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David Seymour on education

Back in August, the Herald ran an article on the “Grammar zone squeeze: 1800 new apartments to put pressure on school rolls”. I helped the author with the numbers for the article, using info from the RCG Development Tracker. Based on that, I said that “more than 1,800 apartments will be completed in the Auckland Grammar zone in the next three years, with 600 of those also falling in the Epsom Girls Grammar zone”, excluding student accommodation, projects completed before August 2015, and the proposed Boulevard Hotel redevelopment in Newmarket.

So those were the stats, and they were pretty reliable, probably even conservative. The Herald was quite right to point out that new homes will put pressure on inner-city schools to expand. However, the occasion also gave David Seymour a chance to get up on his soapbox. As per the Herald:

Act’s Epsom MP David Seymour said he was opposed to zone shifts – he headed a campaign when two nearby schools proposed overlapping their zones into the area last year – and to intensification.

One idea was to make a rule so that students in new houses would not be included in the zone, he said. There was a need to balance the needs of people who lived in Epsom with the “interests of developers who want to develop property and sell an education with that property”.

He also went on to air his views in greater detail at Interest.co.nz. I’ve just highlighted a few comments below, mainly where I think there’s tension between them and what the ACT Party ostensibly stands for (and which are outlined in section 3 of its Constitution).

Seymour on protecting privilege:

“Seymour said the risk was that the Grammar Schools may eventually have to restrict admissions, which could affect the entitlements of those who had already bought into the Grammar Zone for their children.

“That’s the sort of investment that a lot of people have put in and you have to have some empathy for that,” he said.

“You have to protect the expectations of people that bought into a neighbourhood with a certain community character”.

Of course, you could apply the same argument to any kind of existing privilege or benefit, and say that we can’t change any rules, ever. Think SuperGold fares, the welfare system, tax-free capital gains etc. Almost all policy decisions involve tradeoffs. It’s very hard to find policies that benefit every single person in society; those quick wins have already been made. All policymakers can do is try to find policies which, in aggregate, make society better off.

Seymour trying to use the language of economics:

“Owners and tenants of new apartment and townhouse developers in the zones were effectively free-riding on the benefits of being in the zones, which could ultimately hurt the rights of those already in the zones”.

Seymour’s “obvious” solution:

“Seymour said the most obvious solution was to stop the densification of the Grammar Zones, either by allowing existing residents to block development, or by using the school’s admission rules to block the residents of new buildings from being eligible for admission”.

Seymour said he favoured allowing residents in the zones exercising their property rights to block adjacent development. “I’m in favour of people being able to protect the level of noise, traffic, shading and basic things that directly affect their property,” he said.

Further economics jargon:

“The moratorium would be on new dwellings over and above the current number. What you’re really rationing here is the bundled good, which is access to a certain school zone, and you see that in how they advertise their developments.”

“This would prevent the cycle we currently have where people are incentivised to build as intensely as possible in the zone, but as they do that they’re inevitably going to destroy that very (public) good that they’re building to partake of.”

Seymour predicting the future:

“I don’t believe in 50 years time when we’re a society with vastly more sophisticated transport that people will be as attracted to living so intensely,” he said.

“As transport technology improves, as it has for the last 200 years, people will say that’s great and travel farther and faster and we’re going to consume more space,” he said.

Seymour casting doubt on other people’s ability to predict the future:

“[The Auckland Council] simply don’t have the information about how technology will change the way people work and get around.”

Seymour’s thoughts on how much value the developers get from building in the Grammar zones:

“You have to wonder how many of those projects would pass the stop-go point were it not for the value and the premium people are prepared to pay for access to school zones,” he said.

I note that at the time I gave the Herald these stats, the Development Tracker was also showing another 5,000 apartments and terraces underway in other parts of Auckland, outside the Grammar zones (so we’re talking 600 in the EGGS zone, 1,200 in both the AGS and the EGGS zone, and 5,000 in neither). So Mr Seymour’s wondering is hardly conclusive. At any rate, I’d expect that most of the ‘value’ of being in a Grammar zone is already capitalised into the land, so while developers can sell units at higher prices, they also have to pay a higher price themselves at the start. This means that the actual benefits to the developer are fairly minor.

