We need more land for affordable housing but we must be much more imaginative about how and where we seek it; certainly, no more dumb sales of social housing, please.

It’s worth a read.

In Serious Money, Caroline Knowles’ gently wry review of plutocratic London, she describes her walks in some of the city’s wealthiest neighbourhoods and recounts disarming interviews with some of the inhabitants, which together reveal the disturbing consequences of increasing mal-distribution of wealth within that city.

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While the plight of the not-well-off is fairly well known, yet shamefully under-addressed, the secretive wealthy are exposed as mostly friendless beyond transactional relationships, paranoid about losing their wealth and seeking to isolate themselves from the city in which they strive to live.

Though noting that growing policy awareness ascribes economic laissez-faire as the root cause of these conditions, Knowles is under no illusion that reformist efforts already underway will be strongly resisted by the subjects of her study.

Themes she explores can also be discerned in Australia’s principal capital cities, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne where spectacular property wealth is breathlessly portrayed alongside desperate attempts by many to obtain a foothold on the “property ladder” or even just to rent.

Fortunately, Australian housing unaffordability is starting to be addressed, though many new policies appear utterly feckless.

Consider, for example, the peri-urban subdivision plans of the South Australian and New South Wales governments. When viewed against the complexity that defines the issue, they are akin to servicing a jumbo jet with a screwdriver or cooking a banquet using a single ingredient.

What is generally agreed, though, is that land availability is the first and critical component of any solution.

Former governments actually contributed to the affordability problem even as its causes became well understood: recall the previous government’s record in selling land that can now no longer be deployed for affordable housing.

This is why on taking office recently, the NSW premier instructed key government agencies to trawl through their real estate holdings to find spare land for affordable housing; “…it’s a priority for my government” he said.

Spare land?

Typically, housing agencies themselves are first in any government’s sights to provide land for housing.

The logic is all too neat; low density public housing is deemed an under-use of residential land and should therefore make way for more intense development, provided mainly by the for-profit sector.

But why shouldn’t the same what’s-good-for-the-goose-is good-for-the-gander logic apply to land held by other agencies?

In response to the Premier’s call, the controversial Transport Asset Holding Authority almost immediately identified four sites for rezoning that would permit construction of a total of 300 apartments –  not many but a good start.

However, the Department of Health understandably wished to retain its spare land to permit orderly expansion of clinical services as demand will inevitably increase in the future.

These exchanges invite a deeper discussion about the “highest and best use” of land as measured against all contemporary and possible future claims on it, not just those of the agency holding the land.

Highest and best use?

This author explored the issue in inner Sydney some years ago.

The title image of that article depicted the effect of the current elevated decks of the Western Distributor on depressing development through Sydney’s highly valuable CBD and speculated that the value of all affected land may be worth more than the cost of lowering the road below ground level.

Essentially, it asked the question: how is it that the value of land affected by the aged infrastructure of a transport agency responsible for managing one of the state’s lowest density transport systems is counted as zero in the midst of one of the highest density most expensive real-estate markets in the nation?

If so, then here is another class of land that might not normally be snared in a simple call for “spare government land”.

As Tim Williams reminds us, CBDs across the world are facing significant restructuring pressures post-Covid. This may need, he suggests, a fundamental and perhaps radical reconfiguration of land uses within affected cities.

With reference to private land, for example, might now under-utilised offices be converted into dwellings – a la Melbourne some decades ago – further rendering the working-from-home and errr, work habits much more blurred?

The net effect, he posits, might be a change of the city from a monocultural CBD to a CED – central experience district – not unlike many European cities in fact.

The point here is that the call for “spare land” should be interpreted in the widest possible way in order to unlock the positive urban transformation that could arise from this approach.

This perspective is sometimes referred to as increasing overall urban productivity.

How about another example?

This author again explored opportunities to unlock land affected by elevated road decks in the corridor from Darling Harbour to Victoria Road, and how that land might be developed to complement Sydney’s CBD.

Though hinted at in the first article, the second reflected on the nature of that development, not as a final proposition but to illustrate that mere land release – let’s call it dis-encumbrance – should be alloyed to deeper thinking about the city-making opportunities and benefits that could or should arise.

This is precisely what Russel Lunney explored on the benefits of improving east-west rail connections between the three centres of Sydney; the CBD in the east, Paramatta in the centre, and the “aerotropolis” in the west. This was, however,  through a necessarily narrow focus on transport systems given the size of the topic.

As it now stands, the new airport rail link will merely link into the outskirts of the existing metro rail network, thereby condemning airport users to the lengthy commute times already embedded into that system.

