Nowhere to live

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 21 February 2020

Solving New Zealand’s housing crisis is hard. Writing good policy reports is too.

Last week, a paper by the Helen Clark Foundation garnered much media attention. Somewhere to live presented the Foundation’s views on housing policy.

I read the document with an open mind and personal curiosity. Since the start of my journey in think tank land, housing has been my pet interest. In 2005/06, I co-authored my first trilogy of housing reports for British think tank Policy Exchange.

The topic has never left me since. The Initiative produced many in-depth reports on housing, local government and infrastructure over the past eight years.

To begin with the positive regarding Somewhere to live, I agree with its starting point. There is a severe housing crisis in New Zealand, which has profound social impacts. Ending this crisis must be a political priority.

Unfortunately, this is where my agreement with Somewhere to live ends. The rest of the document is disappointing. And that is not only because I do not share its policy prescriptions.

On a formal level, for a report dealing with such a difficult and complex issue it is short: just about 5,000 words. Were it not for large pictures, it would not have needed 28 pages.

The document is light on research content and heavy on recommendations. With no analysis, it jumps straight to policy prescriptions on page two (“Sustained government intervention is needed”). A “case study” on planning in Greater London has a mere 150 words and not a single reference. There are only 28 footnotes in the entire document.

What the report lacks in research complexity, it makes up for in language. A readability analysis of the document reveals that 91 percent of its paragraphs are very difficult to read. The Foundation’s subeditor must have been on leave.

Regarding its content, the document shows no understanding of urban economics. Relevant publications from (among many others) the Productivity Commission, Motu and NZIER exist. They are just not mentioned anywhere in Somewhere to live.

Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford has given many excellent speeches on urban economics, competitive land markets and unlocking housing supply. However, the report rejects such ‘supply and demand’ discussions. Housing, we are told, does not work according to Economics 101 principles.

Perhaps it was an ambivalent editorial decision at the NZ Herald to say the report was from a “leading think tank.” And maybe the Foundation’s future reports will be of a higher quality.

But for now, at least, the public will get wrong impression of what a robust, well-researched policy report should look like.

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