Contractor (June 2014) Labour’s “Pro-Wood” Policy Alarming

01 Jun 2014
Rob Gaimster
Cement & Concrete Association (CCANZ)

Prime Minister John Key recently announced Saturday 20 September as the date of the general election.

Almost immediately political parties began positioning themselves in relation to key issues through various ‘policy’ announcements.

Of particular interest, or should that be concern, to the concrete industry is the Labour party’s Forestry and Wood Products Economic Upgrade policy package.

Announced mid-March by David Cunliffe at the ForestWood conference in Wellington, the policy package is part of Labour’s plan to transition New Zealand to a “modern, high value economy.”

However, the material specific nature of the policies is so overt that if implemented they would create an inappropriate commercial advantage for one construction material over another.

The Pro-Wood Government Procurement Strategy component is particularly alarming. It stipulates that “all government-funded project proposals for new buildings up to four storeys high shall require a build-in-wood option at the initial concept / request-for-proposals stage (with indicative sketches and price estimates).”

Sound familiar? It is the same flawed policy floated, but shelved, by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry several years ago, one which CCANZ vocally opposed.

Now, as then, it is completely inappropriate to mandate that decision makers in the construction process must consider wood as a structural option. Such preferential treatment of one industry over another would set a disappointing precedent.

Government should not be picking winners when it comes to the selection of construction materials, which should stand or fall on their own technical, cost, aesthetic and sustainability credentials.

Building environment rating tools, such as the Green Star rating tool, have gained traction over recent years, and offer a far more objective assessment of the benefits of construction materials.

To suggest that timber is a more sustainable option and as such should be the preferred material for government buildings is too simplistic. I do not dispute that wood has sustainable properties, or that forestry is important to New Zealand’s Kyoto obligations. However, this does not outweigh or negate the sustainability of other construction materials such as concrete.

In addition, the policy does a huge dis-service to the hardworking men and women in the cement and concrete industries. Favouring a single construction material during the design phase of a government building could seriously impact on their livelihoods and jobs.

My sentiments are shared by the steel industry. Metals NZ believe the policy undermines the technical expertise of structural engineers, architects and quantity surveyors, who are the best people to evaluate the most suitable building materials based on the desired product performance and commercial outcomes for a particular project.

On his blog, ACT leader Jamie Whyte refers to Labour’s policies as “forced consumption”, and believes they are “not merely a path to national economic decline. They appeal to immoral and anti-social urges: vote for me and I will prey on others for your benefit.

In a withering attack, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce called the policy “classic 70s ‘government knows best’ interventionism,” and asked the question “what next, supplementary minimum prices for wood?

In short, this policy does not create a level playing field for the use of construction materials in government buildings. In fact, materials other than wood will be considerably disadvantaged by this policy. The wide-reaching implications of this policy are extremely concerning and it should in no circumstances be adopted.

Article appeared in Contractor magazine.