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Leaky Homes a 'National' Disgrace

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Dave Griffith
Dave Griffith

The orgy of deregulation in the 1990's laid the foundations for a housing disaster created by a National Party Government putting ideology ahead of logic.

New Zealand's pioneering spirit has always been imbued with a hefty dollop of DIY. In the early days of European settlement the newcomers had to construct dwellings from the materials at hand. If the design, materials and workmanship were not up to standard we paid the price as families by getting wet and cold.

In the latter half of the 20th Century there was an avalanche of spec homes built by the suburb load by private developers. The standard basic designs were both practical and functional. Deregulation of the building industry combined with a sustained economic boom took house design and size to a new level as McMansions became affordable to a lot of ordinary New Zealanders.

The scraping of a practical well developed apprentice scheme deprived the building market of a conveyor belt of qualified labour. Anyone could set themselves up as a builder. New building materials – principally the external plaster board - opened up new design opportunities to architects who took full advantage by creating unique homes that departed from the production line sameness of spec homes. The Local Government Authorities were ill equipped and under resourced to effectively manage the housing boom in a deregulated building industry. When developers are building houses for profit that they are never going to live in themselves then they are always going to cut corners. The more unscrupulous the developer, the more corners are cut.

When it started becoming apparent that poor workmanship, poor design and poor regulation had combined to create thousands of homes that were rotting from the inside the phrase 'leaky building syndrome' was coined as a catch all description. The problem with this is that Government and the building industry jumped on the phrase and ran with it. For them leaky building syndrome sounded like some kind of virus that homes caught. All across the country, safe well built houses were catching this virus and becoming unhealthy, rotting, and hard to fix money pits.

In the usual spirit of state sanctioned whitewash. No one was to blame. It was just one of those things. Leaky building syndrome was no one persons or organisations fault, so blame could not be placed at anyone's door. The only thing that was for certain was that thousands of homeowners who had bought homes in good faith were being left to pay the price. The price of repairs, plummeting property values, and the sheer mental anguish of watching ones biggest asset self-destructing in a personal financial black hole, while Government fobs off the problem with band-aid bureaucracy and drop in the bucket assistance.

The significant book "Do Damp and Mould Matter? Health Impacts of Leaky Homes" released yesterday highlights that on top of the billions of dollars required to fix the structural problems, there is a conservative estimate of $26m per year for the "significant" personal mental and physical health costs directly associated with living in and dealing with poorly designed and constructed homes.

It is time in this country that we stopped referring to leaky homes like they are some kind of architectural disease that good houses develop, and place the blame squarely at the feet of the politicians who created the environment that allowed this to happen.

A significant chunk of property developers are sleaze-bucket bottom dwellers who will always take advantage of lax regulatory controls. It is in their nature. Likewise cowboy builders will set up if they are allowed to and get rich quick, knowing that they and their fly by night limited liability company covers would be long gone when the chickens come home to roost.

It is the National Government of the 1990's that must shoulder the blame. They followed their ideologically based agenda and dismantled a well tested and developed system for building regulation and the development of a skilled labour force.

The descent into free market deregulation in a sector where there needs to be strong controls in place to protect consumers was created by solely by the Government of the day.

Fortunately that same party is now in power again so there can be no finger pointing. They need to make sure that this situation cannot happen again and put real measures in place to track down and hold accountable the profit driven leeches that took advantage of their poor management. At least then there can be some degree of atonement for their mistake.

Once they have fixed that then they can reverse the mess they created in the energy sector, where the logic defying promise of cheaper electricity never materialised along with the rest of the utopian right-wing free market 'prosperity for all' dream.

A wise old supervisor in my first job out of school had the simple rule that if "you f**k it up, you fix it up". So please take this advice on board Mr. Key and act on it. This is a real problem affecting the physical, mental and financial health of real people. The time for empty talk and inactive sympathy has long gone. I know that we tax payers will ultimately have to foot the bill for this mistake but it is better to spend our money on that than funding more MP's overseas junkets.    

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