Is Goff reinventing the wheel to solve housing crisis?

9:46 am on 9 December 2016

Analysis - What happens when a respected 30-year veteran of Parliament becomes the Mayor of Auckland and locks horns with the city's most critical and intractable problem?

So far, it's the convening of a Taskforce on Housing that may last only months, and in the words of the mayor Phil Goff, cost the council "a morning tea and a couple of muffins".

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Photo: RNZ / Supplied

His description may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it raises questions, which Mr Goff will need to answer, about how he's adapting to the more collegial and collaborative world of local government.

In winning the mayoralty, Mr Goff campaigned strongly on the need to address Auckland's housing crisis. A shortfall of homes - 40,000 and worsening - and record unaffordability.

The short and unusual path to yesterday's announcement of the Taskforce warrants a revisit.

On Tuesday, strategist Leonie Freeman canned what she described as her philanthropic initiative to create a multi-sector entity tasked with ensuring 125,000 homes were built in Auckland in a decade.

Ms Freeman, a past senior manager at Housing New Zealand and a director of listed company Goodman Property, had spent six months on the idea but found there was no interest at either the Auckland Council or government.

She told Morning Report the council's rejection said the decision reflected "the views of the mayor".

Later in the day, the mayor's office told RNZ Mr Goff was in fact working on a taskforce, something he'd not mentioned in an interview the previous day.

Mr Goff's decision surprised both council staff who'd spent years working on housing and the former deputy mayor Penny Hulse, who'd led that work and promoted Ms Freeman's idea within the council.

An informal multi-sector group, formed by Ms Hulse in the second council term, had met just the previous day, continuing its work, unaware of Mr Goff's intentions.

Mr Goff, in a 13-minute recorded interview, part of which played on Checkpoint, confirmed he had not discussed the taskforce idea either with Ms Hulse or the council's specialist housing staff.

"The discussion was mainly between myself, the chair of the planning committee Chris Darby, and the deputy mayor Bill Cashmore, who are key players," said Mr Goff.

"Penny Hulse had been overseas at C40 so missed a couple of meetings, but the person now in charge of the planning committee is Chris Darby."

The mayor said the Taskforce idea emerged from a meeting last week with the Minister for Building and Housing Nick Smith.

"The Minister said, 'do you want to continue the Housing Accord, or something fresh?' And my preference is for something fresh," he told RNZ.

Mr Goff wants to assemble public and private sector players and government representatives perhaps before Christmas, but more likely in the New Year.

The Taskforce will scan all the barriers getting in the way of more rapid home-building, make recommendations, and pass them to the the minister by mid-year.

Mr Goff said he preferred that practical, and "morning-tea" level approach to Ms Freeman's initiative, the next stage of which would have cost $250,000.

The two approaches couldn't be more different.

The mayor's taskforce will traverse the list of known hurdles, such as the cost of infrastructure, a skills shortage, the rising cost of building materials and more.

The list may resemble some which have been compiled since - and probably before - the Productivity Commission's March 2012 report on Housing Affordability.

The answers may well be left in the hands of the government to implement, or not, as it wishes.

Ms Freeman's $250,000 next stage, of which the council might have been asked to contribute $50 - $100,000, would have created an entity whose work may not have been done for a decade.

It would have not only weighed up problems, and sought answers, but then been responsible for ensuring the construction of the homes.

Whether it would have worked will never be known.

Whether Mr Goff's Taskforce will work, could be known by mid-2017.

It will need to rise above the circumstances of its creation within the mayoral office, and without the reference to council personnel behind a large body of research, and with knowledge of Auckland's housing woes.