An existential Auckland housing debate during Parliament's Question Time: Do land bankers even exist? Also, building consents vs code compliance certificates (and Nick Smith's defective knob)

By Alex Tarrant

The government on Thursday fought back against accusations from Labour and the Greens that Special Housing Areas (SHAs) legislation had in fact encouraged land banking and not building in certain areas, as some land owners might have been incentivised to wait for the temporary law to expire to get around affordable housing criteria.

We even got a bit existential during Parliament’s Question Time, with National’s Leader of the House Simon Bridges questioning whether land bankers even existed or not. “There is no such thing,” Bridges proclaimed as he opposed Labour’s Phil Twyford tabling a ‘grrrr’ letter from Nick Smith in 2015 to stickler land owners who had been granted SHA status but not yet built anything.

That old debate over whether we should go with building consent data or code compliance certificates (CCCs) as the definitive reading of building completion also came up. On the code compliance issue, regular readers will be pleased to know that Nick Smith’s defective knob was raised in Parliament again (read on if that doesn’t make any sense).

It was a day of battles over numbers really, with Labour’s finance spokesman Grant Robertson also going head to head with Finance Minister Steven Joyce over who could find scenarios within Stats NZ’s youth NEETs (not in education, employment or training) data that backed their respective arguments of more vs fewer youth being left out of the system.

For those keeping score, there were more NEETs in the June quarter this year than last year (point to Robertson), but fewer in June this year than in each of the previous March, December and September quarters (one-all?). The debate continued on Twitter with Robertson inviting Joyce to debate him at Wellington’s Beervana. 

Land bankers – do they even exist?

Greens co-leader James Shaw began proceedings by putting to the Prime Minister that affordable housing requirements for SHAs may have encouraged land owners to apply for consents, but then wait until the legislation expired before building so they wouldn’t have to meet affordability criteria. Shaw pointed to the 25 SHAs that experienced no building activity since approval, as reported here.

Finance Minister Steven Joyce, responding on behalf of Bill English (he’s never at Question Time on Thursdays), sought to deflect the criticism by telling Shaw the government’s plans were working to make housing more affordable: Prices in Auckland were falling, and more houses were being built than before.

As Shaw raised that over 2,000 homes consented hadn’t been built, Joyce responded with building consent figures showing that over 10,000 homes had been consented in Auckland over the past year and that levels were their highest in five years. He even had a few anecdotes to throw around, including that 1,000 apartments were currently being built in Albany alone.

Twyford then took up the mantle, asking Smith whether MBIE officials still believed Auckland’s housing shortage would last until 2030, given current build rates. Remember, PM English on Wednesday argued that whatever the shortage was, it should be gone within a few years.

Accepting resumption of their regular debate with glee, Smith said Twyford was misrepresenting the MBIE advice. In fact, it was a fruitless exercise trying to predict what might have happened in 13 years’ time because of the variability in both Auckland’s population growth and house building output, he argued.

Into the figures. How could we close the gap if only half of Auckland’s required 14,000 houses a year were built in the previous year, Twyford put to Smith. Again, the response was that Labour’s man was being disingenuous.

Twyford was referring to code compliance certificates, Smith let on to the House. And these don’t count units completed in retirement villages, he said. In fact, 10,400 Auckland consents had been issued in the last year, with Stats NZ research indicating 98% of these would eventually be built, Smith argued.

Why rely on what Stats terms an experimental series and not Auckland Council’s own completion numbers, Twyford fired back. Because you’re not required to actually get a CCC, Smith replied.

In fact, he himself had just finished building a house in Nelson which hadn’t got a CCC. A bit of history: This is because of a defective knob on a gas fireplace. (Hopefully that clears it up for the earlier confused.) Also, it might be that one CCC is issued for a 50-unit apartment block, Smith continued.

A change of tack from Twyford saw him refer to Stats NZ’s trend series in its building consents data, which showed the trend for monthly consents falling over the past six months. This may have been the case, but it didn’t mean Smith had to pay any attention to it; he was still able to point to the actual numbers still rising, no matter what the trend. “The fact is, we’ve got the biggest building boom ever in Auckland.”

Watch Robertson vs Joyce below: