Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Labour drops ball on its home-building policy

Three years ago when Labour first came up with its KiwiBuild programme to build 100,000 homes for first-home buyers, it was the party's medicine for a very different ailment.

Then its leader David Shearer pointed to record numbers of New Zealanders leaving for Australia, driven out by unaffordable housing and a wish for better pay. He insisted KiwiBuild would help "create a reason for New Zealanders to stay".

Three years later and with housing even more unaffordable, terrorism fears overseas have had more impact on people staying than cheap modular houses in the outer suburbs of Auckland.

The problem now is those New Zealanders who are returning while fewer are leaving in their place and the Australians are also flocking over.

Labour found out in the past there was a difference between promising something and the voters believing you can deliver. Last time, KiwiBuild foundered partly because few people believed Labour could actually deliver homes in Auckland for the $300,000 initially promised.

Nor did people necessarily want to live in the suburbs the houses were aimed at. By the time Labour increased the house prices in 2014, Prime Minister John Key had already laughed it into oblivion.

This time round Labour has been careful to put more realistic price tags on the houses - up to $600,000. It is betting the grim reality of buying in Auckland has made people less picky about what suburbs they prefer than in 2013.

Labour timed its announcement to coincide with the party's centenary - and the start of a four-week parliamentary recess. Labour should have a fortnight of clear air with the Prime Minister out of the country. The recess is also a time when the political news agenda is less cluttered and a canny Opposition can fill the void with noise of its choosing.

It is one of Labour's key election policy platforms and the party should be promoting it far and wide. Yet since announcing the package on Sunday, Labour has been almost silent on what it is planning and instead got distracted by what National was and was not doing.

Deputy leader Grant Robertson got embroiled in a prolonged forensic dispute over what National's Steven Joyce said, and when, about Housing NZ dividends. It may be fun trying to catch Joyce out, but it is a beltway skirmish.

Even the creator of the package, Phil Twyford, had moved on to accusing Paula Bennett of establishing refugee-style "transit camps" after announcing the use of prefab homes for temporary emergency housing in Auckland.

That came across as opposing for the sake of it, given KiwiBuild will also rely on prefab housing and Bennett's proposal was seen as largely positive by housing groups and the Greens.

Labour, it seems, has got so used to opposing it has forgotten what to do to sell its own policies. Yesterday Greens co-leader James Shaw came to Labour's rescue, giving the Greens' tick of approval to the KiwiBuild policy in a blog.

Labour may well be wishing he'd stayed quiet. Labour was at pains to say the homes would be clean and dry but "basic" to ensure they were affordable. Shaw decided it was a "pimp my affordable house" challenge and started piling on the optional extras.

He said the Greens would ensure the homes were also energy efficient. He spoke of solar panels and battery packs, LED lighting and "communities designed so it's safe for all kids to walk or bike to their local school".

He wanted car-share schemes for all new housing developments - such as streets of 50 houses sharing 15 electric cars between them. That is nice but not necessarily in keeping with the "affordable" bit.

Still, this time round Key can hardly dispute whether Labour can provide homes at the price promised. After all, it is Key who continues to insist there are hundreds of homes in Auckland for less than $450,000 on Trade Me.

- NZ Herald

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Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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