22 April 2010- Planners have reacted angrily to widescale moves to deregulate zoning controls, create land “competition” and fast track more urban sprawl that emerged in an avalanche of government announcements in the past week.

Leading sustainability and planning authority Professor Peter Newman of Curtin University said more low-density housing would actually cost the economy money and would lead to significant productivity losses.

RMIT’s environment and planning commentator Michael Buxton said Australia had the lowest housing densities in the world and it was a furphy, especially in Melbourne, that there was a shortage of residential land. Governments bodies such as the Productivity Commission were being railroaded by developer lobby arguments and lacked the capability for independent analysis of their claims, he said.

The Planning Institute of Australia also said the moves were the result of one-sided lobbying that did not factor in total costs such as to the environmental and community.

In quick succession in the past week has come a number of moves to change the face of housing land supply and development controls.

Last week the Productivity Commission (see our story ) said it would apply competition policy to the sector. The NSW Government responded by saying it would be the first state to act to free up zoning in for retail property.

And yesterday the Council of Australian Governments said in a communiqué that it would examine the entire housing supply and demand chain to ensure Australia could meet its growth targets.

Even the Reserve Bank this week turned the spotlight on land supply issues as a factor in interest rate rises.

A huge agitator for the moves has been the Urban Task Force, a NSW development lobby group, which wants the reforms to force landowners to compete for sales across any type of development – residential, retail or commercial in order to unlock land supply.

National president of the Planning Institute of Australia Neil Savery said the debate so far has been one-sided with planning industry and the community voices – and potential costs – not factored into the economic equations.

“The concerns we have to date is that the planning profession and the community hasn’t had a much of a voice in all of this.” It was economic interests that had lobbied hardest, he said.

Professor Newman said a new report he co-authored looked specifically at the productivity impacts of more low density housing or urban sprawl – and the results were not good. See our article on the report here.

In the US he said, scattered development had caused huge stress when fuel prices tripled.

“Places like Atlanta and Houston, which feature such scatter, are surrounded by land use where people pay much more for transport than they do for their mortgage. It is not affordable living and in the age of peak oil it is very stupid.

“In reality all Australian cities are increasing in density, decreasing in car use per capita and booming in public transport.

“This will reach limits soon unless planning can better facilitate denser centres around stations (or transport oriented developments) as these are often regulated against.

“But deregulation would be unlikely to help here; it just needs better regulations which favour density, mix, reduced parking, a proportion of affordable housing (density can make affordable housing easier than fringe scatter) and greater walkability.”

To do so would to “substantial improvements” in productivity, “both urban economic productivity and employment productivity,” Professor Newman said.

He said the move to greater inner city densities would lead to lower subsidies for infrastructure, currently about $86,000 a block extra for each new fringe house compared to an inner area; reduced transport costs, currently about $250,000 a household over 50 years; 4.4 tonnes less greenhouse gas a household, and a 6 per cent increase in employment productivity due to people walking more, worth $340,000 a block over 50 years. (A full comparison of financial impacts between low density and higher density development is included in our coverage of the report.)

Darren Bilsborough, a co-author with Roman Trubka and Peter Newman on the productivity and health care report, The Cost of Urban Sprawl: Physical activity links to healthcare costs and productivity, said the report showed clearly that there was a productivity gains from higher density housing through health benefits. And conversely, productivity losses through urban sprawl.

There was not just the transportation issues but the employment issues, with each of the elements feeding into each other

A case of “one and one makes three… the result is great than the sum of the parts,” Mr Bilsborough said.

“My belief is that planning is the key issue to everything and if we don’t that right how can we get the correct outcomes?”

RMIT environment and planning expert Michael Buxton yesterday told The Fifth Estate on Wednesday that the argument that there was not enough residential land was a “a beat up that the development industry and the peak developer groups have been running with, with great success now for a number of years.

“They are basically trying to run a scare campaign into releasing more outer urban land,” Professor Buxton said.

There was some case for arguing there was a shortage of land in Sydney but this had been “basically met” by recent land releases.

“But in the rest of the country, it’s a complete beat up. If we look at Melbourne there is 17 years supply of land without extending the urban land boundary and the [state] government had bought the developer arguments that the supply should be expanded.”

Australia had the world’s lowest densities in greenfield housing, he said. Melbourne had an average of 12.5 lots per hectare and nationally the figure was 9 lots.

“It a shocking squandering of a scarce resource. The real issues is not the amount of land designated fore develoment – you can designate land till kingdom come – the real issue is the amount of land released to the market by development bodies that control land markets.

“Why governments buy the furphy is a reflection of their own incompetence because the figures don’t match the developers claims.”

It was “very disturbing” that COAG and the Productivity Commission which “ought to know better” were proceeding down a route of deregulating zoning  provisions and more urban sprawl, Professor Buxton said.

Professor Buxton said state government had deregulated planning “almost out of existence” in any case, led by NSW.

On the issue of retailing, Professor Buxton said the shift was “alarmingly towards the big retailers in every market and that’s because governments won’t control these powerful companies setting up their big box retailing and they are having a devastating effect on smaller businesses.

“If they really believe in competition policy they would not let the big retailers and land developers dominate the market.

“It just drives the small players to the wall. It’s just nonsense – competition policy is a mask for monopoly.”

A key problem said Professor Buxton was that the key decisions in government were being made by state treasuries and free market advocates.

“To send something like this to the Productivity Commission is to get the answer you want.”

He said that in government there was a lack of ability to analyse and dissent from the dominant approaches.


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