David Hargreaves challenges the Government to let common sense prevail – and axe its proposed state housing sale

Short headline: 
Don't risk a state house fire sale

By David Hargreaves

During a brief foray into the world of public relations many moons ago, I picked up a piece of information/knowledge that was like gold.

It went something like this: When being questioned by the news media, under no circumstances should the person being interviewed ever repeat in their answer either the question, or parts of the question, that they have just been asked.

For example, what should the retort be if you are faced by the question: "Do you beat up your partner?"

Well, the answer to this question should be something along the lines of: "I have the utmost respect for my partner and treat them very well at all times."

The completely wrong answer – and it's a good game to listen to interviews and see how often the interview subject gets this wrong – would be: "I don't beat up my partner."

The essential problem with the second answer is that while it does an immediate job in answering the question, it sounds defensive, it puts negative words in the person's mouth, and it opens up the person to having the words repeated in isolation – without the much needed context and explanation that the words were actually used in response to a question.

Even worse, when people see such words associated with someone, they unconsciously in their own minds start to remove the denial part of the statement. "I don't beat up my partner" starts to morph into "I beat up my partner". Oh, yes, you do, I bet you do. I know you do.

I use that example because I felt the Government's attempts to get the public on board with their, well, I'll humour them and use their term: "social housing reform programme"  had more than a little of the "definitely don't beat up my partner" feel. I tried to make some sense of all this in a recent opinion article on the subject.

I was magnetised in particular by question 11 in the question and answer paper produced by the Government at the end of January in explanation of the policy. The question stated: "Is this all about selling state houses?" To which my internal dialogue immediately responded: "Why, yes. Of course, it is."

It may therefore come as some surprise that the "real" answer, well, at least the official one, was: "No. It's about better meeting the needs of tenants…", etc, etc, etc, etc, etc.

But I'm afraid from that moment on I have been very much in "beating partner" mode and have formed the view that this is really all about selling state houses because if the Government's denying it, then it must be.

And why does the Government want to sell state houses?

Because that's the sort of thing a National Party should do.

We had the "mixed ownership model" plan for state assets put in place between 2013 and 2014, which for the uninitiated involved flogging off part of some of the Crown's assets.

Because that's the sort of thing a National Party should do.

Power companies sold cheaply

Even though the timing of the partial float of the state power companies was not good, the Government went ahead, with a result that the taxpayer has in all probability seen half their shares in those companies sold too cheaply.

As I have been leading to in developing this article, I think the real problem here for the Government has been dressing up an asset sale as if it were some improved social policy. And it seems clear enough that the real motivating factor is pursuing some type of National Party "privatisation good, state ownership bad" ideological dogma.

Now the Salvation Army has dealt a big blow to this "social housing reform programme" and specifically the plan to sell up to 2000 state houses this year by saying it won't be a buyer. The Labour Party says the sale plan is "turning to dust". And as Monday (March 23) wore on more and more parties were seemingly climbing into the proposals, critical of them.

I think the real problem here is that no one really understands what the Government is trying to achieve in the longer term, including the Government. It just, well, wants to sell houses, because it SHOULD.

This Government has started from an ideological position of deciding to sell state houses and then has looked for reasons to justify that.

Difficult to justify

Having read much of the background material prepared for the Government, I thought it was clear that officials had really struggled to try to justify the Government's plan to shift more control of "social" housing from the state to community groups.

Consider this gem from material prepared for Cabinet, which states as one of the reasons for transferring ownership of state houses to community groups: "They [the community groups] bring new approaches to supporting tenants and can deliver integrated, wraparound, support services to the benefit of tenants."

I'm not even sure what all that means and I don't know if the person who wrote it does either.

The issue that always loomed as the large animal with the trunk in the room was how were community groups supposed to pay for these houses?

Or did the Government perhaps realise early on that they wouldn't be able to?

Ironically, I think if the Government had simply approached the subject from the perspective of saying: "The land that some state houses are on is very valuable, we could make good returns by selling it" then they would be more likely to find a groundswell of support. I would support that in principle.

Big sections

You only have to look around, Auckland particularly, to see a lot of average-sized state houses on very large sections. It makes abundant sense to go for more compact styles of state/social housing and to sell off these large sections for good money as redevelopment sites or even, heaven forbid, have the Government partner in redeveloping them itself.

If the Government really wants to flog off some state house sites then it should be upfront and say that is the intention. Then it can sell them to the highest bidder and get good returns for the taxpayer.

My concern would be that if it keeps up this pretence of this all being about some sort of great social housing reform then it may yet attempt to cobble together shaky deals whereby community groups form "consortia" with property wheeler dealers, buy the state houses cheaply and then allow the property wheeler dealers to maximise profits from on-selling some of the sites later.

I think that scenario is eminently possible and would definitely fit in the category of privatising profits and letting the taxpayer take losses.

I think the Government should call a halt to these current plans now and go back to the drawing board.

The priority – the real one – has to be made clear.

If the Government is determined to sell state houses then  let's have its proposals dressed up as they really are – state asset sales – and let's have a set of proposals that maximise returns for the taxpayers and, who knows, maybe help with Auckland's housing supply problem along the way.