Cautious backing for mega-consents plan

By Claire Trevett

An environmental policy lobby group is backing the government's proposed "mega consent" idea if it frees up existing legislation to tackle the "big" environment issues.

The mega consent would allow developers to get a consent for a house design, rather than an individual house, and could save developers and buyers thousands of dollars.

The idea has been floated by Building Construction minister Shane Jones as a way to cut through red tape. But National MP Phil Heatley said the proposal would lead to "ticky-tack suburbia" where all houses were the same.

Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor said there is a lot of scope for "standardisation" under the Building Act.

Mr Taylor said that the Resource Management Act is needed for buildings that contravene district plans and the mega consents could free the RMA up to focus on issues like urban sprawl, water quality and coastal development.

"Some kind of rationalisation at the low end might take some pressure off the Act and those that say it is weakening. Provided this isn't weakening, that it is rationalisation, then that would be acceptable," Mr Taylor said.

The Government's move is intended to reduce prices for modest homes by cutting the $1500 to $3000 cost of getting consents, and reduce delays that have been blamed for adding up to $30,000 to the cost of a home.

Mr Jones said the measure would cut the red tape for large building companies such as Jennian Homes and Keith Hay. About one-third of the 25,000 consent applications for new houses made annually come from such companies.

But Mr Heatley said helping companies that mass-produced homes did nothing for other builders who had to fight red tape.

"All it will result in is suburbs of uniformity, ticky-tack houses, and a lack of flair," he said.

Mr Jones said most major companies had eight or nine house designs which could be used to prevent bland, homogenous suburbs. "They are proud of their homes."

The move would not disadvantage other home builders, and would give big builders more choices on reducing costs. It would also mean council staff were not bogged down by individual applications for identical homes.

Firm proposals on the new rules are due in May.

Mr Jones said the Government would also change the regulations so that minor alterations - such as moving a window, door or toilet - no longer required a building consent.

Work had started on plans for a standardised "starter home" - a low-budget, simple house design that would be pre-approved for consent.

Mr Jones is holding a competition for designs, and the best will be worked on by the Department of Building and building representatives.

Master Builders chief executive Pieter Burghout said while the "mega consent" could shave off $3000 to $4000 in construction costs, the "big fish" were still land availability and general compliance costs.

Mr Burghout said New Zealanders didn't buy "cookie cutter" houses and often changed plans.

"Kiwis love mucking around with houses. They want to shift a door from here to there, they want to move a window. We love customising stuff," he said.

But Mr Burghout said if it was the difference between buying a house and not, then Kiwis would get used to it.

He said there could be 10 standard plans that depended on the house's orientation to the sun and plans could be flipped or altered in limited ways, depending on the environment.

"For us, this is one piece in the housing affordability jig-saw puzzle but there are other pieces that are still important. Land availability is still the number one," Mr Burghout said.

He said section prices had doubled around the country in the past five years.

Mr Burghout said local authorities were increasing regulatory fees and consent and construction times had doubled because it took twice as long to get consents, sign-offs and Code of Compliance certificates.

Derek Baxter, chief executive of the Certified Builders' Association, said the changes would help with the problem of delays and inconsistent interpretations of building requirements.

"Builders can't plan at the moment and if they have staff sitting round waiting for consents, that drives prices up."

Local Government New Zealand president Basil Morrison welcomed the proposed measures, but said consent-related issues were a very small component of house cost.

The proposed changes would reduce the time it took councils to process consents, he said.

"Addressing housing affordability is complex and long-term. Short-term, any initiatives to reduce building compliance costs will benefit both homeowners and local government," he said.

"However, let's keep these changes in perspective. The building consent costs are a very small part of the overall building cost.

"These changes will only offer minimal relief to potential buyers in the affordability of new housing."

* THE CHANGES

Allow "multiple use" consents - automatic consent for identical homes after consent is given to the initial design - to save on consent fees and delay-related costs.

Develop Government-approved designs for basic "starter homes" that will have pre-approved consent.

No consent will be required for minor alterations such as moving a window or door.

- With NZHERALD staff

- NZ Herald

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