Social Housing Works Best Under Local Authority Control

In New Zealand we have a perennial debate about the interaction and service distribution between central government and local authority control. This happens because the country does not have any form of state government. Instead, there is one central (federal) government based in Wellington, and two tiers of local government with far less powers and limited delegation from Wellington. As such, Wellington tends to focus on national programmes and policies, with less accountability at a local level for the people who benefit from these programmes and the communities they live in. The value of local authority control is most evident in our public health system where our DHBs have elected membership, and to a lesser extent in the various services provided by territorial and regional authorities. However, in places like the UK where there is no state governance either, the State compulsory education system has long been placed under local authority control in spite of efforts to undermine it or give control back to the central government departments.

Whilst the blog authorship aren’t always big fans of local government administration, and see the need for Wellington to become involved where central governance is clearly in the national interest, such as situations where local governance is clearly incompetent, or where there is significant conflict or turf wars between different local government authorities, local management can often result in more cohesive and inclusive communities that are of greater benefit to all of their residents. This is quite evident in the operation of the social housing network in Christchurch City, although somewhat clouded by a poorly considered amendment to the District Plan severely restricting the requirement for public notification or consultation in any social housing development in the city. Furthermore the new local council social housing system introduced in Christchurch recently with the creation of Otautahi Community Housing Trust means that Wellington funds the construction and maintenance costs of the housing through its Income Related Rents tenancy policies, which for a number of years have been extended to community social housing when they were formerly only available to tenants of Housing New Zealand (Kainga Ora).

In Christchurch, to qualify for Income Related Rent subsidies, the City Council has retained ownership of the properties and leased them to OCHT (subsequently, some ownership of existing and all new properties has been transferred to OCHT). CCC has a minority shareholding in OCHT (49%) to qualify for IRRs. It lends capital to OCHT for the construction of new units. This cost is recovered by setting an appropriate rate of market rental for the properties, which is then received either from the Government through Kainga Ora for tenants who qualify for Income Related Rent, less the amount of rental paid by the tenant, or as the actual rental charged for tenants who are not eligible for Income Related Rent. Hence, OCHT is effectively self funding through the rental subsidies. The debacle currently in Wellington City Council and Nelson City Council over the future funding of their social housing, resulting in the NCC selling to Kainga Ora, shows that other local authorities have not bothered to fully investigate the option taken up by CCC, although there is a caveat in that only new tenancies can access the IRR subsidy. In other words, a transition to IRR funded tenancies could only occur over time as tenancies turn over, and long term social housing tenants could miss out or only be able to access more expensive Accommodation Supplement subsidised tenancies in council funded accommodation.

Local control of major social service schemes such as social housing or health are very important for ensuring these services are as well tailored to local needs and integrated into local communities as they possibly can be. Our experience with our local DHBs has proven the worth of this, albeit there is too much variance of service quality, particularly in smaller rural DHBs because of inadequate central government funding provision. In the case of social housing in particular, CCC has shown itself to have a significantly better community focus than Kainga Ora, due to local political accountability, with more community social service input into the services provided to their tenants. The real issue is that Kainga Ora is a government department run by bureaucrats in Wellington which is a key component of the overall thrust of 20 years or more of Government service level cuts agenda to reduce provision of social services overall. Kainga Ora has the essential task as part of this agenda of providing accommodation for high needs tenants who are transferred into the community from other government agencies (such as mental health or corrections) without sufficient support to integrate them, with the clear intention of reducing the cost to government and transferring the costs and impacts onto residential communities. This is why these communities have mounted and continue to mount strident opposition to Kainga Ora housing developments such as the recent Flagstaff proposal in Hamilton which often involve development of dozens of residential units in medium to high density on single sites. This represents a regressive return to the previous development of large Housing New Zealand estates in parts of urban New Zealand cities which subsequently have become notorious ghettos. What is needed apart from keeping social housing as much as possible in local government control is the Government itself being willing to address widespread concerns over the impacts of its social policies that are not actually making meaningful efforts to address issues such as these, as they have become “too hard” for Ministers.

Quick Reflection

Why does this blog exist? What is it for?

When this blog was set up it was suggested the blog wouldn’t write about many things. Having launched it, that has been the case. Only a few posts have been made to date.

Author/s behind this blog are deeply compassionate and deeply moved by social injustice in society. However, Author/s have launched other similar blogs in the past that quickly became all consuming and dealt with a lot more politics than was desirable. Author/s find that it is difficult to blog a lot and stay out of becoming too focused on politics. Politics is a divisive force, and Author/s circles of friends have few that are interested in political discussion hence Author/s prefer to focus on interests that engage more people and are less divisive, therefore personally more rewarding.