Seymour attempting to impose his preferences on others, and then trying to cast that as the council trying to impose its preferences on others:

He preferred development happen on the fringes around Auckland and he opposed Auckland Council moves to impose metropolitan limits.

“What I’m opposed to and why I believe the RMA requires reform is the kind of macro level planning where a group of urban planners at Auckland Council say ‘we know what the correct amount of density is and we’re going to draw a line around the city and we’re going to tell you how you’re going to live and get around 30 years into the future,” he said.

Entertainingly, you’ll find that it’s easy to substitute “a group of urban planners at Auckland Council” for “the ACT Party” in that second sentence. It probably helps if you also switch out “we’re going to draw a line around the city” for “we’re going to encase the Grammar zones and Epsom in a bubble”.

So, long story short, the ACT Party has suggested that new homes in the inner city, if they’re allowed to be built at all, should be marooned in a schooling no-man’s-land – excluded from being able to go to the nearby, high quality schools. On the other hand, Bernard Hickey has suggested a range of other options, including privatising some of those schools (“Perhaps the free market ACT party could get behind such a public asset sale?”, heh), changing their zones, etc. Plus, of course, the schools themselves also have at least some ability to grow.

In completely unrelated news, the ACT Party “will not support National-Maori RMA tinkering“, also noting that “compliance costs and delays on developments large and small are slowing business and choking housing supply” and that we have “a land use planning regime that has left New Zealand building fewer houses in 2015 than 1973”.

47 comments to David Seymour on education

  • Robin Anderson

    Damn, where is the free market when you need it!

    • Ricardo

      This whole article smacks of envy. How more obvious can you all be? Of course parents buy within certain zones expecting the associated schooling etc to be of a standard they are willing to pay for. Is that a bad thing? Some of you have fancy cars, some plain, some none at all. You pay for your choices and have an associated expectation.

      • KLK

        Envy? What article were you reading?

        They are exposing a hypocrite. I thought that would reasonate with you, of all people…

  • ACT Party = rentier lobbying dressed up as libertarianism.

    Such bare-faced hypocracy gives libertarianism a bad name. Amazing how shameless Seymour has become as he is rewarded with ever move power by the current government. A business that reflects very poorly on all involved.

  • nemisis

    Although I support greater density I am troubled by the fact that decisions made about our cities are made without the full democratic process and the consent of the majority. Planners in particular often do not know what they are doing and are not accountable. Personally I would like to see a vote on such important issues

    • K

      “Planners in particular often do not know what they are doing and are not accountable.”

      As a planner (not for Council), I’m really interested in the basis for this statement. Care to expand?

  • iiq374

    As a long time ACT Party supporter I can say I’m pretty disappointed by David Seymour’s stance on this – sounds specifically like pandering to the lifeblood electorate instead of standing by the actual party principles.
    Possibly an issue of the need to gather so many Blue rather than Libertarian votes from that specific geographic area 🙁

    I’m not I agree with your point though that “At any rate, I’d expect that most of the ‘value’ of being in a Grammar zone is already capitalised into the land, so while developers can sell units at higher prices, they also have to pay a higher price themselves at the start. This means that the actual benefits to the developer are fairly minor”. Because the amount capitalised into the land would be a single multiple of the school access value; whereas the developer is creating multiples of that (according to the number of dwellings)

    • Yeah, but the seller/leaser of the land would also be aware that it is sold for development purposes so the price would be higher. For a quick example, imagine a three section property is being sold. When you assume you can stick two more houses on no worries the property is worth quite a lot more than if, for instance, the existing house straddles all three sections (assuming we’re just talking a boring long low house not a mansion or anything). The seller’s reserve would be influenced by a) their own costs (probably what they paid), b) what they want the money for, c) that the land is double Grammar zoned and d) that they know any prospective purchaser is expecting to make a packet from the developments.

      I think it plausible that the developer would pay, as it were, some kind of markup for the grammar zone status but that that markup is influenced by the expectation of development. I also don’t think that “most” is a word that would describe the impact of this markup.

  • Tony Bailey

    So if I buy a house with a view no one shouuld be able to build out that view?

