The Amazing Shrinking Housing Program.

It’s been quite a while – fulltime work and post-studies have left the well of motivation dry. But now that is over, hopefully there’ll be some regular updates here.

SIHIP continues to be the most salient aspect of the ongoing NT Intervention, so I’ll give a brief summary of what’s been going on.

Houses are popping up all over finally. There are now around 30-40 completed new houses at Nguiu on Bathurst Is. Things are moving along at Wadeye, and there is finally some action at Groote Eylandt and Oenpelli, where the most dramatic events unfolded. One of the alliance partners was Earth Connect, which managed to get itself sacked earlier this year due to the absence of KPIs, i.e, houses. As of January this year, Earth Connect had managed to put up 2 houses in Oenpelli despite having been on the ground for about 9 months. It’s not straight-forward to build in remote locations, but this is what these companies tendered to do, so one would expect they had worked out how to do it. But you’d be wrong. Earth Connect was plagued with problems getting staff, keeping them, plus some good old cock-ups. Oenpelli is cut off in the wet, so if you want to build between December and April, you need everything freighted in before the road closes. A key shipment arrived just prior to the wet – with nothing in it. Just empty shipping containers. Oops. Naturally, very little building went on in the following months.

This is key to understanding the whole SIHIP saga. A fundamental premise underpinning the Governments approach to SIHIP was the involvement of the private sector, and in particular, the bigger construction firms. The reasoning was that they would bring experience, economies of scale and private sector efficiency to the process that would help achieve the Governments crucial strategy of reducing overall costs, so that the projected number of houses could be built within the allocated budget. Which always struck me as a dubious proposition, given that the private sector is about turning a profit, and that profit had to come out of the SIHIP budget. This requires a belief in the myth of private/public duality; private – lean, mean and efficient, versus public – fat, bloated and inept. Which takes us to a particular example, highlighting this flawed conception.

The NT Auditor-General has been having a look at SIHIP and found this little gem; some aspects of project management were overlooked, so a private firm was put in charge. This function was eventually put back to the public service, who managed to do it for only 20% of the cost of the private firm. Never underestimate private sector incompetence or their ability to get their snouts in the public trough.

Which leads us to the title of the post. While things have been going along OK at Wadeye in terms of building (in no small part thanks to the Alliance sub-contracting out the work to the local Thamarrurr Corporation), a new controversy has erupted. Funding hasn’t shrunk, in fact given the above problems, it’s been increased. But in light of the hoped for cost-efficiencies evaporating, the new idea is to reduce the size of the houses and sub-divisions! Brilliant. Elders in Wadeye are far from impressed. Understandable, given that the original designs and plans were negotiated with them in a lengthy consultation process. It’s this kind of thing that informs the general Indigenous view of Government – that you never know what’s going on. Just when you think you some kind of understanding, they change the rules.

This is as a result of the SIHIP review (here – PDF), which, not surprisingly, found that the anticipated savings weren’t materialising.

IMHO, this was quite predictable and the fault lies with an overreliance on the private sector. What should have happened is that the existing housing associations, woefully underfunded for decades, should have been the frontline workforce. If private sector building expertise was needed at the start, it would have been quite reasonable to follow the Wadeye model and have an Alliance partner support the local association with surveys, planning, scoping, technical expertise and training with a view to then funding the local associations directly once they had demonstrated their ability to do the job. SIHIP could have been a fantastic opportunity for training, job creation and local economic development.

With SIHIP due to finish in 2013, let’s hope that some lessons have been learnt and the Federal Govt is having a good hard look at sustainability in remote housing building and maintenance programs. My suggestion – dump all the Alliance’s.

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