Monday, March 14, 2011

On housing

Another extended quotation, on the housing policy of the first Labour government. I very much like Sutch's explanation and the level of detail here. I also happen to live next to one of the Department's model projects, the Centennial Flats (1940).

Model of the Centennial Flats, Adelaide Road, Berhampore, Wellington. Image from Timeframes.

In housing, its response was imaginative and lasting. First, cabinet had to decide on the specifications of the house. Ministers decided that what they and their wives would like for a house would seem a reasonable standard for New Zealanders as a whole and that the New Zealand house should have as much of New Zealand materials as possible even though this might increase the money cost. Thus they decided for New Zealand clay tiles rather than the conventional imported corrugated iron, even though the increased weight of the roof added to structural costs; they decided on heart timber for the flooring, copper instead of galvanized iron piping, concrete foundations, an electric power point in every room, a separate compartment for the W.C. (though this again added to cost). The Housing Department introduced the idea of siting a house to get maximum morning sun and sun penetration (not forgetting a window over the sink bench). Radio aerials were confined within the roof space, kitchens designed for the minimum of walking, and cupboards were built in. It was cabinet policy that no adjoining houses would look alike—in order that the total effect would not resemble a row of English 'council houses'.

The government decided that as the houses had been built with Reserve Bank money at very low interest rates they should not be sold to their occupants: on resale there would have been a substantial capital gain because of concessions provided by the state.

The main objective was not only that the state houses should not look like 'workers' dwellings' but that they should be made available for letting, as a policy, not only to people of a low income group but to a cross-section of New Zealanders, including older people. This enlightened policy was to be departed from by future governments, much to the social detriment of the housing areas concerned. In addition, the National Party in 1950 decided that state houses could be sold to their occupants; and in 1953 that new houses for private buyers would be built by the state.

In setting out the houses, extensive use was made of loop roads, recessed courts, and culs-de-sac, and the grid-iron pattern of the past was avoided as much as possible. The housing density was four state houses a gross acre; 15 percent of the total area to be set aside in grass for recreational purposes (in the larger housing areas), and one-fifth of the houses to be semi-detached. A typical housing section would be 28 perches.

'We are out to create assets against the Reserve Bank credit, and to the extent that we succeed in giving the nation sound assets so will we have demonstrated the sanity of socialistic finance. To the extent that we are careless in the exercise of our powers, so will we jeopardize not only our housing scheme but also our new money policy.' This statement well expresses the philosophy of the Labour Party of the pre-war years. It was issued by H. T. Armstrong, Minister of Labour, on 1 June 1939. The language is that of Lee.

The simpler forms, the detailing and the high quality of the houses set new standards for New Zealand. In fact the South Island contractors protested to the government that they could not build to such high specifications.

Though the houses were not standardized, the joinery was; in addition, some of the main sections were made to a standard. This was the beginning—a small one—in the industrialization of building.

The world's best town planning and architectural ideas were not used, although they were discussed at the advisory level. The Labour Party felt they would not be in tune with New Zealand attitudes if they made too great a departure from established housing ideas. Thus there was a struggle to develop high density housing in a parkland setting. Lee, for example, favoured it more than did his successor, Armstrong, who wanted more self-contained units.

So rapid was the expansion of housing that two state joinery factories (at Auckland and Wellington) were established to avoid bottlenecks in supply. There was opposition from the private profit sector, and at times also from the trade unions, who feared that their craft jobs might be mechanized. 'The Housing Department,' wrote Leathern, 'though working through private contractors, has met criticism from those who deplore this invasion of one of the sacred domains of private enterprise.' [192-194]

W.B. Sutch. The Quest for Security in New Zealand, 1940 to 1966. Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1966.

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