The Grattan Institute made a similar point when considering what it concluded were dubious benefits of high-speed rail: “… governments could (instead) help many more commuters by improving public transport in the booming outer suburbs [of capital cities]”.

Another article by this author explored possible reasons for, and benefits from, relocating all air operations from Mascot to the new Badgerys Creek facility.

Amongst the benefits was the prospect of releasing 907 hectares of Australian government land – close to Sydney’s CBD with some 10 kilometres of water frontage and already served by a rail line – for redevelopment; perhaps, say, housing.

Proceeds of the sale and value capture of land value uplift in the airport approach corridor could part fund the fast rail east west link that Lunney explored and which the Grattan Institute recommended in general terms as a better use of public funds than high-speed rail. This appears to be something that the NSW Planning Minister Paul Scully supports.

Not High-Speed Rail again!!!

HIgh Speed Rail – let’s look at it a bit differently

The Grattan Institute has consistently alerted to the special pleading, financial fudging and spurious environmental benefits of east coast high speed rail proposals.

“East-coast business travellers would be the biggest winners from a multi-billion-dollar bullet train, but taxpayers … would have to stump up an average of $10,000 each to make the dream a reality.”

However, a subsequent report hinted at an intriguing prospect.

Summarising that report, Grattan observed that “… the long construction time means it would be many years before the train actually starts to take planes out of the sky.

“This, combined with construction emissions, means a bullet train would be very slow to reduce emissions. In fact, we found it would first increase emissions for many years.”

These remarks reflected initial feasibility studies that assumed only some 20 per cent of east coast air travel might be decanted into high-speed rail. Significant environmental costs from construction would take many years to be offset by the lower impact of surface travel.

However, would these assumptions change if the airlines became investors?

In May this year and in pursuit of its environmental commitments, France banned all internal passenger flights where an alternative mode could be undertaken in less than two and half hours, which was widely interpreted as redirecting prospective passengers to use that nation’s extensive TGV network.

Airlines are under increasing pressure to reduce their carbon footprint, with offsets, increased fuel efficiencies, and changing over to expensive bio-fuels being the main focus of their endeavours.

The Melbourne to Brisbane corridor is variously reported as the third to fifth busiest air route in the world, with concomitant carbon emissions.

The abatement cost of aircraft pollution is only likely to increase, particularly with increasing international pressure.

Australia’s three major airlines have international routes which produce carbon emissions that are difficult and costly to abate.

Let’s suppose they all agree to invest in east coast high speed rail – which would deliver intercity travel times longer than the current French cut-off – against which they could offset their unavoidable international travel emissions.

The rail business case would improve from much greater patronage, airlines could redirect capital investment from aircraft purchase, and rail construction would not have to bear the higher unit cost of inner-city connections if the existing east-west link described above was already in place. 

What now?

The purpose of this discussion is NOT to pluck yet more city-building ideas from the air but to suggest that when identifying the fundamental component for new development – land – analyses should be much more wide-ranging than merely checking individual agency registers for long forgotten land parcels.

All agencies and sectors should be encouraged to use land wisely; consider proposals in the UK to build housing within over wide road reserves and multistorey industrial complexes that save land.

All agencies and sectors should be encouraged to use land wisely; consider proposals in the UK to build housing within over wide road reserves and multistorey industrial complexes that save land.

In his account of the escalating tensions between the US and China, Graham Allison explored one source – the fundamental objectives of different political systems and the deeply national values each embodied.

While western values placed protection of individual freedom as a primary responsibility of government, a Chinese interlocuter identified “competence”.

The observation begs the question, why can’t our government also demonstrate competence in the administration of cities?

Generally an unabashed booster of its members’ partisan interests, the Urban Development Institute of Australia is sensibly urging government to consider all measures to expand and accelerate the supply of housing.

So, the announced hunt for spare land should have at its core a coherent informed and imaginative vision of a desirable future cities, not merely a perpetuation of existing settlement practices.

Mike Brown

Originally from Adelaide, Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.
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  1. There’s scant little unused land in inner city areas, naturally. The Victorian Government can and should force the sale of larger >2,000sqm propertythat has been vacant for years, for immediate redevelopment. Along with it there are countless inner suburbs such as North Melbourne or Collingwood that are full of dilapidated weatherboard houses, which can be quickly acquired and relocated to regional towns, along with small warehouses. A substantial block made up of these lots could be effectively combined into a medium density community like those in Paris or Barcelona, cost effective, sustainable and efficient. On top of that, there are swathes of airspace above (below-ground rail) freed up by the LXRA, that can be built over very efficiently if done on a large scale. A small amount of retail over Chapel St rail bridge and the Flinders St railyard are examples of what can be done, and 3-4 story townhomes/apartment will be an excellent fit for unused space that’s close to amenities.