Andrew Little, my father-in-law, and New Zealand's housing crisis
New Labour leader Andrew Little has not played a prominent role in the debate over housing. Little is aware of the intensity of the debate over housing, and the frustration of so many New Zealanders at runaway prices, but he believes that Labour lost the last election partly because the public disliked its proposals for a capital gains tax. He wants to throw away that policy, but has not yet devised anything to take its place.
Recently my father-in-law, the educationalist Alan Wagstaff, e mailed Andrew Little to outline a policy that he believes might help alleviate New Zealand's housing crisis. I've reproduced Alan's e mail to Little, Little's reply, and I comment that I sent to Alan that tries to put his proposals into an historical context.]
Dear Mr. Andrew Little
- The land would not need to be accessible – or necessarily/even used by the new owners - it would be an asset that might be sold by them or used as collateral.
- The system would not try to be ‘universally fair’; merely 19,000 lots would be given away and thus would impact some struggling families in NZ – but not all.
- The system might impact (slow the rise or even lower the cost) the high price of land in this country via reduced demand.
- The allocation could be by random lottery type numbers to families only identified by code.
thanks for sharing that fascinating exchange with Andrew Little. It is encouraging to see him engaging with a voter who offers some policy advice. I've got my head in the nineteenth century right now, because of a research project, and I can't help but think of some precedents for the scheme you advocate.
I'm sending this message from my parents' place in Drury. A couple of kilometres away, at the edge of a forest, are a few dozen old and untended graves. They are the only visible remains of Peach Hill, one of scores of communities established by soldier-settlers and assisted migrants in the years after the Waikato War.
After invading and conquering the Waikato in 1863 and '64, the colonial government in Auckland needed to settle its new territories with loyal members of the British Empire. It gave blocks of land away to thousands of soldiers, and offered free passage as well as free land to Australians, Britons, and Irish willing to settle the Waikato.
Peach Hill was the new name for Te Maketu, an ancient pa and village that had been used as a lookout by Maori guerrillas during the early stages of the Waikato War. Te Maketu was part of the two million acres confiscated by the colonial government after the war. Its groves of fruit trees and terraced fields were divided into small plots and handed to a group of assisted emigrants from southwest Ireland. The emigrants raised dozens of houses and a Catholic church, took over the orchards Maori had established, and ran stock in their fields. Without a port or a good road, though, they struggled to find a market for their produce. Their settlement soon declined, as families left for the Coromandel, where gold had been discovered, or Auckland, where jobs could sometimes be found. The departees sold their plots for tiny sums to the Auckland moguls who had fomented the Waikato War.
Peach Hill was only one of a dozen or so settlements that were abandoned in the 1870s and '80s. Some of these settlements have been forgotten; others persist as misleading names on maps. Camerontown, which was named after the elderly British general who reluctantly led the invasion of the Waikato, is a few acres of bush behind Pukekohe; the blocks of nearby Harrisville, which bears the name of one of Cameron's subordinates, are filled with onions and potatoes rather than houses and shops.
You might argue that the Waikato settlements I've been discussing are not really relevant to the scheme you advocate, because you don't foresee the families who receive small pieces of land from the state actually having to occupy that land. These families might lease their plots, or use them as collateral for loans, or sell them outright.
But I think there is a second piece of New Zealand history that shows some of the difficulties involved in handing isolated fragments of land to people with few resources to develop that land.
In 1906 the Seddon government guided the South Island Landless Natives Act through parliament. The Act gave four thousand members of Kai Tahu, the main iwi of the South Island, ownership of nearly sixty thousand acres of land. These 'native reserves' were supposed to provide an economic base for South Island Maori, who had lost almost all of their land in the nineteenth century. But the land handed over in 1906 was inaccessible and often infertile, and much of it lay unused for decades.
Kai Tahu's reserves included a few pieces of the rainforest in the Caitlins region of Southland. When the iwi announced plans to log its forests, though, environmentalists protested, and the government intervened to protect the trees.
Only when Kai Tahu signed a Treaty settlement in 1998 did it win some genuinely valuable pieces of South Island countryside from the Crown.
I suspect that families who were gifted small pieces of land in remote parts of New Zealand would suffer some of the same frustrations as twentieth century Kai Tahu. If a family's plot of land could not be reached by a road, then it would surely be useless for most purposes. Even if it could be connected to a road, then zoning laws and environmental regulations would make its economic exploitation difficult, and make it impossible to use as collateral. An acre or so of scrubland on the side of a Fiordland mountain is not likely to fund the purchase of a house in Auckland.
I think that the examples of the postwar Waikato settlements an the Kai Tahu reserves show that the gifting of land is not the same, in New Zealand, as the gifting of economic security. (I could use other, and more recent, examples to try to make my point - the famous ohu scheme that saw Norm Kirk and Matiu Rata handing remote scraps of land to hippies who wanted to found communes, for example - but I'm sure I've gone on long enough already.)
I think that the housebuilding and buying schemes run by the Massey government after World War One and the first Labour government in the 1930s and '40s offer better models for a government serious about dealing with the housing crisis in Auckland and other New Zealand cities.
Although William Massey was a very conservative leader, he was afraid of the industrial conflict that poverty and poor housing conditions helped create in pre-war New Zealand. The Housing Act he introduced in 1919 saw local governments being paid to build low-cost houses that could be acquired without deposits. The first Labour government softened the pressure of market forces on the housing sector by building tens of thousands of state homes. Even the Key government seems belatedly and reluctantly to have admitted that it needs to intervene in the housing market: this week it offered two hundred million dollars to build low-income homes in East Auckland.
New Zealand history suggests to me that building in the cities, rather than gifting remote pieces of land, is the way to help families into homes.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]