  • harrymc

    Seymour’s problem is that he exists as an MP at the fiat of Key, so he is nothing more than a nat in drag.
    The nats are all about protecting privilege, so Seymour comes up with these hypocritical statements. He’s trying to face two ways at once. People should be stopped doing what they want in Epsom but be allowed to do whatever they want elsewhere.

  • It goes to show that the dirty little secret to success for Auckland Grammar et al, is to block out anyone considered remotely ‘unteachable’.

    And is anyone here old enough to remember Auckland University’s Remuera Marae prank from 1984?

    • mfwic

      I was in my first year at Auckland Uni in 1984. They claimed they wanted drinking facilities for 400 people at the end of a posh street near Mt Hobson.

  • JeffT

    And here’s me thinking that ACT were free market proponents. Free market as long as it’s not in my back yard.

  • GTP

    This issue is not restricted to the Grammar Zone, all over Auckland schools are bursting

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/71075879/auckland-schools-bursting-with-too-many-students.html

    The Auckland Council should be working more closely with the Ministry of Education to ensure there is sufficient education capacity in areas targeted for intensification or new housing developments. Currently there doesn’t appear to be any co-ordination.

  • Ari

    David is in a tough place. He was elected to represent Epsom, which he is doing very well. He is also representing/leading his party which he has done a pretty good job with this limited experience. labour/national electorate MP’s have been known to vote against their party position because of the views of their constituents.

    • John Polkinghorne

      True, electorate MPs do sometimes vote against their party position. But Seymour is the sole ACT MP, and the party leader, and has an education portfolio. So I don’t think he can really use that excuse.

    • Haha nice one Ari. Nothing like a good bit of sarcasm to brighten up my Thursday afternoon. 🙂

  • Sanctuary

    ACT is a Libertarian party as long as there is no electoral cost. The minute there is, they are revealed as just another political vehicle for rich and reactionary snobs.

  • So he believes in nanny-state restrictions on property rights affecting what an owner can do with their freehold land. He would be labelled left-wing in Texas.

    In Melbourne one of the best State secondary schools is McKinnon. Apartment development in the school zone is booming. One of my son’s friends temporarily rented in the school district while he was at secondary school. They have since moved back to their own house outside the district.

  • “It’s very hard to find policies that benefit every single person in society; those quick wins have already been made. All policymakers can do is try to find policies which, in aggregate, make society better off”.
    What about strategies to reduce inequality? As The Spirit Level showed, all of us suffer because of that. Policies to reduce obesity, the epidemic which will overbear our health system in a few years….? We all benefitted from fewer people smoking in our midst – from lower costs, if from nothing else.

    • Matthew W

      Costs on the health system are a pecuniary externality, and so shouldnt be policy relevant. If we dont want obesity costing taxpayers money, we should tighten up on what and how we fund medical expenses through the public health system.

  • Angus Robertson

    Entertainingly, you’ll find that it’s easy to substitute “a group of urban planners at Auckland Council” for “the ACT Party” in that second sentence. It probably helps if you also switch out “we’re going to draw a line around the city” for “we’re going to encase the Grammar zones and Epsom in a bubble”.

    If these were both leaders of inconsequential parties bloviating in an effort to appear happy chappy to their electorate, we could all enjoy a good chuckle. Unfortunately Auckland Council seemingly have every intention “to draw a line around the city”.

    • John Polkinghorne

      Urban limits or, in the Unitary Plan terminology, the “Rural Urban Boundary”, have been around for a long time. The justifications have changed over the years. The bits that matter now are that there are environmental externalities worth taking into account; that there may be other externalities, i.e. the general public may still be covering some of the costs of new development; that the council faces budget constraints which means it can’t provide infrastructure for everywhere even if there wasn’t an urban limit drawn; and that the council is making a lot of extra land available (1.5 Hamiltons, on current plans) via the RUB, compared to the current urban limits.

      • Matthew W

        “that there may be other externalities, i.e. the general public may still be covering some of the costs of new development;”

        And here is another pecuniary externality. If the general public is funding the costs of new development the response should be to stop funding not restrict said development. Also what are the environmental costs exactly? The fact people choose to drive because they live in the wops is not an environmental externality attributable to development, its an externality attributable to car use. Sure loss of habitat is an environmental externality but not sure how relevant that is to Aucklands RUB.

