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Housing in WA’s regional boom towns

Estimates & Committees
Scott Ludlam 22 Oct 2009

Senator LUDLAM-I do not know whether you were in the room before. We were talking about whether NRAS funding is hitting the ground in the most stretched housing markets in WA, which are in the north-west. Can you break down for us, by postcode, where social housing spending is going? You do not need to read out a list of postcodes.

Mr Lamont-I could not do that today. I can tell you that for stage 1 in WA in remote and very remote areas we are looking at an investment of $21.8 million. For stage 2 it is an investment of over $20.9 million. I can take your question on notice in respect to the specific areas.

Senator LUDLAM-I would greatly appreciate that. I said I would return to the Pilbara sooner or later, so I am going to do that now.

Mr Lamont-You mentioned Karratha earlier today?

Senator LUDLAM-I did.

Mr Lamont-I can also add that we have got two 3-bedroom townhouses, to give you an example of what we are doing in remote areas, that are specifically targeted out of stage 1. There is another four-bedroom dwelling and another 38 three-bedroom houses targeted in that region as well. That is the information that I have got here. There will be more, but you specifically raised Karratha before as a destination or location.

Senator LUDLAM-I did.

Dr Harmer-Just before we move on, I need to check with Mr Lamont that we actually have it by postcode. One of the things that I am conscious of as secretary of the department is running a very big and busy place. If we have not got the information by postcode and it is a significant task, I would not be prepared to allocate additional resources to do that. I am absolutely happy to provide it if we have got the information, if we collect it naturally; but I just want to make sure that I do not overpromise. If we have got to do a special collection then we will not be able to do that.

Senator LUDLAM-I am not trying to tie up someone for six months. I will take the data in whatever form you are collecting it. I presume you know where the spending is going.

Mr Lamont-We have provided it by postcode previously, and we can do it in the future.

Senator LUDLAM-That is what I thought. In terms of the townships that I mentioned before, some of the most stretched housing markets in the country are in Port Hedland, South Hedland, Karratha, Broome and Newman. Those are five of the towns that probably have had their housing markets distorted most by the mining boom, and there are some similar places on the eastern seaboard as well. What is your understanding of how the social housing spending is making its way into those markets, if at all?

Mr Lamont-I know we have got dwellings in Port Hedland. I would need to take on notice the specific numbers in those three locations.

Senator LUDLAM-We had an extended discussion before in the NRAS portfolio about whether you are able to assess the net gain or loss of affordable housing and it turns out that is not the case, that you are tracking figures in the NRAS side of the portfolio across the whole state. I am not sure whether I need to repeat the line of thinking or not, but Homeswest in WA, for example, are drawing down affordable housing in Port Hedland, probably faster than you are able to provide it. Are you aware of the net gain or loss in individual housing markets? Do you have access to that kind of data?

Mr Lamont-I personally do not. I do not know whether the department has that information.

Senator LUDLAM-It is not necessarily something that you would have been aware of, but I am really concerned that, as I keep saying, in some of the most stressed housing markets-the booming towns-the supply of affordable housing as a result of the interaction of state and federal spending increases is going to fall. I hope you would agree that is a big problem?

Dr Harmer-It may well be, but it is very much an issue for the Western Australian government and the Western Australian housing department, not-

Senator LUDLAM-I would have thought not where Commonwealth taxes are involved.

Mr Tongue-I would also add in those markets are Commonwealth, state and mining company efforts to provide the overall housing stock.

Senator LUDLAM-I am aware of that.

Mr Tongue-I would not want to let the mining companies get off scot-free in terms of the provision of housing for their workers. I suspect that in the rest of the market we are talking about people who are ancillary, so people working in shops or fast food.

Senator LUDLAM-Exactly. The mining industry does not intend to build houses, although I know there are some moves in that regard. They do, however, heavily subsidise the rents of their workforce so that they can afford to live in these towns, which then pushes key workers and service industry workers into cars and, in some proposals, shipping containers and so on. I will put it to you again. If you have not been tracking the regional breakdown and the net gain and loss, is that something that you will undertake to do? I am putting to you now that it is a really significant issue in those regions.

Senator Arbib-That is a matter for government. It is a policy issue.

Senator LUDLAM-I realise that. I am not expecting these officers to turn around on the spot.

Senator Arbib-In terms of housing-which is obviously outside this department's remit-the government has set up the National Resource Sector Employment Taskforce. Minister Ferguson and I have been tasked with leading the taskforce and Gary Gray is the chair. One of the issues that will be considered by the taskforce is the issue of housing, especially in those Western Australian communities. As you have quite rightly pointed out, it is a very big issue. It has a huge social impact on those communities and families who are moving into those areas and also, obviously, in terms of inflation. It will be an area that we will be looking at, and it is certainly an area that the government is concerned about. That is one of the issues that the taskforce will have on its terms of reference.

