The North West’s housing shortage is a case of deja vu, and State Govt needs to fix it

Neil ThomsonBroome Advertiser
A new home being built by the airport in Broome.
Camera IconA new home being built by the airport in Broome. Credit: Broome Advertiser

There is a growing sense of deja vu in regional Western Australia as a housing crisis and industrial land shortages have materialised over the past 12 months.

The reality is that this problem hasn’t surfaced spontaneously but in fact results from four years of neglect by WA Labor.

A recent debate on a motion on the current housing and rental crisis brought forward by the Opposition in the State’s Legislative Council highlighted this point.

We heard Pierre Yang put out a few platitudes on how committed WA Labor ministers were on the homelessness issue, yet he completely denied any responsibility for the current situation.

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WA Labor frontbencher Alannah MacTiernan claimed the heightened pressure on the market was a good thing for those who had suffered from negative equity.

But apart from a passing reference to the so-called $400 million social housing economic recovery package, not a single point was made about dealing with the ongoing problem of regional housing shortages.

There simply hasn’t been enough done over the past four years to ensure that when the inevitable upswing occurred, we were prepared.

Ms MacTiernan knows this happened in 2005-08 when the government of the day was left flat-footed in towns like Port Hedland and Karratha.

At that time, I led the microeconomic reform team in Treasury and we were advising more needed to be done to reduce red tape and stimulate supply. It was partially because of frustration over endless delays on approvals and the dire shortage of housing that regional WA voted emphatically to bring in the Barnett-Grylls partnership.

Royalties for Regions transformed Karratha from a small, overstretched backwater into a regional city with a new urban landscape. Fast-forward to 2017, the incoming WA Labor government turned its focus towards Metronet.

Housing stats in the regions plummeted and while this can't all be blamed on the change of government, the fact is that the State did nothing to address the dire straits the market found itself in. Under the Barnett government, there was an average annual completion of 1129 new social and government- built houses. Under WA Labor, that dropped to 612 a year.

Across the West Pilbara, building approvals for private sector houses have gone down from 315 in 2014 during the heyday of the Barnett Government down to a shocking nine in 2019 and across the Kimberley from 202 in 2014 down to merely 31 in 2019.

(Editor’s note: new home building approvals to April in FY2020-21 are 153 for the Pilbara and 68 for the Kimberley)

Government worker accommodation has also sat empty and idle as social housing starts were almost choked off to a trickle. My own hometown Broome had empty homes for about four years straight which could have easily been put out to the market for sale, and revenue from those sales could have been put to good use in building new fit-for-purpose stock which would have stimulated the construction market at little cost to the State.

Similarly, a program of social housing construction could have reinvigorated the construction industry and dealt with the chronic overcrowding issues.

Unless Royalties for Regions is reinstated and there is some reflection on the disastrous machinery of government reforms, we will simply see a repeat of 2008 in 2025.

  • Neil Thomson is the Liberal Member for Mining and Pastoral

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