More Auckland Council staff to keep up record home consents

7:34 am on 3 April 2019

Auckland Council continues to feel the pressure of the building boom - but it's hoping a hiring binge will allow it to maintain its record number of consents.

Housing construction in an East Auckland suburb

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Last year an independent review found customer satisfaction was at an all time low with its reputation on the line.

Consulting firm MartinJenkins said even with staff working overtime the Council wasn't meeting its 20-day statutory timeframe for delivering consents and recommended an aggressive approach in scaling up its operation.

Now in the year to February the Council has hit a new record for homes consented - 13,847. That was up 25 percent for the same period the previous year.

Auckland's mayor Phil Goff said that was good news for tackling affordability and the city's housing shortage, but they would need more staff to maintain the record pace.

"We are catching up in filling vacancies for staff and we're working really hard in an environment where the building consents are more complex than ever before and there's more of them being processed than ever before. We're working hard to improve the speed at which we can process those consents."

But with a third of consents failing to meet the statutory deadline, Mr Goff said the Council wasn't yet where he'd like it to be.

"We don't hit that requirement and that's because of the sheer number of building consents, the shortage of people providing building consents, and the greater complexity as more and more of these consents are dealing with multi-unit complexes rather than the single house.

At a prefab industry conference last month, the Council's manager of Building Control Ian McCormick said the number of complex home consents in the last year had increased by 24 percent on previous year, while commercial scale residential projects had also jumped.

"That's having a significant impact on my team in terms of the competencies they need to be able to work on and make technical decisions on work of that complexity.

An impact made more severe by competition for staff from the private sector.

"Those folk with the competencies needed to do the sort of work we're doing at the moment - there's not a lot of them, and we're all fighting for them at the moment in the industry. I'm losing a lot of my staff back into the industry.

Mr Goff said despite the challenges they were making "good progress" in addressing the consenting deadline.

"It dropped very low at one stage; it was probably as low as 50 percent. We're up to 66 percent within 20 days and I'm informed by our consenting staff that we'll hit 80 percent within a couple of months time. So the movement is in the right direction.

He said in the wake of the MartinJenkins report he had urged Council leaders to respond to its recommendations, and ensure it did better with the right people in place.

No caption.

Photo: Auckland Council

"I made it very clear last year that I wasn't happy with the rate at which we were approving building consents and I said to my chief executive officer that this is a key performance indicator for council.

"I'm pleased to say that the chief executive has responded on that. We have got the recruitment in place, we are making the changes necessary.

He said 156 staff were being added to the workforce, including some from Canada, with the cost covered by consent charges rather than through rates.

"What we're trying to do is make sure we've got enough staff properly trained, properly equipped with high technology, to make sure that we can do the job we're required to do.

"If the building consents continue to rise it's possible that we'll have to continue to expand the staff. We think that there'll probably be a stablilisation of the level of building consents rather than the steep increase that we've had over the last couple of years.

Newer technology was also being used to help streamline the process.

"That's estimated to have improved our productivity for building consent workers that are out doing the inspection work, increasing the number of houses they can inspect from five to probably six or seven a day. That's a significant increase.

The chief executive of the Building Officials Institute, Nick Hill, said there was a limited pool of qualified people, however he believes the industry and Auckland Council had been gearing up well.

"You've got a growth in awareness of the building surveying profession, more people coming in through the qualification pathways, a realisation that you can gain a significant amount of knowledge working within the Council environment, and that combined with increasing technological gains should ease the pressure to some extent.

However, he estimated with the spike in building activity the country could be more than 150 skilled consent staff short and so, like Auckland Council, the Institute was actively recruiting offshore to plug the gaps.