Senator LUDLAM-I would like to move to the last few things because I realise we are just about out of time. I am putting this to the officers at the table or to the minister. I am asking for the Commonwealth to start collecting net increase or net decrease data for subregional housing markets, without which this policy is headed for a bit of a disaster, because through probably perfectly rational housing policies in the states and territories-and I do not know whether this is happening elsewhere, but I suspect it is-we are drawing down affordable housing in some areas so that we can build more affordable housing in places which are nowhere near as overheated. What I would put to you, and I hope that we can have a different conversation at the next estimates session, is whether you can at the very least start collecting that data; whether or not you have the policy levers to influence the decisions that are made with it is probably a different question. I think we need to at least start collecting that material so that we know.

Dr Harmer-We will take that as a suggestion.

Ms Winzar-One of the things that the National Housing Supply Council has been grappling with over the last 12 months is to try to look at the overall net supply of housing, both for purchase and as a subset of that at the affordable end. It is a really hard thing to do, even in aggregate, let alone at a local level. Those discussions have involved a data subgroup that is set up with all state and territory governments to try to capture not only the construction but also the demolition information that you need in order to get a good picture of that. It has often lagged. It is collected in different ways at different points in the process across different jurisdictions. It is very difficult to get a clear view of what is going on.
Certainly, getting a better handle on that, at least to some level below state or territory aggregation, is one of the things that the supply council is considering how best to tackle at the moment. I think it will be some time before they crack it down to the level of say Karratha, Port Hedland or Newman.

Senator LUDLAM-Forgive my ignorance, are we able to call the council to future estimates hearings, or do they lie outside our reach?

Ms Winzar-My sense is that they will be outside.

Dr Harmer-They are outside. They are an advisory council to government. They are not part of the formal government structure. What Ms Winzar has just said is actually a good start along the track of what you would like to see us do.

Senator LUDLAM-That would be helpful. My last couple of questions relate further inland into the Pilbara to a couple of remote Aboriginal communities that I visited last week. It may well be that you refer me to the sessions that we will have tomorrow across the portfolio.
The communities that we visited were Jigalong and Punmu, on the edge of the Western Desert in the central Pilbara. They are both dry communities as of the last little while. Their nearest regional centre is Newman. There are still quite significant issues around alcohol and so on in Newman. People are now starting to move back into those two remote communities and they are experiencing quite serious housing shortages, but they are actually welcoming the fact that people are coming back and want to live in those places. It was put to us that Jigalong will need probably 20 new houses and some urgent maintenance work on what is there, and in Punmu they will need another 10 houses. They have been waiting for a long time, and I am just wondering whether anybody here can enlighten us as to who they should be talking to and how we get some of the Commonwealth housing funding into places like that where we have families living 15 or 16 people in a three-bedroom house?

Mr Tongue-In the first instance the answer is the state government. If you like, I will endeavour to get you that information tomorrow to see if the state government has allocated places under the Remote Indigenous Housing NP to those locations. I can come back to you tomorrow.

Senator LUDLAM-That would be a great start. I will not be here, but my colleague, Senator Siewert, will be and she is well aware of these issues as well. The reason for putting this to you now is to find out. They are pretty used to neglect out there. They have had very long experience of it in those communities. They were surprised to hear that there was a substantial Commonwealth increase in affordable housing and that the Commonwealth government was taking an active role in housing policy for the first time in a while. They wanted to know how that Commonwealth funding was going to make its way into their communities where they are really stretched. They are not actually asking for much. Is there likely to be any direct engagement with Commonwealth agencies such as yourselves, or do they have to continue working through state agencies?

Mr Tongue-The principal engagement is through state agencies. However, I would make the point that in remote communities, in particular, we are active in our efforts through Indigenous coordination centres and government business managers where they are in communities and so on, and we are able to work with state government around the allocation of resources under the various NPs and particularly the Remote Indigenous Housing NP.

Dr Harmer-As a Commonwealth department, we have an increasing presence in remote northern Australia as part of the government's initiatives on remote service delivery and Indigenous housing. Whilst it is still primarily in the province of the state and territory governments-the supply, administration and the implementation-we are increasingly involving ourselves in making sure that it is delivered in those areas.

Senator LUDLAM-The reason that I am raising it is that places like that, as you would be well aware, are where housing policy intersects very strongly with some of the worst poverty in the country. There has been a lot of attention around Alice Springs and much less in some of the Western Australian communities in the north. It is something that I plan to take up, so I look forward to picking this up again tomorrow. Thank you for your time.

 

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