News from the front desk Issue No 429: It’s gloves off. The election in NSW is over and now it’s down to the big power grab – the spoils. And what are the pollies going for, the portfolio now considered “one of the more coveted and contentious” in government? Planning.

According to the morning papers on Thursday Rob Stokes, Anthony Roberts and Victor Dominello all want what’s now seen as the top job.

It’s used to be the most dreary portfolio, to be avoided like the plague.

So are these men the spatial equivalents of physics or maths nerds? Maybe. But more likely it’s the thrilling, dangerous and complex game they’re attracted to, trying to work out how and where to position any number of black and white property manikins – kings, queens, bishops, pawns and so on, on the chessboard of life and property.

Because let’s admit it, we’ve now morphed from the Anthropocene to the Postcodocene. Postcode is everything. Where you live, which bit of the chess board you control, whether for work, life or play determines an ever increasing number of outcomes.

Big giveaways were the uninterrupted swathes marked blue and red you could see on the election result maps for metropolitan Sydney. We’ve yet to check how closely these matched the Red Rooster line devised by the students at USyd a few years ago to brilliantly show how wealth determines even the food you have access to. (The majority of fast food outlets are in low socio-economic areas.)

There are many reasons these spatial demarcations are happening: concentrations of top end service jobs in the best central areas, congestion and the difficulty for others to get around, cheap housing in poorly resourced places and the multiplier effect of all– just for a start.

Understand these patterns well enough and there is huge wealth that can be accumulated by playing the chessboard to your advantage, or if you can enable others to do so.

So maybe it’s no surprise that Tim Williams’ article last week on how to manage zoning of employment lands hit a nerve.

But wow, we’ve hit nerves before but few have stirred so many bad and angry feelings. We were a bit taken aback. It got personal. There were angry comments made off the record to Williams, to us, about us, (“what side were we on?”) and then attempts to go on the record with the same. Which is not what we’re here for.

A balanced well argued response from the Greater Sydney Commission, which Williams had accused of poor research in its treatment of employment lands, was published on Tuesday and went to the top read spot within hours. Wiliams’ piece quickly shot back to the top as well.

Another loud voice in the industry did their own spot of provocation and asked if we were afraid to  “offend the GSC” by assuming we had a particular stance. No, we don’t and no, we are not.

Honestly, how heated and personal the race for space can become.

And again, what’s this fuss all about?

Zoning. Do we keep land for noisy industrial style employment lands that can be used for multiple purposes (including loud music for instance) as the GSC wants or should we provide for flexible mixed uses that recognise the technological future is changing and upon us now? Seen as code by some as a call for more housing, everywhere.

Underlying this is the permanence of the built environment. This is not a dot com industry that builds some software, and can disappear tomorrow, leaving little behind other than a thought wave.

Buildings are permanent. Or should be. Communities and the social infrastructure they create within them are long lasting and mostly cherished, (even if to an educated elite some look like slums that need to be demolished.)

There is too much congestion, not enough transport, lack of decent housing close to places of decent work and an eroding environment.

These are wicked problems with complex solutions, if solutions can indeed be found.

We need to deal with the reality of that complexity in an honest and rational way, in full understanding that there are no silver bullets and making this clear to the community.

Because if we don’t, we expose ourselves to the even more wicked conflation of ideas going on in extreme groups right now that say all our problems – environmental, jobs, infrastructure, culture and whatever else they can throw on the boiling pot – are all about “too much population” (code for too many foreigners, an idea that is strangely, is cooked up in places where there are hardly any immigrants.)

Let’s remember high housing prices are only in part about high demand from strong immigration, according to a growing chorus of thinking, including from the Reserve Bank of Australia recently.

Far more significant are interest rates and overbuilding by a property industry that like the Eveready bunny keeps calling for more supply. The result is now a property market forecast to drop 30-35 per cent. And we suspect they’re still calling for more supply.

The race for space

Where we take a cast iron stand is on the deregulation of zoning. Wherever we’ve deregulated the intention might have been good (more efficiencies and so on) but the result has been a litany of unintended consequences.

And who pays for those consequences? The welfare state. And by that, we mean the taxpayers who can’t afford Cayman Island hideaways. They pay either indirectly through the public purse, or directly if they end up with apartments that catch fire, fall apart or leak.

We need regulation. We need perimeters that define our city spaces. Or instead of chess, we’ll end up with just mess.

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  1. the cynical comments that the property industry is an “Eveready Bunny’ calling for more supply insults the 300,000 people in NSW who get their living from the residential building sector. When the mining industry collapsed new jobs were needed and the housing industry responded based on NSW government planning directions to build in Priority Precincts. It seems the Fifth Estate is happy for half these jobs to become redundant. The Department of Planning and the Greater Sydney Commission sets targets and the private sector responds. The down turn is mainly driven by the banks freezing credit for purchasers. So supply stops, jobs go and the Fifth Estate celebrates the 200,000 unemployed and the lack of new homes in the future. Sustainability is about managing the relationship between supply and demand not just attacking the risk taking market and hoping everyone becomes bankrupt.

    1. I suppose the concern is that the only economic remedy and job creation plan our leaders can think of to balance the collapse of a sector such as mining is property. Jobs in mining never last long. Huge numbers are employed to build the infrastructure after which there is a long extraction period with very few jobs needed. And everyone knows this!!
      It would far better to develop longer lasting sources of jobs and growth, such as perhaps climate resilience, and greening our energy sources. If you do the sums there are many millions of homes in Australia that are badly insulated, chewing up huge amounts of energy, and need retrofitting and renewable energy urgently. Jobs creation there will run for decades. People are starting to worry about where all the skills will come from. It’s a green economic revolution begging to be unleashed.

      Property booms and busts anyway happen with monotonous regularity. We should plan for them. There’s a book called The Land Boomers that outlines this pattern has a long history in Oz, going back to the gold rush of the 1880s and 1890s, though in that case the book outlines massive corruption (quite a surprise to many, I’m sure) See MUP here for details