Thursday, March 22, 2012

What's wrong with this picture?

If you believed the tribes of anti-growth neophobes, the idea of growth of any kind in a country so deprived of land as Australia is something that must be resisted.  We are short of land and natural resources, the claim goes, and outer suburban development puts too much strain on the natural environment and too many demands on energy, water and other resources. They’re wrong, very wrong in fact and maybe it’s time some of these notions were challenged a bit more.
The picture above is a render of how the satellite urban development of Greater Springfield in south east Queensland might look as it nears completion in the years ahead. It has a way to go, but no one now doubts that it will all happen. Already home to 23,000 people with capacity for around 100,000, the development combines numerous residential communities, a health precinct, education precinct, commercial office and retail in a planned parkland setting over 2,860 hectares.
There are other large ‘master planned’ communities planned in the region – developer Lend Lease has Yarrabilba (just over 2,000 hectares) and Stockland has Caloundra South (3,700 hectares) for example. Other established communities of this nature include Forest Lake (fully developed and now home to over 20,000 people) and North Lakes (currently home to 10,000 people with 25,000 by build out), as well as Kawana on the Sunshine Coast and Robina on the Gold Coast.
The first and most obvious thing that can be said of these projects is that they’re popular. Already more than 100,000 people are living in recently developed master planned communities in the south east corner of Queensland alone, and that will rise to more than a quarter of a million people as existing projects reach completion.  Popularity is a sure sign of market success and means these projects are filling a need within the community. Contrast this success with the much debated and much vaunted notion of ‘TODS’ created within existing inner urban environments. A great idea in theory, with many potential positives but why is it that not one has yet been built? Ministers, Mayors and their planning minions have touted TODs as a ‘silver bullet’ solution to growth. With that sort of widespread policy support, you’d expect to see more by now. At the same time, they’ve been far from complimentary about ‘sprawl’ and many have done what they can to resist it and contain it through planning policies (and the courts), yet we see more projects of this nature finding support amongst the community. Maybe there’s a message in that?
And contrary to popular myth, this large and growing population of the outer suburbs has not created a congestion snarl of unimaginable proportions, because many of the residents live and work in the same area. Greater Springfield, for example, is talking a job creation target of 30,000 by 2030, and has approval for over 1 million square metres of office space, let alone the jobs in retail, education, health and other areas.
The other thing you’ll notice from this picture, and it’s something shared with other projects of similar nature, is the vegetation and landscape cover. Springfield is being built on formerly dry cattle country, previously owned by a paper mill. Much of the land was degraded. Yarrabilba, and much of Caloundra South, are being built on paper mill land much of it covered in a mono culture of commercial pine trees. Forest Lake was built on former military land, once used in part as a US forces base in WWII. Take virtually any of these projects and it is blindingly obvious that the quality of the natural environment, post development, is an improvement on the state of the land before. There is on average more diversity of plant life per hectare of Springfield or Forest Lakes than what was there before, plus there are now lakes and water storage areas, erosion controls and other features that you just don’t find in plantation pine forest.  
Now consider the odd preoccupation with preserving economically inefficient cane farm land in south east Queensland. A hectare of cane contains some introduced toads, rats and other vermin. It is sprayed with chemicals. It offers little or no environmental quality. Perhaps its main virtue is aesthetic.  (I am told one planning report for south east Queensland some years ago infamously recommended cane land be preserved as a view corridor, I suppose so those stressed out urban executives making their way to Noosa in the comfort of their BMW X5 had something pleasant to look at on the way?)
Look again at the picture and consider the nature of built form. The houses, shops, offices and community facilities are all (or will be) relatively new. They have been built to higher design codes and feature more energy and water efficient homes and workplaces than have ever been built in the history of this country. Springfield’s shopping centre – Orion Town Centre – is 6-Star Green Star Rated by the Green Building Council of Australia. The office tower (‘Springfield Tower’) has a 4-Star Green Star Rating by the GBCA.  The homes are designed for modern lifestyles and for the climate.  So the argument that these types of developments are somehow environmentally damaging or wasteful is hard to justify.
Under the ground is another story again. What you can’t see are the sewer lines, water mains, electricity supply and data cabling. These are also new. Cheaper to install than retrofitting for higher densities in existing areas, they also offer standards of reliability and connectivity which surpass those of older urban areas. The same story repeats itself in virtually all contemporary new outer suburban communities.
The big picture view also tells another story. Consider the taxes and revenues this picture represents. Each home pays rates to the local council – rates they would not receive without the development. The residents pay income taxes and GST, and when their homes are sold, stamp duty is paid. Businesses in this picture pay payroll and company taxes and a host of other fees and charges to local, state and federal governments. The total tax generation story is one that would be worth study in its own right, but however you think about it, the headline number would be massive.
Opponents would argue that all these people and businesses could equally have been absorbed into existing urban fabric, but the reality is that people have chosen to live here and that choice leads to a direct and measureable economic benefit to government. This runs counter to the subtext argument, popular in some public policy circles, that outer suburban development is costly to government. But in what way? Governments and the communities they represent, it could easily be argued, earn a great deal more from the economic activity represented in this picture than they ever contribute to.
Finally, despite all the plans and the talk, what’s represented in a picture like this (or others like it) owes little to government. Drawings and sketches in official planning documents are fine, but it’s only when a developer takes the risk that people find themselves with homes to live in, communities to be part of, workplaces, shops, and entertainment precincts and even increasingly healthcare and education facilities for themselves and their families. That simple message seems to have been forgotten in the corridors of power.
What’s wrong with the picture? Nothing. Indeed, it’s the sort of picture our policy makers and opinion leaders could be more supportive of, rather than the subtle ‘anti-suburban’ derision that can infect some planning circles.  No one should take this is an ‘either or’ proposal on my part: urban renewal and redevelopment, the creation of high and medium density housing, TODs – all have equally legitimate claims as products suited for their markets. But we risk losing balance and perspective if we fail to acknowledge that consumers and businesses are the best people to make decisions about where they want to live, work and play, and our public policy settings could better reflect that.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

