29
Apr
2015

The selfishness that’s tearing Melbourne apart

by Paul Donegan


Published by The Age, Wednesday 29 April

This month Boroondara council banned new buildings of more than three storeys in 31 shopping strips in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Last year, Glen Eira council zoned about 80 per cent of its residential land to restrict growth in housing, while Bayside council zoned 83 per cent of its area to prohibit housing higher than two storeys.

These are just the latest steps that councils in Melbourne’s inner and middle suburbs, no doubt responding to the wishes of vocal residents, are taking to stop new homes being built in their area. The trend must stop if we are to keep Melbourne from becoming a divided city.

Debates about housing are often conducted between residents of established suburbs who are hostile to change, and experts making worthy arguments about the benefits of increasing density. But no one speaks for the real losers from restricting population growth in established suburbs – the many Melburnians with little choice but to make their home in outer suburbs that are experiencing acute growing pains.

Planning restrictions such as those introduced by Boroondara haven’t stopped population growth. Melbourne’s population swelled by 1 million people – from 3.4 to 4.4 million – in just 12 years from 2002 to 2014.

Councils in established suburbs have pushed most of this rapid population growth to the city’s outer fringes, where it is easier to build new homes. While Melbourne’s population soared from 2002 to 2014, the populations of Boroondara, Bayside and Glen Eira grew at about 1 per cent a year, less than half the city average.

Over the same period the population in the City of Wyndham in Melbourne’s outer south-west surged by more than 100,000 people – almost 7 per cent growth a year. The populations of other outer growth areas such as Melton, Cardinia, Whittlesea and Casey also grew rapidly.

Rapid population growth stretches outer suburban roads, schools, hospitals and public transport services to the limit. In 2013 Alamanda College in Point Cook in Melbourne’s west had 422 students; by 2014 it had 806. Local roads are so congested it can take up to 40 minutes just to get out of the suburb and into bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Princes Freeway. These strains come directly from established suburbs not taking their fair share of population growth.

Around the world, economic growth is most concentrated around city centres – but this dividend is only available if workers can get there. New homes in established suburbs provide many more workers for these opportunities than outer suburban housing. Poor access to jobs in outer suburbs also contributes to lower rates of female workforce participation – a further drag on the economy, and the choices available to families.

Building new homes provides people with shelter, gives them the chance to own their home, and creates jobs. The planning system needs to prioritise new housing as a goal for all suburbs. It should not pander to residents of established suburbs who don’t want other Melburnians to get the same opportunities to live near jobs and transport that they enjoy.

Planning controls should be far simpler than Melbourne’s convoluted and bureaucratic system of state and local policy frameworks, strategic statements, provisions, zones, overlays, schedules, permits, objections and appeals. All this complexity gives councils in established suburbs many tools with which to restrict local population growth.

Mandatory codes that determine approval for most kinds of new home would make for a quicker, simpler and more transparent system.

This doesn’t mean a property developer free-for-all. Clear housing codes can protect local residents from badly designed developments, covering issues including the size and appearance of new homes, how they integrate into a street, height, overshadowing and privacy.

From the start, communities should be involved in developing the housing code applying to their area. Residents shouldn’t have to make regular objections and court appearances to enforce local rules. But nor should a housing code be a fig leaf to prevent new homes getting built, the way many planning controls and approval processes work now.

Making it easier to build new homes in established suburbs would lead to a much fairer and more even distribution of population growth across Melbourne. It would improve access to jobs, boost the economy, and give people a wider range of choices about where they live. This is also the single most important change governments can introduce to make housing more affordable, and increase long-term economic growth.

These changes are unlikely to please residents of established suburbs who don’t want new neighbours. But we cannot allow the future of Melbourne to be held hostage by privileged vocal minorities. For the sake of residents of outer growth suburbs, and so that our children and grandchildren can afford to live near the suburbs they love, the time for change has come.