On promises, suburbs and marriages made in Disneyland

13 September 2012 – The residential development industry is in a bad way in NSW and John Brogden, chairman of Landcom, is here to help.

That was the clear message from the likeable Brogden at a property industry lunch on Friday to explain the new look Landcom, UrbanGrowth NSW or “Landcom on steroids” as the premier Barry O’Farrell dubbed it.

But Brogden, just like a nice guy, said his message wasn’t about Landcom at all, it was about the property development industry, which the government recognised was such crucial part of the NSW economy.

Landcom will pave the way so that the industry could do what it does best, build lots of houses in the ‘burbs, Brogden said.

­The new look Landcom would assemble the land, get it ready, lay the infrastructure, even pay for a $2 million sewer connection on another site if it meant getting a project off the ground.

It would stop competing with the industry and move out of retailing land.

It would toughen up the compulsory acquisition powers so developers could buy missing lots from pesky farmers who won’t sell.

With the industry claiming one of the worst periods in its history it was a message received with open arms.

But let’s not get carried away. Let’s look at Brogden’s address stripped of the warm headlines.

All these things would be available, he said. But not for free. This was not a charity, he said. Every deal had to be “pragmatic”. If good value was delivered, then that value had to be reflected in the deal.

No government in the country was going to write Landcom a $1 billion cheque, he said

[And the land retailing was a nice little earner for the government. The sub-text was that retreat from this would be staged. Besides at least someone was building houses in these past few years, when the industry was in retreat.]

But Brogden, like every other politician of every political hue that has stood in front of a property industry lunch or breakfast and promised to fix the planning/housing policies/statutes and the government silos that seem to stifle all of the above, said it would be different this time.

Poor NSW residential development industry. You couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for it, like you might for someone in a bad marriage, hoping, believing that this time it will be different.

But only a bit sorry, because you start to suspect that for a long time now, this relationship has been wrong-wrong-wrong. And will lead to no good.

Maybe the marriage vows were wrong in the first place. Wrong commitment. The industry thought it could just set up house in the burbs, raise the kids and play tennis while they are at school, get the hubby to paint the white picket fence on the weekend: Disneyland.

No more.

These days the wife has to earn her keep and often that of her children, drive around in one of the family cars, pay the road tolls, do the shopping, drop off kids, get to work, and increasingly hubby has to chip right in.

Oh dear. What we have here is a failure to communicate. The real cost that is.

These places now give us dysfunctional urban areas that no-one can afford when the real mortgage collector comes calling: for the petrol bill, the social bill, the health bill, jobs bill, environmental bill, infrastructure and so on.

Now the Grattan Institute tells us the burbs will be the slums of the future because they’re just not designed to be refreshed and rebuilt in the same way as inner areas.

What makes an industry think it can keep building the same housing it built in the 50s? You can’t have the same marriage you had in the 50s no matter how many focus groups tell you that it would be a lovely to have one.

What this state had now, Brogden proudly stated, was a way to get rid of the impasse when housing development gets bogged down in government agencies.

It’s called the “Housing Supply Sub Committee of Cabinet”, established last year by the Government.

“Take note of the name,” Brogden was happy to proclaim: “not housing sustainability, not housing affordability – but housing supply.”

The [silly annoying stuff] about sustainability had only slowed things down and created more expensive housing, he said.

The partnership sounded so good; the industry wanted to believe. It was excited, beaming, albeit a little cautiously; in its heart it knows – it’s over.

Sadness, but not at the core
Four Corners on the ABC this week featured a heart wrenching story about youth suicide. It was centred on a virtual epidemic around Berwick in the south-eastern fringes of Melbourne.

Some of these children had thrown themselves under railway trains. One victim had suffered the loss of eight friends through suicide.

You try to imagine what it is like as a 15-year-old, when your hormones are running rampant, when you’ve been bullied at school or on the internet, when your peer group is at the height of its pack mentality and you don’t feel you fit in. And tried to imagine it in the bleak outer suburbs where the low skilled jobs have evaporated and you are about to leave school, or you left a year to go and are unemployed.

Where the social services are thin or non-existent because no-one wants to work in low paid, high stress social welfare areas, in a society where calls to Lifeline go unanswered.

What was harder to imagine was a cohort of young people in inner city Fitzroy or Newtown or Toorak or Bellevue Hill or Mosman or Hamilton or Peppermint Grove losing eight, now nine of their own, in the space of a few years.