Defence Force handed a Devonport lifeline

The NZDF has a strong presence in Devonport, but could struggle to house staff in the future. Photo: Getty

The Defence Force has negotiated a lifeline for its leased staff housing in Devonport, but what will it do when it eventually has to hand the accommodation back?

A clutch of properties in Devonport will continue to be used to house Navy staff after the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) signed a new lease with the owner.

The 253 properties have long been used as accommodation for military personnel working at the base in the affluent Auckland suburb, but NZDF handed back ownership to local Iwi Ngati Whatua in 2012 as part of a treaty settlement

It has leased the properties since then but that arrangement was due to end next year, with the iwi planning to redevelop the area.

This would have placed the NZDF in a sticky situation struggling to find accommodation for its staff in a city where house prices, and rents, have skyrocketed.

Things will still begin to get progressively worse for the base’s housing situation, however, with the five-year lease extension including a provision that houses will be handed back in tranches on an annual basis.

This will begin with 41 homes in February next year, with 40 a year after that until the lease comes to an end.

The NZDF owns three large blocks of land in Devonport, with the Herald reporting its assets in the area are worth $353 million.

Ngati Whatua also holds large tracts of land and has a range of development plans, including a retirement village along with the new intensive residential development on the land where the old navy houses currently sit.

Devonport residents have raised concerns about the iwi’s plans, concerned that infrastructure such as roads would be unable to cope with the increase in population.

The NZDF declined an interview request, but in response to written questions said there was a range of options available for personnel when the lease ended including alternative housing.

No details could be provided about how much accommodation would be needed when the lease finished, however, as the “projections are being worked through”.

“NZDF is mindful of potential impacts on recruitment. However, there are many factors behind what interests people in joining our unique organisation.”

When contacted for comment Ngati Whatua initially said the relevant person would call back for an interview, then later directed Newsroom to a PR agency. The next day, a note stating the iwi would not be commenting was received.

Housing not the only problem

The NZDF is also facing the prospect of its base slowly being eaten away by rising sea levels.

Earlier this year Newsroom reported that Gerry Brownlee, Defence Minister at the time, had requested information on the costs of relocating the base to Whangarei.

In its briefing, the NZDF warned the base’s North Yard would likely become unusable as the water rose.

The full impact of sea rise was still unknown, but the cost of shifting the base would likely be about $1 billion – a sum deemed too high by Brownlee.

Briefing notes from various meetings of a strategic workshop set up to consider the Devonport base’s future, obtained under the Official Information Act, reveal further talks on a variety of challenges.

In a meeting in February, the group discussed a staged retreat from the North Yard (Ngataringa Bay) because of sea level rise.

It was proposed to not invest in protecting the North Yard from the rising water, despite the flexibility of the area and the limited space at Devonport.

This followed earlier discussions last year where options to protect the area were floated.

These included raising the land at Ngataringa Bay and building a sea wall, and constructing a trench around the North Yard.

But it was eventually agreed that there was a stronger argument to invest in moving operations to the South Yard rather than protecting the areas that would eventually be swallowed by the ocean.

The group also considered other risks to Devonport’s future, including a change of government that could lead to a decision to shift the base (and the Port of Auckland), a lack of space, and the dry dock being unable to cope with larger vessels.

Auckland’s housing prices was also a worry.

“There is limited estate resource at Devonport so it needs to be utilised well. There were some discussions around the ‘Auckland problem’ – high rents meaning that it was difficult to attract and retain staff,” the summary reads.

“Does this mean that if activities don’t need to be located in Auckland, that they should be relocated elsewhere? The flipside to this is that for some NZDF employees, Auckland is an attraction.”