An odd feature of many of the houses constructed in this country, notably in the 1950s and 1960s, was their lack of heating. Some builders of otherwise stout structures did not even install fireplaces, having apparently convinced themselves that the chill of the New Zealand winter was a myth.

The upshot is a lot of rental houses, leased by either the state or private landlords, that are notoriously cold and damp. Inevitably, this has led to a variety of health problems among the tenants.

It is encouraging, therefore, that the Government seems to be seriously considering the imposition of a warrant-of-fitness test on rental housing.

The idea was among those advanced late last year by an expert group that advised the Children's Commissioner, Russell Wills, on solutions to child poverty. This week, the new Housing Minister, Nick Smith, confirmed that he had asked officials to report on its feasibility. There seems little reason why it should not receive the green light. Children should not be constantly at risk of infections and respiratory illnesses. Yet for those who live in damp and draughty houses that is an everyday reality.


One outcome is the high incidence of children who need hearing aids or grommets. A study of 1400 Pacific children born at Middlemore Hospital in 2000 found that 25 per cent had glue ear, causing hearing problems, at the age of 2. The national rate is 5.6 per cent by the age of 3. The study concluded that poorly ventilated and overcrowded houses were among the key factors. Schools also shoulder the consequences through children who struggle to listen and learn.

Implementing a warrant-of-fitness test should be relatively straightforward. There will be an impost on private landlords but that could be leavened, as Dr Wills suggested, by accelerated depreciation rates for work required to bring rental housing up to scratch. Dr Smith seems loath, however, to set standards for the private sector before run-down state houses are completely fixed. It is difficult to see why.

According to Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, of Otago University, who was part of Dr Wills' expert advisory group, private rental housing is, on average, in poorer condition than Housing New Zealand property. There is little reason to doubt her. All state houses were insulated by late last year, a move described, correctly, by Dr Smith as "a huge step forward".

Yet only about 5 per cent of private rentals have been insulated. That is despite the generous home heating and insulation subsidy available to landlords on the basis of their tenants' household income. State houses may, as the minister suggests, have some way to go in other areas of quality but many private rentals clearly have even further to travel.

At the very least, there is good cause to oblige landlords to take advantage of the Greens-instigated subsidy. But the Government should be prepared to insist on broader health and quality standards that would be part and parcel of a warrant of fitness.

Dr Wills' advisory group came up with recommendations that were notably pragmatic in terms of their affordability and ability to be readily implemented. They deserve immediate attention from the Government.

The regulatory arrangements that would be superceded by a warrant have not been changed since 1947. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that they are inadequate. Or that cold and damp housing is a catalyst for illness among children, in particular. Every child should have the benefit of warm and dry accommodation. They will be healthier, happier and, in many cases, better prepared to profit from their time at school.