Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Month: July, 2017

Housing New Zealand

I have just finished a short trip to New Zealand and on the way through the airport I picked up a book on housing by Philippa Howden-Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Otago, called Home truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis. Written in 2015, it is a cry to roll back perceived inequality, improve housing conditions and build a more joined up and evidenced policy framework based on housing rights, affordability, fairness, sustainability and a focus on the system as a whole.

I have read a wee bit about the Auckland housing market which is particularly unaffordable and speculative;  and many years ago in Glasgow we entertained civil servants working on housing policy in New Zealand – but this was my first opportunity to read and digest a proper overview of the housing system as a whole.

The author focuses on a number of large issues, at the heart of which lie the commodification of housing, the run down and selling-off of state housing, the leaky homes scandal that saw 80,000 new homes built with faulty cladding, the lack of regulation in rented housing, the privileged tax status of owners and investors and a mess of housing subsidies.

The result is a poisonous mix of unaffordable housing, speculation, government and media opposition to social housing, exclusionary zoning and land supply that fuels sprawl and the car economy.

What is to be done? Howden-Chapman calls for four key policy reforms plus a number of follow up ancillary ideas. These involve:

  • subsidising mortgages for first time buyers but in ways that will not push up prices.
  • the promotion of corporate and institutional private renting investment to transform the sector in New Zealand
  • increased supply of inner city social housing including not for profits
  • tying rental subsidies to independent assessments of rental housing quality.

Additional policies proposed include regular assessments of housing condition through surveys and in turn comprehensive needs assessment. The author also calls for statutory responses over emergency homelessness and for the return of mandatory inclusionary zoning of affordable housing within new developments, wider support of brownfield higher density and compact city style urban management. Overall and consistent with these ideas, there should be a comprehensive national strategy for housing embracing the health and wider economic consequences of better housing.

Drawing on recent writing by Kate Barker, the author bemoans the short termism of New Zealand – something exacerbated by a three year electoral cycle. This fundamental lack of fit with long term housing problems is a universal problem and one of course I bang on about a lot of the time in these posts.

It reminded me of the point recently made by Anthony King in his 2015 Pelican book on Who Governs Britain? He was also deeply concerned with short termism and the inability to do enough systematically about difficult long term problems. He argued that, while they have plenty of inter-party rivalry, Nordic countries’ political parties often demonstrate a capacity to do a good job of coming together to build consensus and undertake policy proposals through national commissions that all, government and opposition alike, can sign up to and stick with over a period of time (i.e. over a succession on governments) to make headway with questions that the Anglo-Saxon countries just find insurmountable.

Perhaps this is how both New Zealand and the UK might overcome such wicked problems? Britain has a long and inglorious record  of using royal commissions to put things in the long grass. Could a formal and properly resourced cross party commission on topics like housing be made to work? Surely worth further thought and consideration?

A small addendum. Our flight this evening from Wellington to Sydney included one Boris Johnson and his FCO entourage fresh from his maiden visit to New Zealand. As probably the only Glaswegian on the flight I was tempted to engage with the great man concerning his widely reported comments the other day on arrival to NZ that the traditional Maori greeting of rubbing noses might lead to a head butt in a Glasgow bar. But he was in business class and I was in economy….

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Sydney, Incidentally

I am working in Australia for a week. It is mid-winter (allegedly) and people are wearing coats (as are many pets). Yet it is the same temperature here as it is in Scotland and really quite nice, all in all. I am at the University of Sydney working with colleagues on research about mechanisms to boost affordable housing supply in Australia, part of an AHURI project led by Nicole Gurran. I have spoken at three events and participated in three other more informal meetings. Next, we head on to Wellington to see family for a few days before returning to Glasgow and the actual start date of the UK collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) on August 1.

Several of the meetings have been directly relevant to the new housing evidence centre. I met Ian Winter, the director of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) and discussed the ‘space’ between housing research and housing policymaking and policy influencing. In recognising the common interests between us (CaCHE is loosely based on the AHURI model), we explored how we might work together. For me, it is clear that AHURI delivers some of the best housing research anywhere – there is much to learn from them.

I also participated in an interesting knowledge exchange event about social housing regulation chaired by Michael Lennon, formerly of Glasgow Housing Association. My job was to provide an overview of regulation in the UK and its key role in supporting both capacity and the wider evolution of the sector. Hal Pawson (University of New South Wales) contrasted the UK position with that in Australia and the need for a working, national, comprehensive system across Australia. While the UK regulatory system has changed several times over the last 25 years or so, and faces the considerable challenges of reclassification now, it has undoubtedly been an essential element in the growth, stability and progress of the sector.

The AHURI project on affordable housing supply involved a public lecture event (again, I was to identify and draw lessons from the UK) before we had an ‘inquiry panel’ day where the three projects that constitute our inquiry were discussed with policy and practice experts along with the research team and AHURI. The inquiry seeks to build an evidence base about affordable supply mechanisms across Australia, drawing on international evidence, and operating at different levels – from federal government and state down to specific sites and case studies. The material has all been categorised around recognition of local context, assessment of specific mechanisms and evaluation of outcomes on the ground

The inquiry panel day was a bit like a Joseph Rowntree Foundation advisory group meeting for a programme of research. It was an excellent discussion and it was great to hear the presentations from Nicole, Steven Rowley (Curtin) and Bill Randolph (UNSW) as well as the great contributions made throughout the day by Vivienne Milligan (UNSW). It is clear that there is considerable variety in practice across the country and that good things are going on in Western Australia, in particular. I was really impressed by the quality of the policy instruments discussion regarding the interplay between market, finance and planning. Bill and his colleagues presented a very helpful (and intuitive) stripped-down spreadsheet model of specific affordable/market developments which allow the user to vary policy and market assumptions and with which one can see the impact on key financial outcomes.

It has been a very enjoyable week with much to reflect on for CaCHE. Thanks to Nicole and her colleague Catherine Gilbert for all their help and hospitality while I have been in Sydney.