One bridge too far and one house too many
The National Government has been aware of some major issues for many years. Northland's poverty and substandard infrastructure was apparent when they first came to power in 2008 and National Ministers were given clear advice about the social housing shortage at the same time. However, the priorities for this Government have never been shaped by the advice it has been given but the agenda that it came with. Lower taxes for the rich, less regulation for businesses, more flexibility for employers and lots of new motorways to enable the growing numbers of luxury cars to travel freely.
This Government does not see supporting our most vulnerable families and children as one of its key roles and it has generally tried to shift that responsibility to the private sector and voluntary organisations. The provision of early childhood centres in less affluent communities (to enable parents to return to work) was made into a business opportunity and voluntary organisations and corporates were seen as best meeting the needs of hungry children.
The National Party and many of its supporters believe in individual responsibility and generally don't understand that the environment and society they are creating actually causes a greater number of people to lose the ability to live independently and is actually limiting choices and opportunities for our most vulnerable.
According to Paula Bennett, hungry children are the result of irresponsible parenting, not due to a low wage economy and welfare benefits that don't cover living expenses. The mantra of Bennett and her Government is that getting parents into work is the best solution for child poverty and yet while 95% of New Zealanders are employed, we still have 25% of our children suffering in relative poverty and having to live in substandard and overcrowded houses. We have the fastest growing inequality in the OECD and one of the worst records for child welfare.
The National Party's approach to the bye-election campaign actually sums up its general approach to governance. Here is an electorate that suffers more than any other from unemployment and child poverty and National decides that ten new bridges will make the biggest difference. That bridges were considered the biggest concern for Northland voters was extraordinary, but what was even more shocking was the lack of consultation. The bridges chosen came from a rough guess from the campaign team with no reference to what the NZTA considered were priorities and no thorough cost benefit analysis was involved. Bill English's explanation of the process used was embarrassing.
The National Government's management of social housing is equally as frightening as how they determined the needs of Northland. It has ignored the housing crisis for most of the past six years and refused to intervene in an overheated property market that has made us one of the most expensive countries for housing in the world. It appears that it is more important to protect the capital gains for the most wealthy than ensure all New Zealanders had access to good homes.
The Government has attempted to justify the sale of state houses by claiming many are not meeting needs and that the Salvation Army and other non-government agencies were keen to have a role in providing social housing. Both were clearly misrepresentations of the reality. The Salvation Army had never been properly consulted and yet found themselves being promoted as having a major role in the policy. They ended up using a considerable amount of their meagre resources to investigate the logistics of managing social housing and discovered that it wasn't fiscally possible.
Bill English's claim that a third of state houses "were in the wrong place, were the wrong size or the tenancies were mismatched" has proved to be a huge exaggeration when Housing NZ's own advice did not support it. It turns out that there has been inadequate spending on maintenance and more houses are deemed unsuitable for tenancy because of that than anything else. English even tried to blame the previous Labour Government (over six years before) for the $1.2 billion worth of deferred maintenance.
Even if one regarded the provision of social housing in economic terms the advantages available to the government in terms of low cost financing and the economies of scale involved when tendering out the construction of large numbers of houses are obvious. If private developers were given the responsibility of providing low cost housing then profit, rather than social good, would drive construction and low quality homes and poorly designed communities are more likely to result.
As the justification for the sale of state houses becomes less convincing by the day, Metiria Turei was able to establish that there wasn't even an expectation that the sale of houses would be contingent on meeting the needs of low income tenants. Again the Government is more interested in supporting private sector profits than the growing social need. In 2006 1 in every 120 New Zealanders were homeless and this statistic is likely to be much worse once the 2013 census is analysed. Almost 5,000 are currently on Housing NZ's high priority waiting lists and based on the 2006 statistics probably around 40,000 New Zealanders would be considered homeless now.
I guess construction firms and developers will be rubbing their hands with glee as more opportunities fall into their ample laps and the many thousands of struggling families will just have to wait even longer to be noticed.
POSTSCRIPT: Dita Di Boni from the Herald reveals that the privatising of social housing in the UK has been a dismal failure, contrary to what Bill English has been claiming. Criticising the performance of Housing NZ, while deliberately restricting its funding for maintenance, appears to be a strategy to create a sense of failure that isn't justified. Governments are better placed to provide quality social housing than the private sector.