Can our building consent system cope with 10,000 Kiwibuilds each year?


We currently have a housing sector under extreme pressure to deliver more houses, especially more affordable ones. We also have a new government with aspirational plans to deliver another 10,000 affordable new homes per annum on top of the current volumes.

I would pose the question that unless there are significant changes to the way building consents are approved and then administered, we will just continue to slide increasingly behind the supply and demand curve.

This article is not about bagging the performance of local authorities — it raises genuine questions about whether our current system and the way it is administered is fit for purpose, and how it will cope with the additional demand of the Government’s Kiwibuild plans.


Bureaucratic wringer

Some local authorities are very efficient and helpful, but others are just downright difficult. Many local authorities see every project, no matter how simple, as a problem that must be put through the bureaucratic wringer many times over.

Whilst this risk-cleansing process is carried out, it appears little thought or care is given to what the financial or social implications might be to the applicant.

So why is this happening? I’m sure the architects of the 2004 Building Act didn’t envisage the unintended consequences that have arisen through local authorities doing everything they can to absolve themselves of risk.

I do have some sympathy for the local authorities in that they have been hit financially as the last man standing under our current joint and several rules.

The joint and several rules desperately need revamping to reflect the proportion of fault of those involved in a claim.

The construction industry is unique. Other countries such as Australia have managed to deal with this, and so should we if we want productivity and co-operation to return to the industry.

Much has changed since the advent of the leaky building saga. We now have licensed building practitioners working on the critical elements of residential buildings, treated timber is used, we use more engineered solutions than you can poke a stick at, many homes are built with rigid air barriers, drained cavities are the norm, and council inspections have at least doubled.

Given that claims from leaky buildings are now pretty much behind local authorities, along with all these extra safeguards, one would expect that the risk pendulum would have pulled back from maximum alert to common sense.

Current behaviours do not appear to reflect the lower level of risk local authorities have over simple residential construction. Every project appears to be dealt with in the same bureaucratic way, no matter how simple or complex it is.

Risk-based consenting provisions which were included in the Building Act sit there as some sort of unattainable holy grail that very few want or seem capable of implementing.

In fact, why do we have a licensed building practitioner system if it carries no sway or trust with local authorities?


Fortress mentality

The unfortunate outcome of this fortress mentality for a construction industry that needs to be producing more, is that it can only operate at the capacity of the local authority administering the consent.

Ask any architect, designer, engineer or builder about the number of RFIs and peer reviews they get which are more about ticking a box and gaining additional processing time, than having any material effect or improvement for the project.

Add to this the huge number of inspections requested and time lag required to get them, and it’s not a picture of efficiency.

I have heard anecdotally that it is considered in the halls of power that the consent process is working well. That is very worrying, and shows a disconnect from what is happening at the coal face.

For those in the halls of power, the following is what those in the industry can face on a daily basis:

Long delays and demands for what appears to be trivial information on simple residential building consents, very often on Day 19 of the consent approval time frame.

Requests for providing the same standard information over and over again as if it has never been seen before.

Different rules and interpretations between each local authority and, indeed, each inspector. In many cases, rules are “invented” by individual inspectors that are not part of the building code. Builders often find it quicker and easier to pragmatically roll over than it is to push back for what they know is right.

There is a huge imbalance of power between local authorities and those undertaking a project, leading to monopolistic behaviour, inflated fees and, often, paying for the authority’s inefficiency.

In many cases, If you don’t lodge your consent by mid-November it won’t likely be worked on until mid-January.

Inspections in some local authorities need to be booked two to three weeks in advance. A week to 10 days seems all too common.

Inspections are getting failed on the most minor of technicalities, and then it’s another however many days or weeks to get it re-inspected.

If an inspector takes a holiday, some local authorities just push out waiting times instead of providing cover for that lost resource.

Increasingly, inspectors with little or no practical on-site experience are being employed. This results in less than optimal text book inspections, time-delaying requests, and a loss of respect for those inspectors who are obviously out of their depth.

Delays in issuing Code Compliance Certificates whilst the bureaucratic process works its way through. This impacts greatly on contractors’ cashflow and move-in dates for home owners.

The result of the above is that, unfortunately, projects are delayed, productivity is plummeting, costs are soaring, margins get wiped out, and skilled tradesmen, designers and engineers are becoming disenfranchised and exiting the industry.

All of this is happening at a time when more homes need to be completed than ever before. If the local authorities are struggling to administer the system with current volumes and practices, there seems little chance that they can handle the additional 10,000 homes per annum planned under Kiwibuild.

With all the above said, I’m sure that an equally long list of frustrations can be written by the local authorities who are working within the system they have been delivered to operate within.

They also need to deal with all levels of contractors, from highly proficient entities to Johnny-come-lately operators, so it is a big ask. But put the risk where it lies with risk-based consenting, not on every project.

Perhaps the tipping point has arrived. If we want to produce more affordable houses and an increase in productivity, then it is an opportune time to revisit the rules.

Let’s do a reality check on them, and include in the mix how we are going to efficiently supply the homes our growing nation so desperately requires.

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