NBR Rich Lister backs new approach to solving housing crisis

Garry Robertson is trialling a Kaikoura housing scheme completely off the grid.

By Fiona Rotherham

Fri, 20 Dec 2019

Land aggregator Garry Robertson.

One of New Zealand’s most prolific land aggregators has launched a new initiative for a housing development at Kaikoura that will be completely off the grid.

Garry Robertson, a newcomer to the NBR Rich List this year, is passionate about helping solve the country’s housing shortage, much of which he blames on council bureaucracy.

Frustrated by the time it takes to turn bare land into sections with all the necessary infrastructure, the 60-year-old is using his partly developed Ocean Ridge project in Kaikoura to develop a model of sustainable mainstream housing that, if successful, could be rolled out nationwide.

His idea is to run housing developments and eventually even towns that have all services such as water, power, and sewerage provided sustainably from within rather than by a local council or government agencies. He claims that removes the need to wait between five to 15 years for councils to approve rezoning and to service the new developments.

Robertson said councils and other authorities took ridiculous amounts of time and put compliance hurdles in front of property developers that cost many millions of dollars in legal, holding, finance and planning costs across the country each year.

The amateur yachtie and vintage car collector has been involved in creating some of Auckland’s largest housing developments including Milldale, Silverdale, Flat Bush and Karaka and managed to stay out of the limelight until 2018 when he financed a film on the life of the latest social justice advocate and author Celia Lashie.

One of his more recent investments was the stalled 130ha Ocean Ridge development in Kaikoura, which he bought from his long-time friend Robin Hughes.

Based on his experience delivering around 15,000 sections in the past 20 years or so, Robertson estimated bureaucratic delays added as much as 30% or $200,000 to the cost of a section.  He believes the cost of entry-level housing in New Zealand is over one third higher than it needs to be.

In a recent example, he was told by Watercare (an Auckland Council-controlled organisation) that he would need to make a $20 million upfront payment and wait between five to seven years for delivery of necessary infrastructure on a proposed Karaka housing project which doesn’t have zoning approval yet. “That’s beyond anyone’s risk profile,” he said.

Ocean Ridge

Robertson said the penny dropped for him this year after watching the Netflix series Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates where the Microsoft founder and his wife Melinda talked about supporting the omni processor – a device that converts sewage into clean, drinkable water in minutes, while producing energy to incinerate the remaining waste solids.

He figured the technology could be adapted for use in New Zealand and that led him to think about backing a sustainable housing project. At this stage the multi-millionaire is the sole funder of the TEAL initiative (TEAL refers to mixing Green ideals with the blue of the National Party’s fiscal ability to deliver).

An initial research hub for sustainable design technology is being set up at Ocean Ridge and Robertson wants to attract researchers and innovators from around the world to the region to refine their products for inclusion into mainstream residential and commercial developments.

He’ll then allocate some of the Ocean Ridge development to prove up the concept before extending it further.

He has the support of the financially challenged Kaikoura District Council, which is looking at innovative ways to revitalise the town in the wake of the November 2016 earthquake.

Mayor Craig Mackle sees it as another way to attract talent to the South Island town and said, if successful, the idea could have wider application than just New Zealand. While the project is still early stage, the council has told Robertson it can help investigate and refine the model, analysing applicable regulatory and planning frameworks to simplify any red tape and regulatory process.

Lincoln University is also keen to get involved. It has had had a more than 30-year relationship with Kaikoura, which was the first district in the world to be certified as being on a sustainable pathway for tourism through the EarthCheck programme, which measures such things as energy in, greenhouse gas emissions and the way waste and water is treated.

“Taking that and building from their experience in the tourism sector and draping that over an urban settlement seems to be a sensible partnership,” said Professor David Simmons, from the university’s faculty of environment, society and design.

He calls Robertson’s vision a “bold” rather than a “brave” attempt and the university will also provide input from its senior landscape architecture and environmental management students through a competitive challenge.

Simmons has just returned from Madeira in Portugal where he visited a 76-room hotel that was completely off-grid, sharing its energy during the day with those in the neighbourhood and borrowing it back at night when it needed more.

“There are a lot of solutions – solar energy, energy storage, waste and water treatment – that are beginning to emerge at the individual level but one of the things that appeals to me in this is the ways in which some of that load sharing across all those resource streams can be used to lift the whole community to a different place,” he said. “It is scalable at small scale and Garry’s vision, if we get that right, is whether it is scalable to larger settlements as well.”

Robertson said he was at the age and stage where he wanted to give back and make things better, rather than just make more money, and thought the timing was right for his initiative. He has been asking for a show of support on social media to reinforce to government and stakeholders that Kiwis want a new solution to the housing problem.

“We’re going to give it a good fright,” he said.

By Fiona Rotherham

Co-editor/Online news editor

Contact the Writer: fiona@nbr.co.nz