A panel at a big infrastructure conference in Auckland has blasted authorities for being all talk and no action over desperately-needed housing and transport fixes

Employers and Manufacturers Association boss Kim Campbell must have been listening to minister of getting-it-done Phil Twyford with steam coming out of his ears. In opening the Building Nations Symposium, the Housing and Development Minister, and Minster for Transport, told a packed hall at the Viaduct Events Centre that gone are the days of nickel and diming between Auckland and Wellington. The tax system would be changed to put a halt to the New Zealand mentality that the only way to get rich is from real estate. Billions being invested in transport for Auckland. The city building up and out. He talked about releasing in the coming weeks a comprehensive plan for the new and powerful Urban Development Authority, a tool to respond to pressing housing issues that are holding back the economic development of the nation.

A couple of hours later Campbell was ready to let rip. 

“Unless the minister declares martial law in the housing industry he is not going to get anything done,” he said. 

He railed against a “culture of wet cement”, where risk-averse public servants were too scared to act in fear of making a decision that wouldn’t be popular or would be changed by an incoming government. “We have a situation where we are forever waiting on all the different stakeholders who claim to have a stake in the game.” Campbell called it “institutional rigor mortis”. 

He used ATAP (the Auckland Transport Alignment Project) as an example, saying three years after its joyous release nothing had been done – “not a single hole has been dug or traffic light put in place”.

Campbell made a plea for the assembled infrastructure movers and shakers to demand more – “Ask for greater pace. We need businesses to have (certainty) or we will be sitting here with the same problems in 20 years.” He also challenged them, asking if they had the bandwidth and leadership to do all that’s needed. “Our kids will be asking, ‘What were you thinking about?’”

Housing strategist Leonie Freeman believes she has the answer, and spoke about a push for unified action that she has been working on for nearly two years now, designed to move everyone out of their silos to work together. 

She says in spite of all the focus on housing, we still do not have a clear vision and targets that we are all in behind to solve.  

“We need a much more joined up solution that’s focused on delivering outcomes,” she told Newsroom after speaking on the panel. Her “Collective Impact Initiative” is a structured framework aimed at “getting past the politics, the egos, the game-playing and the finger-pointing and realising that no single person or organisation can solve something as complex as housing by themselves”. The idea would bring together a whole lot of silo groups with a common vision. 

“At the moment we have lots of people doing smart things but they keep getting blocked and stopped,” she says. “There is nowhere to go to fix these things.”

There’s also a lot of cynicism in the sector over plans that never amount to anything. As an example Freeman mentions MBIE’s scheme to free up Crown land in Auckland for housing. “Companies went through the long procurement process which costs time and money … they got on panels. Out of all that, one project happens. This happens quite regularly. We need to stop these knee-jerk reactions between political changes.

“If the Labour Government is only a one-term government, the whole KiwiBuild might stop.”

Freeman’s initiative had good support from developers, infrastructure providers, the community housing sector, and from Auckland Council’s previous regime. But Freeman says current mayor Phil Goff decided not to support it, and to take over the job himself. A report from the Mayoral Housing Taskforce, with 34 recommendations, was released last May. 

“It was a good report. It didn’t have a lot on implementation but it said it would produce quarterly updates. There hasn’t been one quarterly update in over a year on those 34 recommendations.”

However there was still some momentum from her previous work so those involved – including the council – got together in February. “But a few weeks after that the mayor announced that he wanted to lead the coordination – which is absolutely fine, they’ve got resource. So I’ve said we’ll get behind the mayor but nothing has happened. We can’t find anyone to deal with, there’s been no reporting. 

“We’ve got to get past the talking, and this being a political issue. We have to have a serious focus on delivering outcomes. We have to have a long-term plan, irrespective of our political cycles. We’ve got to get all the players around the table that are involved. We’ve got to be prepared to have some courageous conversations that deal with and solve a lot of the barriers and blockages. 

“A lot of them aren’t sexy and they’re not going to appear in the media. But these issues are what is stopping things happening.”

One of those unsexy blockages is a lack of data on the problem. Auckland Council details building consents issued, but has only been collecting information on its own sign-off numbers (Code of Compliance Completion) for the last two years. “We’re not measuring how we’re going,” says Freeman. “We know we need about 14,000 houses built every year for the next 30 years to meet demand. There’s about a shortfall of 46,000 to 50,000. There is no data underneath that. We don’t know the price points, the size of housing, the location. Are they fulfilling what we actually need? What’s in the pipeline? We need to understand the demand side better.

“We need measurement all along the way to ensure that when we pull the lever, we get the right results.”

And Freeman says at the end of the day the public service is not where we should be placing our trust to solve the housing crisis – some disruption is required, and it has to come from the housing and infrastructure sector which has a long-term interest in fixing the problem. 

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