Australian Housing and Urban Policy Under Neoliberalism and the Sustainability Agenda

By the early 1980s, neoliberal economic ideas were increasingly influencing public policy in Australia, with profound implications for the housing market and urban development. Financial deregulation made mortgage finance more accessible, but sharp interest rate rises (up to 17 %), led to a ‘crisis’ in affordability and a volatile housing market over which time insecurity over home ownership grew:

“For more than a decade, Australians have been confronted by headlines announcing the death of the Great Australian Dream, as prices have risen, fallen and risen again. According to the media, Australians are confronted by a ‘crisis’ if rising prices make home purchase more difficult and another ‘crisis’ if prices fall.” (Paris 1993, p. 159)

The state housing authorities remained active in new housing production until the late 1980s, although tenant ‘right to buy’ schemes, meant that stock was not retained in the sector. Thus although around 12 % of total housing output in the mid-1980s was funded under the CSHA, only around 6 % of households resided in public housing (Troy 2012). Over time responsibility for housing assistance became concentrated within social welfare portfolios which caused a narrowing of housing policy and deepened the chasm between housing and urban planning in Australia.

For their part, state planning authorities were confronting both a crisis in funding for new infrastructure provision alongside increasing environmental concerns over the impacts of urban sprawl. Urban containment policies—which emphasised compact forms of housing and the reuse of former industrial (‘brownfield’) sites, already popular in the UK, began to represent an antidote to both environmental concerns and the shortage of funds for infrastructure (Searle 2007). Urban containment—or ‘consolidation’ as it is often called in Australia—was also thought to be an important tool for introducing greater housing choice and diversity in line with demographic change.

By the late 1990s, urban consolidation was the espoused paradigm for Australian metropolitan planning (Burke and Hayward 1992, Forster 2006, Bunker and Searle 2009). Although the majority of new housing continued to be detached single family cottages built in greenfield sites, the states began to encourage higher-density urban renewal projects in inner ring areas. In many cases these were delivered by special purpose development corporations with a mixture of public and private finance). These renewal projects—East Perth and Subiaco in Western Australia, Southbank and Docklands in Melbourne, Pyrmont/City West later Victoria Park/Green Square in Sydney, sought to redefine Australian urbanism by demonstrating attractive forms of higher-density housing (from townhouses to 3—4 storey apartments and later multi-storey towers) situated within a well-landscaped and naturally vegetated public realm. Despite the considerable public investment in these projects, affordable housing outcomes, if any, were minor.

Over time and as implemented through incremental adjustments to local planning schemes via site or precinct specific rezonings, the urban consolidation agenda has led to a bifurcation between high-density inner ring and public transport nodes (with planning controls often permitting high-rise towers) and planned housing release areas on the urban fringe. Whilst local councils were initially able to resist densification in established suburbs, over the past 20 years states such as NSW have been able to enforce consolidation policies through state planning laws able to override local controls. On the one hand, this has meant that any constraints to higher-density housing development are primarily market driven (i.e. depend on feasibility) rather than held back by restrictive local planning regimes. On the other hand, abrupt changes to the traditional, low-density fabric of suburban Australia are at the heart of resident concerns over urban intensification efforts:

“Under Australian conditions it is clearly apparent that retrofitted high density is less sustainable than single-residential. [...] Urban consolidation is an imposed cancer growing unchecked throughout our suburbs. It is a cancer of increasing high-rise monotony, minimal variety, paved surfaces, worsening mental and physical health and a drain on the resource and wellbeing of our people and of our environment.” (Save Our Suburbs 2016, p. 1, original italics)

Whilst many of the major developers have become actively involved in redevelopment and renewal sites, the housing and property development industry also criticised the urban consolidation policy for ‘artificially constraining’ the supply of land for residential development. Concerns increased in the new millennium when it was perceived that the majority of easily developed sites had been taken up with remaining sites subject to environmental or community based constraints.

“Many State Government planning policies now favour urban consolidation at the expense of suburban growth. At the same time, suitable infill sites are difficult to acquire, they are prone to greater risks of political intervention (NIMBYISM and Save our Suburbs) [...] the chronic undersupply of land for housing is crippling the affordability of new housing. State and Local Government policy failures are adding to the housing affordability crisis and a new focus on land supply is needed if the Australian tradition of home ownership is to survive the current generation.” (Property Council of Australia 2007, pp. 2-4)

These statements were the latest in a stream of industry grievances over Australian urban policy and regulation, dating from the early complaints of the Master Builders’ Association in the nineteenth century (Freeland 1972; Marsden 2000; Sandercock 1975).

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