Who controls how our cities are built?

In almost every major city in Australia construction cranes are a visible presence across the skyline. The construction boom appears unstoppable as Australia’s population is set to reach 35 million by 2050. But housing industry analysts have predicted the country is heading towards an oversupply of housing as early as next year. If this is so, why is affordable housing still so out of reach for so many?

In the cities along the east coast, planning permits are being approved in record time, hundreds of ex-industrial sites are being sold to property developers and former “green wedge” areas have been opened up for housing development. But what is being built is driven by investors, not public need. Across our cities thousands of tiny units are under construction. They are geared towards speculative investors set to reap huge taxpayer subsidies through negative gearing and the discount on Capital Gains Tax. When completed, these units are often rented to transient populations like students and tourists. Many remain empty. They are not homes most people can live in, as these developments are not accompanied by new schools, childcare and other necessary services that turn housing developments into communities.

A similar problem exists on the edges of our cities where first home buyers are relocating. Many of these housing estates have no necessary infrastructure like public transport, shops, schools and hospitals, let alone cultural infrastructure like sporting facilities, libraries, art galleries and restaurants. These developments are given the go ahead without any foresight into what the new residents will need, as they are driven by profit rather than social need.

Historically, this is not how Australian cities were built. During the era of colonisation cities were meticulously planned to ensure they could function properly. In the post-war era entire suburbs were built under government schemes that included the amenities people living there would require. It was sometimes the case that co-operatives were set up to collectively plan and develop these new communities. While not perfect, this is a far cry from the developer driven, laissez-faire approach to planning governments adopt today.

We need to fight to democratise this process of planning and development. What is democracy if not the ability to influence the environment in which we live, work and socialise? The fact that multi-millionaire property developers have more control over the shaping of our cities than the millions of people who live in them demonstrates the limitations of the type of democracy we live in.

In Melbourne, almost half of the pre-1985 city centre has been demolished to make room for new development. Melbourne now has one of the highest site densities in the developed world, with a plot ratio of 18:1. Demolishing historic buildings to pack in super-high density units is undoubtedly changing the character of the city. Public space has been lost and artists, musicians and community organisations have been priced out of the city centre. There are now calls to ban homeless people from the city streets yet no plans to find space to house them. This is a change Melbournians have had no say over.

In cities across Australia working class people are being priced out of the inner-city communities we built and gave life to. For many people the choice is between continuing to live where we want, but under extreme financial stress, or move further out to the edges of the city, dislocating us from our communities. Those who stay to fight gentrification have limited democratic means to do so.

Even where local councils come under community pressure to knock back egregious development applications, developers simply appeal to the various courts or state ministers and almost always get their way.

Those who set up community campaigns to influence the scale and impact of new developments are almost always dismissed as selfish NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) by shills for big developers in politics and media. Far from encouraging community input into how our neighbourhoods are developed, ordinary people are attacked for attempting to influence planning schemes.

Proponents of high rise development argue that high density housing is needed to address Australia’s population growth and stop urban sprawl. This is simply not true. Consistent medium density housing in already built up areas, as well as government schemes to revive smaller cities and towns with much needed infrastructure, would deliver better and more housing options. However, such an approach requires strategy and planning which is not possible under the current free market, capital-led approach planning and development.

The short-sightedness of Australia’s current investor-led housing boom is creating an ever growing property bubble while failing to meet the population’s housing needs. We need to fight for solutions before the market crashes and the character and amenity of our cities have been destroyed beyond repair.

The construction industry unions remain some of Australia’s most powerful working class organisations. At the moment their members are building high-rise housing that doesn’t cater to the needs of working class communities. Historically, Australian construction unions have played a progressive role in fighting inappropriate development, implementing work bans on developments that negatively impact the community. This tradition needs to be revived.

If construction industry unions initiated a campaign for widespread public housing initiatives – in coalition with affordable housing advocates, public housing tenants and homeless people – it would create jobs for their members and meet the desperate community need for affordable housing. There are currently 173,000 people on the public housing waiting list across the country, and an estimated 105,000 homeless people. This is a housing crisis. If property developers can make millions building housing, governments can surely build better quality, affordable housing by eliminating the profit margin.

What is lacking is the political will to reform the current neoliberal approach to planning and development. It would require a democratisation of the whole approach to planning. It would also require governments to play an active role in shaping our cities, building state funded infrastructure and housing, rather than simply sitting back and rubber-stamping for-profit developments.

This is the socialist approach planning and development that we are currently fighting for in our communities. But a nationwide shift is required. The first steps are ending the taxpayer subsidies and tax cuts for large corporations, as well as phasing out negative gearing and the Capital Gains Tax discount. These measures would raise billions of dollars to be invested in new community infrastructure and public housing. We need to bring these solutions into the debate around planning if we are to save our cities from becoming over-priced cultural wastelands.

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