By Alex Tarrant
The government has not seen any reason to loosen migration settings to allow for more house building in Auckland, despite the construction industry hitting its buffers, Prime Minister Bill English says.
English backed comments made by Housing NZ Minister Amy Adams last week that the government felt unable to announce a larger state-led house building programme over the next decade than it had done, due primarily to constrains faced by the construction industry.
Constraints were led by skills shortages, English told media at his post-cabinet press conference on Monday afternoon. Asked whether the government should then loosen settings to allow for greater levels of building, he said migration levels for the industry were “about right,” as employers were able to tap migrant labour, but that the shortages also meant locals were being trained.
“We’re going to build for growth and get the skills in where there’s gaps, and New Zealanders are getting trained,” English said. “It’s the best opportunity in a generation – two generations – for anyone who’s interested in a trade.”
English was asked whether the promise of being able to source migrant labour might be a disincentive for the construction industry to invest in training locals. It was also put to him that, if the government had been planning its Auckland housing announcement for two years, then couldn’t it have started working earlier on ways to boost the local construction workforce?
The construction industry had grown at 20% compound growth – six times faster than the economy – for the last four or five years, English said. This could only be done with a combination of migrant labour and training more locals.
BCITO had got “thousands of apprentices – the highest number it’s ever had,” he said. The industry was training locals because it had “a long-steady pipeline” of work out ahead of it. “And they’ve been using some skilled migrants as well.”
English admitted shortages were a constraint. He said he was “pleased that the National Party has defended, and will continue to defend, migration policy that allows for the skills to come in to build our infrastructure and our houses.”
He used the example of Christchurch as showing National’s stance had worked. “Because we allowed migration of skilled people, the houses have been built, house prices in Christchurch are flat to falling. And that is a pretty good result from pretty intense demand in Christchurch.”
English used the opportunity to attack Labour’s stances on Auckland house building and migration. He claimed KiwiBuild was in fact a “no-build policy,” as Labour was opposed to the Point England development and Three Kings project.
“There’s no credibility in a policy if you can’t say, where they’re going to be built, how you’re going to pay for them, [and] particularly how you’re going to get a council to make the decisions that will allow the houses to be built. Because government doesn’t make those decisions; councils make them.”
And at the same time, talking about cutting migration numbers by the tens of thousands was “just dumb,” he said.
Labour defends KiwiBuild, migration, skills policies
Labour’s housing spokesman Phil Twyford had already defended against the accusations over the weekend on TV3’s The Nation.
Twyford attacked the announcement from Adams that between 20-50% of National’s planned Auckland Housing Plan properties would be priced at or under $650,000.
“Is $650,000 affordable? You know, that’s [their] definition of affordability, and the reason they use it is because that’s the threshold for people who get a HomeStart subsidy. By definition, if they need a government subsidy to buy a $650,000 house, I don’t think it is affordable,” Twyford said.
Labour was promising to deliver townhouses, flats and apartments in Auckland for under $500,000 and stand-alone houses for under $600,000, he said.
He attacked National for using the Hobsonville development as an example of providing affordable housing. While Hobsonville had “been a success commercially and design-wise…fewer than 20% of the homes at Hobsonville are affordable by the government’s own definition. Almost half of them cost over $1 million.”
“They’ve taken a multi-billion-dollar development of prime publicly owned land. The first thing National did was strip out all of the state housing, because it said that allowing low-income families to live there would be economic vandalism. The number of affordable houses is far too low. We need affordable homes for first-home buyers.”
Asked where Labour would aim to put its 100,000 KiwiBuild properties nationwide – half are set for Auckland – Twyford said New Zealand did not have a land shortage. However, “we have a highly restrictive planning system that chokes off the supply of new land. Labour’s going to free up those controls and allow cities to grow up and out.”
“We’re going to build large urban development projects, many of them around the railway network in Auckland. So, places like Henderson, Manukau, Mt Wellington, Onehunga, Panmure, Avondale,” Twyford said. The Auckland Council had already identified those sites for development, he added.
National lacked ambition, Twyford said. “Their approach is confined to knocking down state houses and building private houses on that land. We are going to take a much broader, more productive approach.”
“We are going to work with the council, we are going to work with Ngati Whatua, we’re going to work with other investors. And if necessary, we will buy private land to develop,” he said. While Labour hadn’t been able to identify what private land it might buy, it would set up an Affordable Housing Authority to make decisions.
On funding, Labour was going to give Housing New Zealand $2bn to kick off Kiwibuild – the same level as what National is proposing for its Auckland Housing Plan.
And on the construction workforce, Twyford said Labour planned on growing the local workforce of skilled tradespeople.
“National has completely failed to build the New Zealand workforce. They haven’t invested in the apprentices and the professions to do this work. Now, if we have to, we will rely on skilled tradespeople. We’ll bring in electricians, plumbers and carpenters from overseas if we have to,” he said.
“The reason it’s called an immigration policy is we get to choose who comes here. So we will choose the electricians, the plumbers and the carpenters instead of bringing people to this country to flip burgers and pump gas.”