        • John Polkinghorne

          “If the general public is funding the costs of new development the response should be to stop funding not restrict said development” – quite right, the best outcome would simply be to internalise the externalities. There has already been a lot of progress on this in the last few years, and development is now much closer to paying its way as opposed to being subsidised by existing ratepayers.
          I’m not particularly fussed about loss of habitat/ rural land etc, I’m thinking more of greenhouse gas emissions being underpriced. Those are all things which could be addressed, so I’ve got no particular attachment to urban limits as such – in fact, they’re probably a “second-best” policy response.

          • Tony

            Yeah, ’cause first user pays all’ is a sure-fire way to reasonable house prices.

            Now, where’d I leave that sarcasm font…

          • Angus Robertson

            You rate Urban Limits in a “best” category?

            Urban Limits create rural sprawl destroying the environment, whilst driving up land costs to make housing less affordable and stifle development. Zoning Limits create urban sprawl destroying the environment, whilst driving down land values to curtail economic growth and stifle development.

            Both these policies owe their existence to fear driven political gain and have little benefit. “Are you afraid of developers bulldozing your neighbourhood/or concreting over the countryside? Then vote for me/or me.”

      • Angus Robertson

        …the council is making a lot of extra land available (1.5 Hamiltons, on current plans) via the RUB, compared to the current urban limits.

        1.5 x the Hamilton population is 285,000 and Auckland is currently planning to open that much more land by 2044. The expected growth in Auckland’s population by 2043 is an additional 730,000. There are some externalities to placing such a tight constriction around a city.

        • And to such restrictive density and height controls. But you never mention those.

          • Angus Robertson

            I spent most of last week highlighting that our absurd height and density restriction laws make it more profitable to develop apartments at the bottom of a deep dark hole than in the sunlight.

        • Angus your obsession with the MUL betrays a failure to understand the value of location. What we are missing is the ability to develop more proximate dwellings than simple more dwelling anywhere. There is a difference; were there not, then cities wouldn’t exist, all population would simply be spread across the face of the earth without agglomerating into conurbations. That this isn’t the case isn’t because of MULs but rather because the unique power of proximity that cities everywhere, thought history, consistently exhibit.

          • Angus Robertson

            I understand the value of location, my issue with the MUL is one of cost. You say we need “the ability to develop more proximate dwellings than simple more dwelling anywhere”, well I want you to address the “How?”. To develop a property you need to acquire a property, develop it and sell it.

            The value of proximity, drives the selling price. By allowing people more scope in their development, we allow the realisation of more value. This is a good thing and you are all about this which is great, but then there is the first thing – to acquire the property is a cost. Having a constrictive MUL drives up that cost.

          • Angus Robertson

            And finally:

            “That this isn’t the case isn’t because of MULs but rather because the unique power of proximity that cities everywhere, thought history, consistently exhibit.

            I agree totally, this is my point – cities do not become proximate because they have MULs. So why do we have one?

          • John explained this well above; because in the absence of the true pricing of sprawl a MUL is a second order way of trying to contain an explosion of all the negative externalities of undifferentiated and subsidised sprawl.

          • Angus Robertson

            You worry about an explosion that can never occur. In the absence of an MUL the true (lack of) value of sprawl is always there, based as it is on relative (lack of) proximity. Without an MUL sprawl land could only profitably be converted to low value housing and those profits do not exist to justify fears of an explosion.

            However because of our MUL, land cost inside the limit increases. Inside the MUL profits are destroyed on low value developments. The only developments that are profitable are high value and even these deliver lower profits here than in other cities.

          • But Angus your natural limits can only occur if there are no, or very few density limits so that people have an honest, free market choice.

            Otherwise you just end up with Atlanta/Houston where density is restricted but sprawl is not, so people have no choice but to live further and further from their work and play places. Therefore they need to drive everywhere. There is no genuine choice.

            I don’t believe that is possible or desirable for Auckland.

            I looked at one of the (incredibly cheap) houses in Houston on Google maps and asked how I would get from there to downtown Houston. The first instruction was “drive 5 miles to the bus stop”. And that wasn’t in an exurb, that was in a reasonably built up area.

            If we want to develop more rail/bicycle oriented dense developments like Houten in the Netherlands (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houten) further from the centre, then let’s do that. But I can’t see this rail phobic government promoting that. Pokeno and Kumeu could be great starters.

