7 Mar 2024

Big, expensive, and not fit for purpose: What you need to know about Premier House

7:40 pm on 7 March 2024
Premier House has had a number of different style additions throughout its history, and is protected as a heritage building.

Premier House, seen here in 2015, has had a number of different style additions throughout its history, and is protected as a heritage building. Photo: Supplied/ Ballofstring CC BY-SA 4.0

Over the decades, prime ministers have been criticised for both spending too much - and under-investing - in the big, old house in Thorndon, Wellington, known as Premier House.

The property made headlines last week after Prime Minister Christopher Luxon reportedly told Australian cricketers, during an event at the property, that he was not living in it because of its condition. Australia's Usman Khawaja later told Australian media Luxon described Premier House as "condemned".

Luxon disputed Khawaja's account, saying he never used the word "condemned". But it did have long-standing maintenance issues, he said.

While he is considering renovations on the Thorndon residence, he is living in an apartment in the capital. (His family home is in Remuera, Auckland.)

The controversy ramped up when Newsroom reported Luxon planned on claiming a $52,000 top-up to his $471,000 salary to cover his accommodation expenses. The Wellington apartment is one of seven properties he owns, mortgage-free.

At first, Luxon said he was entitled to the money and was not breaking the rules. Just hours later, he did a U-turn.

"It's clear that the issue of my accommodation allowance is becoming a distraction," he said in a statement. "As such, I have decided today that I will no longer claim the allowance and will repay anything I have received since I became prime minister."

But the question remains, what will become of the property at 260 Tinakori Road?

A piece of history

The Crown purchased Premier House in 1865, when the capital was moved to Wellington from Auckland. In 1867, the country's third premier, Edward Stafford, moved in - the first of many New Zealand leaders who would live in the building.

Following extensive renovations in 1873, when Premier Julius Vogel occupied the house, only the southern wing of the original house was retained.

In 1935, the country's first Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, opted to stay in a smaller house in Harbour View Road in the suburb of Northland.

"Labour didn't want to be seen to be living that kind of [ostentatious] lifestyle when New Zealand was going through the big depression," Thorndon Society president Bruce Lynch told RNZ.

Meanwhile, Premier House was converted into a trainee dental clinic and nicknamed "The Murder House" by local children, according to reports.

It was another Labour minister - Michael Basset - who helped persuade the authorities to reinstate the house as a ministerial residence.

It became a Category 1 historic place in 1988 and has been scheduled as a heritage place in the Wellington City District Plan.

"I haven't been through the house probably since John Key was prime minister," Lynch said. "The state rooms downstairs are very attractive. They're spacious and very nice. Those are the areas used still for entertainment. We didn't go upstairs, which is really a flat where the prime ministers have tended or live or at least stay overnight."

Premier House, Tinakori Road, Thorndon, circa 1880, taken by an unidentified photographer.

Premier House, Tinakori Road, Thorndon, circa 1880, taken by an unidentified photographer. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

The property itself

The site is managed by the Department of Internal Affairs and currently has a government valuation of $37 million.

As well as being the prime minister's official residence, it is also a functions and events venue, and a workplace for staff.

"Given these distinct functions, we categorise the house into three zones - the apartment, state rooms, and service areas," a DIA spokesperson told RNZ.

The apartment, located on the first floor, includes several bedrooms, bathrooms, as well as kitchen, diving, living, and study areas.

The state rooms on the ground floor comprise two dining rooms (one large, one small), a living room, a sunroom, cloakrooms, and bathrooms. The living room, located on the left of the main entrance, has been used for Cabinet meetings.

The service areas provide office accommodation for staff and other spaces for security operations and equipment, building services systems, catering, storage, and parking.

RNZ asked to visit the house, or at least see current photos, but the request was declined "due to security considerations".

New path being built at the rear of Premier House, taken in June 1990 by Evening Post staff photographer Ross Giblin.

New path being built at the rear of Premier House, taken in June 1990 by Evening Post staff photographer Ross Giblin. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

'Not comfortable' living

The 2023 briefing to Luxon as the incoming minister responsible for Ministerial Services, said: "There has been limited investment in Premier House since its refurbishment in 1990, and many of its facilities are now reaching end of life."

In 2022, an independent Premier House Board was set up to review the condition of the house and provide advice on maintaining it.

The board's most recent report has not been made public, but RNZ has seen part of it relating to the private apartment. The authors interviewed "most living former prime ministers and their families to discuss their perspectives, experience, and views of Premier House".

Use of the apartment had ranged from "a weekday apartment for the prime minister only, to a full-time family residence".

Most fittings, fixtures, and furnishings were more than 30 years old. The report described the property as "not comfortable".

"The board views the standard of the apartment as poor; it does not reflect the status of the prime minister and is inadequate in comparison to other comparable official residences, and not equivalent to what can be rented in the private market by ministers."

The apartment did not meet healthy homes standards for rental properties in New Zealand.

It had "little to no insulation", windows were not well-sealed, and the gas-fired heating was not energy efficient. The lift to the apartment did not meet accessibility code requirements and the roof would need to be replaced in the next year or so.

"Bathrooms are small, poor quality, and aged."

One positive: according to the Wellington City Council, it is not earthquake prone.

Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and his wife Margaret, during an 'at home' at Premier House, Tinakori Road, Thorndon, Wellington. Photograph taken 17 July 1990 by Evening Post staff photographer Ross Giblin.

Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer and his wife Margaret at Premier House, photographed 17 July, 1990, by Evening Post staff photographer Ross Giblin. Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

Funding challenges

Between residents, "minor items such as bedding and linen" were replaced, but that was the extent of the refresh.

It begged the question: Why would a prime minister choose to live in the house, when they could use the accommodation allowance to rent a much nicer apartment?

Regardless of whether Premier House was occupied, it cost money to maintain. But there was "no standing financial provision" for repairs and maintenance meaning capital improvements were managed on an ad-hoc basis and had to be signed off by Cabinet.

Even basic maintenance expenditure was subject to widespread criticism from the public and other politicians.

"The politicisation of Premier House decision has invariably contributed to the current poor standard of the apartment," the report said.

Costly upgrades were particularly problematic for Luxon, who has bemoaned "wasteful spending" and said "tough choices" needed to be made to improve the country's economy.

In 2011, then-Labour MP Chris Hipkins criticised Prime Minister John Key for spending $275,000 on renovations including new paint, carpet, and blinds, saying it was more than some people spent on an entire house.

When Dame Jacinda Ardern was prime minister she was told the house was in need of significant investment. About $3 million was spent on repairs and security upgrades from 2018. Ardern chose not to proceed with further work.

What's next?

Tommy's Real Estate sales director Tim Clark told Checkpoint it would be far more financially viable to demolish the house and start over.

Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga has confirmed it is working with other agencies to find solutions. But communications manager Adrienne Hannan said she could not comment on speculation regarding the sale of the house.

She explained the site's heritage listing is a recognition of its heritage value only and did not offer protections or place requirements on property owners. Expert advice and feedback on restoration and adaption work was provided freely by the agency, to all owners of listed places.

Protections and requirements instead came from a property's scheduling in the local district plan, she said. Through this, Premier House is subject to a heritage order.

"This ensures any modifications, restorations, adaptations are conducted in a way that conserves the heritage fabric and values of significant heritage places," Hannan said.

Work vehicles have been spotted at the property, but the DIA has remained tight-lipped, saying it was unable to provide additional information about the property while Luxon was still considering how to proceed.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs