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Opinion: Press conferences don’t build houses

The Labour Party won office with a plan to solve Auckland’s housing crisis. The key to its success will be how it delivers on its Kiwibuild promise of 100,000 new homes over the next ten years, with 50,000 in Auckland.

And that’s a big headache for the man charged with doing it, Phil Twyford. He’s given no indication he appreciates the scale of the task he’s been set.

Not a single house has been built yet. Voters will be less understanding when Labour comes up for re-election in 2020, and serious progress will have to be made.

He has said that the Government plans to build “12 to 15” developments the size of Auckland’s new Hobsonville Point suburb, all “running simultaneously”.

It sounds great. But press conferences don’t build houses.

The minister’s model, Hobsonville Point, is a success story. Around 4500 medium density homes, including apartments, will eventually be built, by government partnerships and the private sector, including iwi over the past decade. It’s the biggest project of its kind in decades.

His predecessor Nick Smith was laughed out of town in 2015 when he took journalists on a “magical mystery” bus tour of a dozen school playing fields and empty lots where he planned to build enough houses to solve Auckland’s crisis.

Solving Auckland’s housing crisis means more than jamming people anywhere they will fit.

Twyford meanwhile promises he has found over a dozen locations to put in 70,000 houses and apartments over the next decade, and that they will all be built at the same time, even though construction firms are already having to bring in immigrant subcontrators to finish the business as usual work they have on the books. 

It beggars belief. 

And even one Hobsonville Point has not been without challenges. Solving Auckland’s housing crisis means more than jamming people anywhere they will fit.

Already in this new greenfields suburb, the strain of growth is starting to show. 

Just last week, news emerged that the community’s commuter ferry service was reaching capacity. The ferry company has warned residents to make other arrangements to travel to the city for work. The only options are a 70-minute bus ride or, worse, more traffic clogging Auckland’s motorways for a much longer commute.

And Hobsonville Point isn’t finished yet. Thousands more people are due to move into homes in the next year as the next tranche of development is completed.

People want to live in Auckland because it is where they have jobs, family and social connections. New developments need to be accessible to the rest of the city. As Transport Minister that will be Twyford’s job, too, and he’s already dropped the ball.  

If the land is found, and the Government can reach deals with relevant iwi and private owners, there’s the remaining issue of actually building houses.

From the top floors of the Beehive, it can seem like the answer to every problem is as simple as the stroke of a pen. Authorise more money. Sign off some new regulations.

Strategic plans and policies don’t make reliable, safe homes for New Zealanders. 

Look at Fletcher Building. It should give Twyford some pause for thought that the biggest construction firm in New Zealand struggles to translate grand construction plans into reality. 

Our biggest construction company has lost $660 million on major projects, and says it won’t be taking on any more big contracts in that area. Its failures have been blamed on the disconnect between the company’s corporate strategies, and its board’s lack of experience in the construction sector.

It’s also not too helpful that the major industry player of scale is struggling before Kiwibuild has started.

And right we when we need a large, skilled workforce and capital from investors, that will have to come at least in part from overseas, it's not encouraging that Twyford led the charge against people with “Chinese-sounding names” in opposition. 

Right now Labour’s big plan lacks land, infrastructure and people. It also, on the available evidence, lacks a realistic understanding of what it is attempting. And with a projected budget of $2 billion, any errors could make the Fletcher Building losses look like pocket money.  

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