A scene from Utopia, with Rob Sitch, left

On why the Property Council and Urban Taskforce made it to Utopia

It’s safe to come out of the closet now – all property people who for a long time felt like their industry was one of the great unloved and even more misunderstood.

Things are on the move.

First was the new PM Malcolm Turnbull creating not just a minister for cities, but for the built environment as well (still pinching ourselves over that last bit).

Then on Wednesday the Property Council and the NSW Urban Taskforce jumped straight from the occasional mention in the business pages and the Murdoch rags to Utopia, the brilliant satirical series on the ABC.

Move over Q&A, we might just have a new format for debating the hot political issues of our time. And in a way that gets much more cut-through.

Utopia, set in a federal government infrastructure department, this week featured a bunch of developers, called “Auscon” (of all things) who wanted the Feds to lean on the state to get rid of those pesky urban green zones that were “out of control” and a “real problem”.

The adviser in the show had just lunched with the developer, brow furrowed in concern. Let me guess, said Rob Sitch, whose character is the head of the department, “they complained about land supply, red tape and first home owners”.

Yep, “serious problem”, says the adviser picking up a copy of the Fin and excitedly reading the latest OpEd from Urban Taskforce, to prove his point.

Sitch tries to educate the adviser (who’s not listening) that these are the same old arguments dragged out decade after decade and that all the developers want is to “make a quick buck”.

That might be a tad unfair. Developers are probably no different to anyone else who wants to make money as fast and as easily as possible. It’s human nature. It’s the government and regulators’ jobs to set the parameters. And it’s the job of the community and commentators and observers to engage with setting those parameters.

But in the same way that developers need to stop with the same old rhetoric, so do the groups on the other side of the fence.

The reality is we are facing unprecedented challenges. Most of us now live in cities and they will become increasingly crowded. We will face climate challenges at home and we will face pressures from climate refugees on our doorstep.

We need to stop whining about what we’re losing and start to focus on what we can create. The possibilities are enormous – climate positive cities with vibrant life, ecologically cognisant design, stronger community/collaborative focus and high quality housing that doesn’t have to be huge.

In Melbourne the nimble and sustainable developers are asking interested buyers to help design the apartments they want. Let’s hear that in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. And why not Darwin, our latest destination hot spot for growth?

Mind, Melbourne is not immune from the laziness disease.

City of Melbourne’s planning guru Rob Adams recently told an industry function that Melbourne planning was “broken”.

We bumped into some planning people in Melbourne during the week who said Adams is right – the plethora of poor quality apartments that sprouted under the previous political regime will have serious consequences on the city’s brand for high quality of life and good design.

The future is about apartments and it’s about density, they said. We have no choice but to get things right.

Now this move of housing debate from the pages of the business press to comedy is an interesting sign.

It’s doubly interesting following Turnbull’s acknowledgement of the built environment as a populist issue, by giving it a ministry.

This creates dilemmas for both the property industry and its opponents, and big challenges for those who observe and report on the issue.

Under the previous federal regime it was pretty easy to cover cities, infrastructure and environment issues when the government was clearly ideologically driven and in destructor mode. They were just plain wrong. All the time.

It gets a lot more interesting and much harder when a government leadership publicly states it wants to treat the issues like an adult and give them a proper place in government.

It has to become a far more nuanced discussion.

Both sides need to grow up.

It becomes incumbent on both sides of the fence to stop with the knee-jerk rhetoric. We need an evidence-based debate.

From the property side of the fence, creating a morass of wrong leads and one-sided data that ignores other highly relevant factors is not helpful and, let’s be blunt, it’s why the property industry has struggled with carving out better credibility for itself.

For instance, can we drop the bit about Sydney not having enough land for housing? There has been countless swathes of greenfield sites made available for housing in Sydney’s north-east and south-west.

The problem for the industry is that the owners of the land, mainly farmers, won’t sell. They won’t sell because it’s worth more to keep the land and watch the prices keep climbing (nice retirement egg) and even a five hectare lot will fetch more as a hobby farm than the same parcel of land subdivided for house and land packages.

So stop saying we need more greenfield land.

And stop saying we need to get rid of red tap and get faster planning approvals.

University of Sydney’s Peter Phibbs would agree.

In his Spinifex column recently, he quoted figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics that Greater Sydney recorded 43,845 dwelling approvals in 2014-15, the highest number for many years. Developers aren’t nearly keeping up with the approvals. And it’s exactly the same planning system as during the recession when very little was being built, or approved, he pointed out.

Next stop saying local government charges are the reason housing is too expensive. The truth developers will tell you when no one else is listening is that they can’t compete with foreign buyers. Who quite frankly don’t care what they pay to get a foothold in the market and sadly often don’t care about what quality of housing they build there. That’s a catchy disease and one that comes from a lack of accountability and that dreadful word policing.

It’s pointless getting great legislation like the BASIX environmental standards or other green standards if people cheat and if no one has the resources to audit the culprits.

On the argument that more supply is the only way to make housing affordable, the answer is no. And no.

Demand and supply are still the key inputs to the price equation, but it’s the supply of money that’s paramount. Job security is another, but that’s related to how much money someone feels comfortable to borrow, so money again. Let’s not forget that it’s the banks that drive all our bubbles and all our busts. Not even developers, even though developers always manage to be at the front end of those pointy bits.

Supply of affordable housing is in fact plentiful. Try a few provincial towns.

What’s limited is enough supply in the most popular places. So in highly “sought after areas” prices will skyrocket when money is cheap.

This doesn’t mean we need to release more land in really cheap areas otherwise only those people who can’t afford to live closer to the city will buy there and then have to weather the cost of transport and isolation.

What we don’t have enough supply of is fast, cheap public transport.

Committee for Sydney’s Tim Williams told us in our briefing article for the Surround Sound on Sustainable Precincts, that will be published in a book on the Surround Sound, that Millennials would happily populate outer suburban centres if they if they could get to the CBDs quickly on a train. But what about jobs, you say?

“The jobs will come if you can get from Parramatta to the CBD in 10 minutes by public transport,” he said.

Canary Wharf in London created 100,000 jobs when they extended the Jubilee Line, he said.

Turnbull says he wants to tackle these issues.

As shadow minister for cities Anthony Albanese said this week, he had better stand by his word.

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published.

  1. Given Morrison’s comments yesterday in the SMH, I am not that hopeful. I’m afraid that the ‘let’s streamline planning and development to improve housing affordability’ argument continues to rage, and will continue until our pollies have the guts and integrity to move away from it and actually speak the truth. I”m not giving up though…

  2. Wouldn’t miss Utopia for anything. Almost.
    It’s like watching the week at work in reverse with the names changed. Or this week – not changed.
    Nice reflective article – thanks Tina.