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War Economy

Materials and Equipment Pre-war

Materials and Equipment Pre-war

For public works development, a considerable range of heavy earthmoving equipment had been imported, and was in use on major projects, when war broke out. The building and construction industry was at this time quite well equipped and was working at full stretch with all available skilled labour.

Though the imported content of construction work was quite high,1 New Zealand was virtually self-supporting for a number of key materials. Before the war the annual use of sawn timber was about 330 million board feet, of which all but some 15 million board feet was grown in New Zealand.2 Cement was being used at the rate of some 220,000 tons a year, and of this only about 1000 tons was imported. Building bricks were being provided entirely from local production at the rate of 29 million a year. Roof tiles equivalent to 7 million square feet a year were also entirely locally made.

Local industry provided over a third of the 11 million square feet of plywood used each year, as well as producing nearly 15 million square feet towards the annual requirements of wallboard, but for some other important building materials New Zealand was entirely dependent on imports. Reinforcing-steel, corrugated iron, common window glass, gypsum and linseed oil were major imported items.

Under the influence of reduced overseas funds and restricted imports, overseas supplies of some important building materials had declined. Corrugated iron, which in 1936 and 1937 was imported at the rate of well over 20,000 tons a year, fell to 13,000 tons in 1938 and recovered to only 16,000 tons in 1939.3 It was to be in short supply throughout the war. Reserves of some building materials had been built up in anticipation of defence construction needs, but they were not really sufficient to make up for the decline in stocks in the hands of private firms as a result of the general reduction in the level of importing. Stocks of corrugated iron held by the Public Works Department, for example, were equivalent

1 For 1952–53 it has been estimated at 38 per cent and for 1954–55 at 34 per cent.—Inter-Industry Studies of Department of Statistics.

2 Imports pre-war were about 30 million board feet a year and exports 15 million. The equivalent of about a further 12 million board feet was imported as sleepers and logs.

3 Later the Minister of Finance, Mr Nash, denied that imports of corrugated iron had been restricted for balance of payments reasons.—NZPD, Vol. 260, p. 47, 7 August 1941. The attempt to encourage the wider use of tiled roofs in New Zealand, and, later, the use of corrugated iron for air-raid precautions in the United Kingdom, also slowed up importing.

page 222 to five weeks' supply only, and would be quite inadequate to cope with reduced private stocks and the impending drastic fall in imports of this most commonly used material for New Zealand roofs.1

Imports of flat iron were below normal in 1939, and imports of mild steel of various types were considerably reduced.

Fortunately, stocks of timber were high when war broke out, but the reduced importing of some types of steel and iron, needed for building and construction work, was soon to give rise to shortages and to restrictions on their use for non-essential work.

Chart 49 shows, for some important building materials, the relative importance of imports and local production before the war.

chart of economic statistics

Chart 49
average annual supplies pre-war(1) according to source

1 See also pp. 112 and 248.