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Issue #1717      February 3, 2016

Developers ravage our cities

The skyline of Sydney is littered with cranes and new apartment blocks. In Melbourne and Brisbane there has also been a boom in high rise blocks. Rezoning of low density residential land, low interest rates and increased demand from overseas have created a paradise for developers and their financial backers. State governments are proving all too willing to override local councils while ignoring social and environmental impacts. Private profit is the name of the game, with the preservation of our communities, of liveable cities and heritage coming a poor last.

Each state government has its “plan for sustainable growth”. These plans largely consist of predictions about population increases, conversion of inner suburbs into high or medium density accommodation, and more toll-ways based on user pays and public-private partnerships. Land is being set aside for commercial enterprises.

There is very little in the way of providing the additional public transport or affordable housing. Already some train lines in Melbourne are operating at well above capacity and the situation is set to worsen. Provisions for public housing, now renamed social housing, are token at best when compared with the thousands of people on waiting lists.

The main arterial roads of the major cities are already car parks at peak period and for much of the rest of the day.

Melbourne high rise

Melbourne is “planning” for an additional 897,200 people accommodated in 562,000 new dwellings by 2030, only 15 years away – 367,000 of the new homes in existing suburbs and 195,000 in fringe areas. That is an increase of 20 percent in its population which is set to double by 2050.

Plans for public transport infrastructure are either non-existent or totally inappropriate. For example, the government appears to have abandoned a $58 million project to extend rail to the Port of Melbourne. This would have enabled containers to be directly transferred to trains, thus eliminating up to 3,200 truck movements a day across Melbourne.

Instead, the Andrews Labor government is reportedly considering an unsolicited bid from Transurban for a $5.5 billion Western Distributor road. This would bring cars into the CBD from the western suburbs and would put trucks from the Port onto the roads.

The difference between $5.5 billion and $58 million could fund a considerable public infrastructure that takes cars off the roads and benefits the environment.

Residents on the outskirts of the city will continue to be overlooked or have to put up with a second rate service.

Under former Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett it was a developer free-for-all with local communities overridden. Many of the old buildings in the city centre and the Docklands became high rise developments.

Kennett sacked local councils, replaced them with hand-picked administrators who set about creating undemocratic mega councils. This only added to the power of developers.

Sydney

Sydney is no different.

The Coalition Baird government is “planning” for a population increase of 1.1 million people in Sydney by 2030 which is only 15 years away. That’s an increase of almost 25 percent.

This, according to the government, will require 640,000 more dwellings – 420,000 of them in existing suburbs and 220,000 on the fringes of the city.

While housing prices have increased in Melbourne and Brisbane, Sydney has taken the biggest hit with the price of a three-bedroom home with a garden well over one million dollars.

In one recent example, ten houses were sold to Zhengtang Investments at around $6 million each. The houses are opposite St Leonards station (inner northern suburb of Sydney) and the Royal North Shore Hospital.

The plan is for 246 new apartments, with those on the upper floors having city and harbour views.

The same developer bought a site in Morphett Street in the Adelaide CBD for $8.5 million and is building 560 apartments for $300 million.

The dream for a family home with a garden is fast fading but the medium and high density apartments are not fulfilling that dream for medium and low income workers, let alone a single mother struggling on social security benefits.

Rental in the inner suburbs for just a room can be as much as $200 to $250. It is a recipe for overcrowding. Already such instances have come to light of students being crammed into sub-human conditions.

Planning for public infrastructure, if you can call it planning, it is centred around tollways, which will only force more cars on to the roads.

Rezoning of low density residential to high density is also resulting in huge increases in land tax. The land tax is not a problem for a developer putting 20, 100 or 200 apartments on a block, but for a retiree who has invested their super savings in housing or a commercial property it is a killer.

Mega councils

No one wants to see high rise blocks go up next to their suburban home, to have the sun blocked out or a community broken up and its heritage destroyed.

The Baird government in NSW is in the process of forcing councils to amalgamate into mega councils along similar lines to Victoria.

When three or four councils merge, the size of a ward and the population per councillor are increased three- or four-fold. It then becomes far more difficult to have issues affecting a small group of people heard or for individuals to be elected to council.

This gives candidates backed by developers and other wealthy parasites an advantage over communists, Greens and others with a genuine interest in the community. It takes the “local” out of “local government”.

It is the big developers and their financial backers who have driven the amalgamation agenda.

Rendering local govt powerless

Local democracy, even with all the limitations of mega councils, is being overridden.

The government has set up a Greater Sydney Commission to control zoning in particular for the whole of metropolitan Sydney. Its chair is former Sydney Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull whose husband is the Prime Minister.

Its responsibilities include regular reviews of councils’ Local Environment Plans. Its powers include conducting all decision-making and plan-making on rezoning proposals currently undertaken by the Minister (or delegate).

It also takes on the current determinations on development applications and plan-making functions of the Sydney Joint Regional Planning Panels, including rezoning reviews.

This is a further erosion of council powers to control high rise, environmental and other aspects of planning and approvals. The façade of independence enables the government to distance itself from potentially unpopular decisions.

Developers have also been given a leg-up with legislation that permits a body corporate to sell to a developer if 75 percent of the body corporate agree.

What future?

Despite all the talk about planning, the planning that is really required is not occurring. Where is the sense in selling off school real estate or closing a public hospital and likewise selling it off? What thought has been given to job creation? To regional development? Everything is being left to the private sector. The only “planning” is rezoning and privatisation for private profit.

People are losing what little say they had in the future of their communities.

Cities, already clogged with traffic and heavily polluted air from cars and trucks that should not be on our roads, are reaching crisis point. This is not the path to a sustainable future.

Genuine planning means handing over decision-making to people who are not in the pockets of developers, construction companies, petrochemical companies and financial institutions. It means a comprehensive public transport system with low or no fares funded out of taxation.

It is time state governments re-established their Public Works Departments to build public housing, roads, schools, transport and other public infrastructure. States can borrow for such projects at a fraction of what it costs them to subsidise private operators to build and manage the same infrastructure.

It comes down to a simple choice: whether private profits come first or people and the environment. For the working class, the homeless, the unemployed, the answer is clear.

Next article – Editorial – When reactionaries fall out

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