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Interview with Conor Burke, ABC Riverina


Event: Interview with Conor Burke, ABC Riverina
Date: 13 February 2024, 8.50am AEDT
Speakers: Denita Wawn, CEO Master Builders Australia
Topics: regional housing supply; labour shortages; Federal Budget


Sam Robinson, ABC Riverina: As you heard in local news, the Master Builders Association says more investment in staffing and not AI is needed to tackle or to help tackle the regional housing crisis. A new state government pilot programme is underway which gives town planners access to advanced AI tools to work through development backlogs. But it is a big problem, isn’t it? The regional housing shortage and making sure there’s enough places to live to meet regional population growth? MBA chief executive Denita Wawn told our reporter Conor Burke, well, what she thinks the solution is.

Denita Wawn, CEO Master Builders Australia: More houses, it’s as simple as that. We’ve got a shortage of homes. We’ve had a shortage of homes now for over a decade. We simply have not been building enough for our population. The crisis has escalated, and we now need to ensure that we remove as many barriers as possible to resolving that problem, which is both the capacity to build faster, quicker, cheaper, but also ensuring that we have investors in the market who are willing to invest in housing. But unfortunately, this is being called for now for decades. The industry has been calling out for decades that we need to focus on supply, not on demand, and we now have a situation where the shortages that were once felt in the capital cities is now extended across the country. So, we are not in a good position, and our view is that we need to ensure that the solutions that are well known are actually tackled as quickly as possible, because things will just progressively get worse.

Conor Burke, reporter ABC Riverina: So, I believe, and a figure I’ve seen kicking about is Australia’s housing shortfall is expected to be at least 175,000 homes by 2027. So obviously, the Master Builders would like to build more. But what are the, specifically, what are the barriers that are stopping us from doing that?

Denita: A couple of key barriers. One is around shovel-ready land for building. We can’t get the critical infrastructure right in the first instance and that is usually a cost or a shortage of labour. We ourselves are experiencing labour shortages. Then of course there are the taxes and costs and delays. They’re impacted in terms of getting a development through, and a building process through council. A lot of the time that’s not council’s fault. That is, in fact, just a lack of resourcing. We’ve heard complaints about portals not working effectively enough, and the list goes on. And of course, with inflation and interest rates spiking, we’re also losing a number of investors. Whether they are owner occupies or investors themselves into the housing market with building approvals going down.

Conor: So, let’s tackle one of those specifically, talking about development applications. We’ve heard I think across New South Wales, people talking about crazy wait times. People waiting a long, long time and we’ve here at the in the Riverina, I’ve spoken to developers who say that sometimes investors will just pull out. The state government are looking at a pilot to use AI to help reduce large wait times for DA approvals. Wagga Wagga Council I think are going to be jumping on that. What are your thoughts on that?

Denita: I think it’s important that we use technology, but also technology shouldn’t be a constraint. We’ve heard the stories the New South Wales central portal will be the answer to all of our supply ills and delay ills. That hasn’t worked. We consistently hear problems around the country. Certainly, from the builders I’ve spoken to in regional Australia, they’d much prefer just to go to the old way of going across the counter and talking through the issues. So, it is good that we’re looking at technology, but equally we just simply need more resources in the areas that it makes the most in terms of engineers, planners, and surveyors of getting the planning right, getting the development applications right, and then getting the building approvals, right.

Conor: Right, because I think probably, in theory, using AI to do this would be to avoid putting on any more staff. I don’t know if it would be hard to get staff, but it’s not like you’re going to be, it’s obviously to help the staff that are there. But it doesn’t mean you’re going to be putting on more assessors and surveyors and all those sorts of people. So, do you think that’s the fix? Is fully resourcing councils and state planning departments?

Denita: That’s right. I would certainly assume that AI can triage a problem but won’t be able to finalise it. So, at the end of the day, we need more of those resources. A startling figure was utilised at our Regional Housing Summit on Friday that over 50 per cent of our building surveyors are over the age of 55. And there’s only about 15 per cent that are the under the age of 35. That is at an extreme shortage that is going to get worse as we see those over 55s retire. So, we need to ensure that we’re promoting as many people as possible into these areas of need when it comes to training.

Conor: So, what are some of the big issues at the Regional Housing Summit? What are the regions feeling more acutely than elsewhere?

Denita: Certainly, the regions, it’s all about a shortage of people, whether it’s people that need to work for councils to get things going or whether it’s builders themselves. And of course, they’ve got shortage of professionals, and all of this is because we don’t have enough homes for them. So, we need to be helping and assisting local government, whether it’s from funding and also resourcing capacity. But also assisting them streamline and fast-track applications where we can get multiple dwellings quickly approved and built. We know how well, for example, the high rise in Dubbo has gone in terms of sales. So, there is a shift towards medium density and high-rise density as well as detached housing and making sure you get that shift right in our regional centres.

Conor: So, the Master Builders Association is looking now towards the Budget. We’ve listed some of the barriers. What are the key things you want to see to tackle that housing stock issue and get it moving?

Denita: Well, our big focus from the budgetary point of view is maintaining funding to ensure that these supply constraints are not continued to be a bottleneck. Whether it’s supporting local government, whether it’s ensuring that we’re getting as many apprentices through the trade apprenticeship process as possible. Whether or not we’ve got enough skilled migrants to fill the void while we train more people and also ensuring that regulation is not curtailing our capacity to build. So, there’s a multiple approach and I think the big message for us to government is don’t work in silos. Take a holistic approach and make sure that you’re pulling all of those policy levers in one direction as opposed to working at cross purposes.

Sam: That is Denita Wawn, the chief executive of the Masters Builders Association, speaking to our reporter Conor Burke.

Media contact:
Dee Zegarac
National Director, Media & Public Affairs
0400 493 071

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