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The Press-News column Jun 16

The Housing Crunch and Congestion Charges

The latest OECD report on New Zealand champions some bold changes to enhance our sustainable and inclusive economic well-being. Cynics like to deride their reports as the work of Paris chateau pointy-heads. But much of it is applicable Canterbury’s dynamics, with a prescriptive list of changes that should elicit broad public support.  The OECD isn’t telling us anything we didn’t already know about New Zealand’s housing supply challenges and the strangulating reams of red tape. It simply reaffirms the need for RMA reforms. On the demand side,  I strongly believe National needs to bite the bullet and shield existing residential property from the clutches of non-resident foreign buyers.  Regrettably, the OECD didn’t zero in on this. A mate recently took me on a walkabout around Northwood, to see the swath of  unoccupied “ghost houses” that sit idle as passive investments, after being hoovered up by trophy home hunting foreign fat-cats, with no apparent intention of renting them out, let alone living in or contributing to the community.  Blocking non-residents from siphoning off existing housing stock, would serve the interests of boosting domestic supply, for prospective owners and renters.  Meanwhile, the OECD has also urged New Zealand to roll out congestion charges, to combat urban commuter traffic gridlock. Hello, Waimakariri and Selwyn. I’m cautiously open to congestion charges, as long as there is a cast-iron guarantee that every dollar raised is injected into transport infrastructure, and not frittered as bonus playdough by cash-grabbing councils.  The Christchurch City Council should have no business in this area. Given our commuter belt stretches beyond the city limits, the regional council is best positioned to unleash congestion charges, in conjunction with the NZTA. If it’s applied properly as a user charge, it should actually provide relief for ratepayers and the public purse. Currently, Canterbury’s public transport system is heavily subsidised to the tune of 60%, with ECan ratepayers forcibly coughing up around $25 million annually. Rather than lazily slugging the ratepayer to subsidise Metro buses, why not target the private vehicle user, who actively chooses to contribute to commuter congestion on the major arterials, in peak-hours? Similarly, congestion charges could also be deployed to generate the revenue required to double-track our railway corridor. Let’s get real – given the pre-existing freight train imperatives, double-tracking is a pre-requisite, before greater Christchurch can potentially deliver a reliable and viable commuter rail service. London’s pioneering congestion charge is a success story. In the past 10 years, despite a 12% population increase, commuter traffic volumes have fallen 10% while public transport use has rocketed.

Mike’s weekly current affairs column, first published in The Press.  June 16

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