Tuesday 23 May 2017

Asset sales and infrastructure funding

Christchurch's refusal to sell the Port during earthquake reconstruction was ridiculous. The city needed a pile of money for new infrastructure to cover uninsured losses. The Port had just received a giant insurance payout that, in some views, covered the harms of decades of deferred maintenance. There would never be a better time to sell the port than when it was set to be all fresh and shiny, before the next decades of deferred maintenance did their work.

Instead we had talk about not selling the family silver. Know when it's time to sell the family silver? When you need to rebuild the house because of a big stupid earthquake.

Auckland's position on asset sales hasn't been much different. Auckland needs a pile of new infrastructure to let it fund its continued growth. But it faces a strange debt constraint: rules on how much interest Council can pay as a fraction of its tax revenue. Debt-funded infrastructure then needs very quickly to provide a return well in excess of the debt's interest cost. Laying out trunk infrastructure with a century's lifespan that enables growth more than repaying the investment 10 years out doesn't work if it has to pay for itself faster than that. And that's part of the current mess.

Asset sales can then help. I covered it in last week's Insights newsletter. Subscribe at the link (it's free).
The macroeconomic effects of Auckland’s housing crisis are felt throughout the country. If Auckland could better accommodate growth, central government would reap the resulting income tax and GST revenues.

Immigrants pay more in tax, on average, than they receive in government services – but those estimates do not include the infrastructure costs that fall on local government. If Auckland’s infrastructure mess forces central government to close the door on immigration, that could easily be to the long-term detriment of central government finances.

But councils coming cap-in-hand to central government for help face a fair bit of scepticism for the simple reason that councils have not been making some of the harder choices necessary to finance their own growth.

During the Christchurch earthquake recovery, some of Christchurch City Council’s pleas for more central government funding rang a bit hollow. National campaigned in 2011 on a programme including partial privatisation of state-owned enterprises to help fund other programmes. Meanwhile, Christchurch Council refused to consider privatisation of Lyttelton Port of Christchurch or a host of other Council-owned assets.

From a central government perspective, some of the calls for help sounded a bit like your kid asking for financial help while refusing to replace his flashy car with a more thrifty model – after you have already traded yours in.

Phil Goff’s willingness to consider partial privatisation of the Ports of Auckland is then a very welcome first step. But Auckland Council could be bolder. The land under Auckland Council’s golf courses alone is worth over a billion dollars. Selling that land for housing development would not just provide more houses. It would also provide funds to service further intensification and further greenfield development.

And if Auckland were doing its share, we would hope that central government might consider doing its bit as well by passing on some of the benefits it receives from a thriving Auckland.

No comments:

Post a Comment