining them, because New Zealand companies are more likely to have have a social conscience about the people living in the properties.

How political parties acknowledge these issues is going to determine who wins the 2017 election in New Zealand.

Nick Smith deliberately blind to housing crisis

For years, the Government has denied the existence of a housing crisis in New Zealand. The claims by the Opposition that housing is becoming unaffordable has been rubbished time and again by the Minister for Housing Nick Smith. So, why then has every measure tried by the government failed?

When a Minister is so deliberately blind to the consequences of their Government’s policies it is obvious that the only way to change the policy implementation is to change the Government.  This sums up the case of Dr Smith and his portfolio, in which it is clearly obvious that the Government policies are not working.

Although Dr Smith has implemented a range of new initiatives, they are merely stop gap measures that are:

  1. Piecemeal – randomly filling up public reserves intended for relaxation and enjoyment with new housing has numerous limitations
  2. Hollow – if they were not hollow the crisis would not exist and this post would not have been written

The simple truth is that one policy only will bring the housing market under control: making immigration sustainable. With 60,000 new immigrants – more than the entire population of Nelson arriving in a calendar year, New Zealand simply does not have the land, the resources, tax base or population to sustain such an influx without huge socio-economic consequences.

Contrary to Dr Smith and the National Party’s claims, you cannot blame the Resource Management Act for this. Nor can you blame it for the fact that successive Governments have neglected to adequately support a full apprenticeship/trades programme to supply the electricians, the plumbers, carpenters and so forth that are needed to build houses. Nor can one blame the Act for individual councils implementation when sufficient skilled planning and resource consent staff are often hard to come by – in part because such people are viewed as “bureaucrats”; in part because

I am not going to make suggestions about what should happen, as I have already mentioned how I would solve the housing problems previously. Instead I shall point to what will happen if this problem is not tackled in the next year or two. The increasingly unsustainable population influx to New Zealand are having numerous consequences:

  1. New Zealanders are being priced out of the housing market in major cities, notably Auckland but also other large urban areas such as Christchurch, Wellington and Hamilton
  2. Because ordinary New Zealanders are not able to afford housing in Auckland and other locations these cities are critically short of people qualified to do jobs where N.Z. citizenship or permanent residency is compulsory
  3. Housing prices and rents mean that people are foregoing essential health, educational and other needs in order to make sure that they can pay their rent

This is not acceptable, but according to Dr Smith and his National Party colleagues, the market “knows best”. Competition will keep housing prices in check so they said – and still say – but with houses costing $1 million in Auckland and averaging $500,000 in other cities, and still rising, it is obvious that the market does not know best. The Government rhetoric, like its hollow and piecemeal measures, is failing.

Housing New Zealand nearly broke

It has been revealed that the New Zealand Government ran a significant surplus in 2015-16. After years of being in the red as a result of the global financial crisis, expenditure to help Christchurch this would have been welcome news for Treasurer Bill English.

Not surprisingly the Government is absolutely beaming with the news of the surplus, which it says gives it some real options going into election year. Some have suggested that tax cuts might be on the cards. Others think that it provides leverage for bigger spending promises to woo swing voters who might otherwise vote for the Opposition.

At the same time, we have officials warning – and the Treasurer Bill English has admitted it – that Housing New Zealand needs more money to continue its building programme. Without a funding top up, it will have no cash by the end of February 2017. As recently as July, the Government was denying there was a cash flow problem, until Steven Joyce said that that Housing New Zealand would not pay a dividend for the next two years.

But what do I think? I think any government that thinks Housing New Zealand should be allowed to go broke when New Zealanders are screaming for housing relief thoroughly deserves an election defeat. Any government that lets it get to a state where it cannot continue its core programme of building and operating state owned housing for New Zealanders is not looking after one of the most important parts of the New Zealand welfare programme.

Now, I don’t claim to be an economist – I failed the one economics paper I did at university – but I doubt that the officials writing the warning would have felt so obliged if there was no immediate danger of H.N.Z. running out of cash. Scaremongering without reason is akin to the old childrens lesson about the boy who cried wolf, lest you be ignored in a real emergency.

At the same time I would be interested to know what H.N.Z. is doing about older stock that is sitting idle when it should have tenants in it. Yes some of the houses are pretty grotty and some will no doubt be in urgent need of repairs, surely a temporary patch up job could be done and short term tenants moved in, with their rent helping fund the longer term maintenance work? And if Mr English and Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce have such a great handle on the situation I should theoretically have zero case for writing this blog because no such claims would have arisen in the first place.