Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: City can do housing without the bullying

The Government's accord with Auckland Council means all the abuse and threats were strictly gratuitous.

Nick Smith ranted unnecessarily about overriding the powers of local councils. Photo / Dean Purcell
Nick Smith ranted unnecessarily about overriding the powers of local councils. Photo / Dean Purcell

It was all sweetness and light last week when Housing Minister Nick Smith joined Mayor Len Brown on a paddock in darkest Weymouth to announce plans for 300 new "affordable" houses.

For a minister on the back foot over housing supply, and a mayor in full election mode, it was a great photo opportunity. Not a time for reminding the minister of all the unnecessary bullying that preceded it.

For Mayor Brown, it was a great campaign opportunity to announce affordable housing would be a "key priority" if re-elected. It was also a curtain-raiser to a follow-up statement this Wednesday when he is expected to announce details of another 11 or so special housing areas.

These are understood to be greenfields sites, owned by developers who have been queuing at Auckland Council's door, keen to take advantage of the fast-track planning advantages the new Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act offers them.

All of which begs the question of why the minister needed to rant and rave in recent months about overriding the powers of local councils if they failed to do his bidding and open up land for housing redevelopment. As recently as early September, in introducing the third reading of the Housing Accords Bill, he was still at it, colourfully complaining, "we've got a constipated planning system bogging down new residential construction and this bill is a laxative to get new houses flowing".

Auckland, he said, "has got just 1300 sections available for housing - a third of what there was a decade ago - and we need 13,000 a year just to keep up with population growth".

"The Government's strong preference is to get this work done in partnership ... but this bill also provides for the Government to get on with the job if councils stand in the way of delivering an increased supply of affordable housing."

But, as he admitted, at that stage he'd already signed up to a housing accord with Auckland along the very lines outlined in the bill.

In other words, all the abuse and threats at local councils - in particular Auckland Council - was strictly gratuitous.

After the act was passed on September 10, Dr Smith said it was now back in Auckland's hands. "It's up to Auckland where it wants to grow. What this accord does is support them to get some momentum around building the least contentious 39,000 of the 400,000 homes identified in the draft Unitary Plan that Auckland needs to keep up with population growth over the next 30 years."

"The accord will remain in place for three years and is an interim measure until Auckland's Unitary Plan becomes fully operative."

What he didn't mention is the big stick still buried in the legislation, which Auckland Council tried and failed to have removed. The accord remains in place for three years, unless "either party" gives six months' notice it's pulling out. In other words, if Auckland doesn't keep him happy, central Government can still pounce.

Not that, at this stage of the political cycle, either party would be wanting to attract the negative publicity of such a move. But this bully-clause remains in the legislation, another reminder to local politicians of what the central parliamentarians really think of them.

If Mr Brown is re-elected - which seems inevitable - it will be interesting to see whether he can honour his pledge to "ensure that a percentage of housing developed under the accord will be required to be affordable and specifically targeted at first-time home buyers and those who do not have the means to purchase a home at market rates".

This goes further than the accord, which rather vaguely requires developers only "to give consideration to the provisions of affordable housing and/or first home buyer purchase". It will be interesting to see if the developers go running to Mr Smith to complain.

Mr Brown also highlights that Auckland's first-time buyers, "tend to be borrowers with low deposits" [and] "are not the causing of housing unaffordability".

He refers to the Reserve Bank's new policy requiring most home loan borrowers to have a 20 per cent deposit - up from 10 per cent. This draws attention to the big flaw in Dr Smith's housing policy, that is that opening all the land in fringe Auckland up to housing is of no use to those at the bottom of the market, if they can't conjure up a large lump sum deposit.

- NZ Herald

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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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