Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Labour needs to build on its housing policy

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Labour leader concedes the party's $300,000 figure is a national average.

David Shearer. Photo / APN
David Shearer. Photo / APN

Labour's Cunliffe faction seem so fixated with organising another coup against leader David Shearer, they don't appear to have noticed that the party's new housing policy has scored a remarkable victory. It's so rattled the Prime Minister he's dumped long-time Housing Minister Phil Heatley.

When was the last time, two years out from an election, an Opposition party policy pledge got a minister sacked? Labour activists should be celebrating a rare victory, not sharpening the kitchen knives for another round of internecine blood-letting.

My only criticism would be that Mr Shearer has failed to add any meat to the policy since he launched it back at the party conference last November. This radical proposal - for government to enter the housing market and build 100,000 low-cost houses over 10 years - was initially overshadowed by the initial coup attempt. But despite its birth problems, and a chorus of scoffing from National, the housing plan has gained widespread public support. Earlier this month, a Herald-DigiPoll survey had just over 70 per cent of New Zealanders in favour.

The support came from across the country, not just in the overheated Auckland property market.

In his state of the nation speech on Sunday at Wainuiomata, Mr Shearer had the opportunity to elaborate. Instead he waffled. "Our housing proposals are at the cutting edge of urban design and energy efficiency," and "this year we will bring together the best ideas of architects, designers, urban planners and others to a housing conference. I want KiwiBuild ready to roll on Day 1 when we take office."

All very well, but meanwhile, the Government is free to snipe and mock away about the $300,000 target price as being fantasyland. What Labour needs to do is to counter this with more than the "vision," which is all we've been getting. They must have consulted developers and builders and costed the exercise before launching it, so let's see the figures.

Flesh out the promise. I say that as a fan of the scheme. Why aren't they holding up the Government's Hobsonville Land Company development in Auckland as proof that low-cost housing is possible in Auckland. This is a project begun under the last Labour Government.

Labour could also take a leaf out of Green MP Holly Walker's book. Walker, in a recent blog, promoted the $220,000, three-bedroom, sustainable demonstration house built by Waitakere NOW in 2005, with rainwater collection, insulation and solar heating. In yesterday's Herald comes news that a 14-level New Lynn apartment block, close to the futuristic underground new rail station, is offering one-bedroom units from $246,500.

The Government's only response is to witter away about forcing councils to free up so-called "cheap" farming land on the city fringes. This, we're told, will dampen down the cost of houses elsewhere in the city. Ministers also get misty-eyed about the Kiwi right to the traditional quarter acre block. It's as though Prime Minister John Key is terrified that Auckland Mayor Len Brown is going to force him out of his Parnell palace, into the servants' quarters above the garage, while the rest of his property gets divided up for poor unfortunate terrace house dwellers.

In recent times, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English has been conceding the issue is complex, and that opening up the urban borders is just one possible solution to the affordability crisis. Perhaps he got an earful from his brother Conor over Christmas. As chief executive of Federated Farmers New Zealand, Conor English wrote in the Herald on January 5 that to become successful, "we have got to stop thinking like a small country [and] taking the lid off Auckland is an obvious next step." He said "we should stop building out and start building up ... [and] stop gobbling up productive land," complaining "we've already lost 30 per cent over the past 30 years to urban sprawl and the conservation estate - now 35 per cent of New Zealand".

In a passage sounding much more like something from a Len Brown speech, Mr English - Conor that is - said the strategy his brother's party is advancing, "seems to be to spread it [Auckland] out all the way to Taumarunui". Auckland "needs less traffic congestion, more public transport, better utilisation of resources, more integrated and diverse communities. To do this it simply has to go up, not out. Public transport will never work unless there are far more people in far less space." He also advocated more affordable and compact housing.

Conor English's objection to urban sprawl is based on wanting to preserve adjacent farmland. But he touches on the resultant benefits of going up, such as the better utilisation of infrastructure.

In the meantime, the Government's only solution seems to be to wave a big stick at local government threatening that if local authorities don't open up fringe land to housing speculators, then they'd better watch out!

Conor English demands we "get over this small-country mentality and mindset" of the National Party. That we "take the lid off our cities" and that we build "more affordable housing" that isn't in the "dream" category of "three bedrooms on a 400sq m section".

The irony is that early 20th century, cheek-by-jowl housing in Auckland's inner suburbs is helping fuel the demand bubble. Not everyone wants to live in sprawling suburbia. Labour's policy makers are on to this. Shame is, the activists seem happier scrapping with each other than spreading the good news.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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