          • Angus Robertson

            Goosoid, There is a chicken and an egg. If we want an intensified city we must get one built. To impose a constrictive MUL is problematic, making the cost of building anything inside the MUL more expensive.

            “But I can’t see this rail phobic government promoting that. Pokeno and Kumeu could be great starters.”

            How about Swanson? Or between Karaka and Paerata?

  • lcmortensen

    Change the rules for zoning so AGS must take into account boys who have older sisters at EGGS or AGGS on equal standing as those with older brothers at AGS. It will weaken the double grammar zone to start with. Also, build a third school with its zone overlapping both AGS and EGGS and let them fight for students.

  • Warren S

    Prior to the last general election David Seymour told me he was not supportive in any way of the City Rail Link and certainly opposed to any Government funding of the project. Driving in your own car (possibly eventually electric) was his solution so by extension, he must be a supporter of moar roads. On that basis he would never get my vote.

  • JeffT

    I see the council’s new zoning plan has just come out that will allow more intensification in areas such as parts of Mt Eden, Remuera and Pt Chev. Get ready for the pitchforks to come out!

    • Matthew W

      It would be interesting to see a direct comparison. How do these plans fit into the overall process. Is it all done bar the shouting now?

  • Harriet

    Simple solution, abolish school zones which create income segregation in schools.

    • Do they? Or is it the obsession that some parents have with particular schools?

      Zones exist for very, very good reasons. One of them is so that schools actually spend money on educating their pupils rather than on marketing so that they get funds to educate the remaining pupils (a problem with white flight… yesterday’s “how full are our schools” article on the Herald discusses some of these things). But, also, what I said in September when this started to make the news:

      Buying a house “in zone” is done by people who commodify their children or who are looking for status. They’re taking a risk. They know they take a risk by buying on a zone boundary. If it backfires? Well that’s what a risk is, isn’t it?

      Suggesting that AGS and EGGS should, when faced with a problem of roll growth and limited size to expand, resort to options that for any other state school would never be considered is sending a message. Considering any solution beyond “restrict the zone” is simply a case of saying, “Hey, these schools actually are better”. It’s stratifying. If you treat them like they’re not special (because, you know, they aren’t “special”) then you crack their mystique which has positive follow on effects for other schools (e.g. there’s a reason people consider “white flight” and other kinds of roll decline an issue).

      Zoning is a fundamentally good thing. Sure, you get strange results where some roads have one side go to one school and the other side go to another school, but, fundamentally, you should not be allowing state schools to turn away someone who lives over the fence or within a ten minute walk because of some other qualities that don’t meet their ethos. If you let AGS have the opportunity, it would use its classification testing to simply admit everyone in order based on those tests: geography be damned. Your son could well end up spending an hour or more commuting to a school just because on one test/series of assessments he didn’t do well enough to get into a state school two minutes down the road. That’s insane and that’s what would happen.

      But, wait, it’d get worse. There are quite a few schools that are like AGS. They like to convince parents and people that they’re of a certain class or distinguishable by a certain something. All these schools, in the absence of zoning, would be like AGS and use entrance tests to exclude as well as classify entrants (despite what John Morris might try to convince the readers of the Herald, most schools stream their pupils). This means stuff because, as the “(double) grammar zone” phenomenon indicates parents do buy into this but also because test techniques actually do make a difference to how well you do on tests (and, on a related note, I guess so does exam doping).

      Removing zones is not going to lead to a more equitable world. It would, in fact, lead to the exact opposite (or, to the extent that the grammar zone means it exists today, merely preserve the current situation)] because the parents in a position to put their children into programmes designed simply to get their children into schools like AGS? Well, they’re not going to be the ones that can’t already afford to live in the grammar zone.”

  • Evan James

    In this era of proportional representation we seem to have forgotten what the first rule is for any electorate member of parliament – to be re-elected – because if they are not re-elected there is nothing they can do to put their ideas forward. And we are not talking about an extra dwelling on a section. One section in Remuera that I know of had a house and swimming pool bowled and 13 townhouses erected on it, while down an adjacent side street an extra two townhouses were added to a section – that’s 15 extra houses in one quite small area and these were all quite large townhouses with a minimum of three bedrooms.