The main reason more posts aren’t appearing on this blog is the dilemma of attempting to find subjects that are important enough to meet a necessarily high bar and also don’t descend too much to a personal level. It’s much easier to write about the government or some other institution than flag the policies of one particular cabinet minister or MP.

Given the current situation therefore, where there is a constant tension between trying to find worthwhile topics to blog about, and refraining from making posts that are overly critical at a personal level, it’s unclear at this stage if the blog will even be able to meet a suggestion of one topic a month. The CDHB topic has been a good example. It is a topic that has is able to engage a lot of people in the community. Other topics that Author/s post about that have a political component may appear on some of the other blogs that Author/s own, if there is an overlap, and be reposted or adapted here. This is more likely to be the type of content that appears on this blog in the future rather than content being created from scratch only for this blog.

6th Labour Government led by another “smile and wave” politician of no substance.

This blog has previously focused on concerns about Labour’s health policy with particular relevance to the Canterbury District Health Board leadership crisis. This was the subject of a series of blog posts in the last few weeks.

The hallmark of the John Key led National government was that Key was perceived to be a “front person” for the hard right political agenda of his party, in that his personal charisma and appeal could help to deflect any negative publicity and shut down or deflect serious attention to the policies his government was implementing. As a result, Key could command widespread political support over 2 1/2 terms of government (he stepped down before the third term was completed) whilst behind the scenes, National was true to form in its typically neoliberal focus, targeting public spending cuts in order to deliver tax reductions. This meant behind the scenes cost cutting and other measures in the public health system including the DHBs.

Labour was not able to make much headway against the Key Government over the three terms until its newest leader Andrew Little resigned just months before the 2017 election and handed over power to Jacinda Ardern, who has in office to date, as the 2020 election looms, largely succeeded with the public by being a good communicator with personal charisma. After many broken promises and policy failures, Labour earlier in this year looked like their re-election prospects were slim. National was polling strongly and it appeared the Government’s lead was very marginal. That is, until suddenly Covid-19 came out of nowhere and Labour pulled ahead due to strong communication and leadership from the Prime Minister. However, cracks have appeared most notably in border control which has failed on several occasions, revealing what every political junkie knew already, that whilst the PM was clearly able to articulate the big picture of our “elimination” strategy well, the detail, as has always been the case in the 6th Labour Government, was found to be significantly wanting. At this time however, it still appears Labour has a chance of doing very well in the election, but purely on the basis of the Covid-19 policy which is the only real substance they have been able to articulate to date.

The rest of Labour’s achievements in the 2017-2020 term have been unremarkable and in fact reflect the capture of the Government by the Wellington bureaucracy, enabling effective continuation of National’s policies by default. In what universe can it be expected that DHBs have unlimited reserves of money to meet extra out of pocket costs, like the extra work needed to respond to Covid-19, and in Christchurch, the Canterbury earthquakes, the 2019 mosque massacres, and a two year delay in the completion of a major building project at the Hagley site? But this policy has been continued by Labour, as nonsensical as it is. Furthermore, the Ministry of Health has been clearly exposed as having conducted a vendetta against the CDHB management over a long period of time, and abandoned its so called “truth and reconciliation” process when it spotted an opportunity to appoint a new compliant chairperson to the CDHB board after the 2019 elections. The hugely shameful rollover by two successive Labour health ministers to the Ministry of Health bureaucracy means they are bound to be relegated to the same level of incompetence as the previous health minister of the National government. This is a typical outcome of the 6th Labour Government which has yet to implement any substantial policy in reversing the damage done by its predecessor to the fabric of society. That is the key reason why Labour hasn’t created policies for the 2020 election campaign – because they do not have any ability to do so. They have done nearly nothing in the past term of office in many areas in which reviews were sought, and then shelved, and key policies campaigned upon in the 2017 election campaign have been abandoned.

Unless this Government changes direction radically after the 2020 election, they will be regarded as no more than a minor blip on the political history of New Zealand. The failure to make significant change in areas according to their core supporters’ expectations would have severely dented their prospects at the election apart from Covid and the same factors will come back to haunt them at the 2023 election campaign. When it comes to health, Labour’s purported solution of centralising control by reducing the size of DHBs and eliminating elected members plays straight into the hands of neoliberal Wellington bureaucratic interests, in the interests of shutting down democratic input into the health system. This blog welcomes and supports the ongoing debate in Canterbury, especially from regional leaders who have knowledge and experience of health, and the staff and activists who continue to expose the madness and inequity of Labour’s failure in governance. There has recently been a key resignation in the Ministry of a bureaucrat who was a key enforcer of the massive financial and structural inequity of Government policies within recent years. If Labour does not address the whitewash in Health it will cost them dearly in 2023, and this blog looks forward to continuing debate and campaigning on the subject.