Monday, 12 August 2013

Fear not, young home-buyers!

The National Party seems to reserve its party conferences for announcements of the feel-good but ineffective. Yesterday their leader, John Key, announced changes to NZ housing policies. If they have any effect at all, it will be negative.

The “big idea”—virtually the only idea in a conference billed by Bill English and Steven Joyce as “the conference of good ideas”—is to raise the house values under which buyers may attract a Kiwisaver or “Welcome Home” subsidy; and to raise this subsidy from bugger all to not much.

Even his audience of party faithful yawned—perhaps because it was accompanied by news that first-home buyers will also need a much greater deposit if they’re ever to get a mortgage, and perhaps because they knew that if this “big idea” will have any effect at all it will only be to raise demand, and as everyone knows the problems in New Zealand housing  are all on the supply side.  And increased demand raises prices.

But fear not, young home-buyers. Your ruling party has announced “big changes” on the supply side as well—changes to the Resource Management Act itself, the RMA, under whose iniquitous control all home-owners suffer. Unfortunately, those changes are about as big as their “big ideas” are small.

They range from the risible (make councils publish their fees, and put their District Plans on the internet!) to the ineffective—“a 10-day fast-track consent process for the simplest and most straightforward projects", which any council officer worth his salt will be able to get around by asking stupid questions to “stop the clock.” And if they know anything, it’s how to ask stupid questions.

Not to mention the requirement that “councils will be required to engage better with … local iwi.” Which “engagement” gives tribes even greater control over property that is not theirs’, and leads to consent processes involving this sort of thing.  Not mention this.

Oh yes, and then there’s the “housing accord” the Nats intend to agree with Auckland, to allow some house builders on some specified part of Auckland to build some houses outside the planners’ ring fence. A fig leaf of permissiveness in a sea of planning control.

Frankly, all of the changes—from not-so-big to not-so-serious—are as a pimple on the big bum of the biggest problem, which is that land-owners, home-builders and home-buyers are not free to contract with each other without a planner butting his nose in.

The problem, in other words, is not the details of the RMA. The problem is and always has been the idea of the RMA itself.

To build a shed on a farm costs more in consenting costs than building the shed. To subdivide land is about as chancy as buying a lotto ticket. Building a new house will see home-builders spending longer getting consents than they will getting subcontractors on site.  (Not to mention the fees, development levies, and various financial burdens imposed on consent applicants by councils under the powers given them by the RMA.)

The delays, costs, uncertainties and impositions of waiting (and hoping) for consents to be approved by cardiganned council planners spouting gobbledygook  have caused would-be home-builders around the country to take up fishing instead.

The problem at the heart of the RMA is that it requires people go to councils, cap-in-hand, and beg for the privilege to spend money building useful things on their own property.

This is the problem. The really big problem. It gives control over cities to those with ideas overflowing with grandomania, and takes it away from those who really own things and want to get on with improving them.

We need to resurrect the ancient assumption that property owners can do what they wish, construct what they wish, on their own land, just as long as they do not harm surrounding landowners—bring back the common law that has seven-hundred years of sophistication in protecting both the environment and property rights.

Only when the RMA is dead and buried can this basic ideal of freedom and affordability be realised.

If Environment Minister Amy Adams starts talking about Small Consents Tribunals or a codification of basic common law principles I’ll be much more impressed. Until then, don’t talk to me about her party’s “big ideas.”


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