When less is more: cutting regulatory overkill

The failure of the Queensland Government’s ‘building boost’ to stimulate much activity in the housing construction market proves how hopelessly distracted and flawed policy making has become. This paltry and temporary $10,000 grant to buyers of new housing was supposed to make up for stamp duty hikes and more than a decade of rising regulatory, planning and tax burdens on development which have pushed new home prices skyward. It was never going to work. But the question is, what will?

It’s increasingly looking like a Liberal National Party Government will take the reins at the end of March, and when they do they’ll likely be under considerable pressure to cut taxes in a range of areas - property development and construction included. But the state of the economy and Queensland’s finances are unlikely to permit anything much in the way of big tax reduction measures. The state budget has in the last decade become increasingly dependent on property for revenue to the point that a now weakened property sector (itself the result of over regulation and excessive taxation) is having a magnified effect on the state’s finances. This makes it harder to offer immediate tax relief, however deserved that might be.

There is another lever, though, and one I suspect could have a significant and immediate impact on stimulating development and housing construction, and injecting some mojo into the lacklustre economy generally. A quick and severe curtailment of the regulatory shemozzle that passes for development assessment in Queensland today might just do the trick. 

As The Pulse has noted before, it’s hard to point to anything positive that’s been gained over the last 15 years as regulatory and process-driven paroxysm enveloped the entire domain of planning and urban development.  It now costs much more and takes much longer to do the same thing, in a much less certain (indeed now highly confused) policy environment, than it did 10 or 15 years ago. Simply knowing what can and can’t be done on a particular piece of land is a harder question to answer than it used to be.

This extends even to people’s houses. Relatively simple modifications can now be deemed ‘impact assessable’ under the Sustainable Planning Act, requiring applications to Council and public notification.  The prescribed form of public notice actively invites people to ‘Have your say’.  There’s one of these in my neighbourhood right now – a homeowner wants to knock down part of their house for an extension. I am invited, under SPA, to ‘have my say.’
But is it any of my business? It’s their house on their land, not mine. Provided they comply with whatever building codes apply, why am I being invited to comment on their proposal? Consultation on the planning scheme, when originally drafted, and the codes that make it work, would have been my opportunity to ‘have my say’. It’s absurd to think we have some right to have our say at every stage of the process – from regional planning to local planning and even to individual applications. Little wonder we’re in the mess we’re in.

Here’s what The Act says about public notification:

The purpose of public notification processes is to inform the community and relevant stakeholders of the proposal and to give them the opportunity to:
  • make submissions, including objections, that must be taken into account before the application is decided
  • secure, for those that make a properly made submission, the right to appeal to the court about the assessment manager’s decision if they disagree with part or all of the decision.
Maybe we’ve been lulled into some sense of entitlement that we have the right to object to pretty much anything people propose to do on their land, even if it complies with the intention of the planning scheme. This is just one example of where processes within processes make outcomes so much harder, and costlier.

Cutting red tape in planning and development assessment is virtually a no-cost way to stimulate the development and construction sector. It’s also been identified by the LNP as a priority, should they win the election in March. In theory, it should be relatively simple. We could start, for example, with a charter of plain English, such that planning schemes will spell out in simple, clear language what is intended in defined areas in the community. The tortured syntax which requires the expensive assistance of a planning consultant or lawyer to decipher can go the way of the waste bin. But doing things in theory is easier than doing things in the real world.

How would the community react, for example, if we committed to our planning schemes in plain English terms, setting out, unambiguously and up front what’s intended and what’s not? The community has their say, but once enacted, the scheme and its regulations are no longer subject to ‘have your say’ (again) opportunities on individual applications. If land has been ‘zoned’ (an old term, which ought to make a comeback in our plain English charter) for townhouses, for example, and someone wants to develop townhouses on their land, then they can get on with it. You can’t have two bites at the cherry. If you don’t like the plan and what it’s producing, or you change your mind, exercise your vote at the next election.

The UDIA recently released a paper “Planning for Queensland’s Future,” the first recommendation of which said pretty much that:

“Recommendation 1 – Front load community consultation at the point of plan making and remove impact assessment for all Class 1a (single detached home, row house, terrace house, town house, villa) and Class 2 buildings (units) where those uses are encouraged under a planning scheme.”

This might sound to some like a great leap backwards to the sort of regulatory environment that prevailed in the late 1980s to early 1990s. But surely, if you’ve just gone through 10 or 15 years or so of the dead hand of bureaucracy and find yourself with an unworkable, expensive and hopelessly cumbersome system that isn’t producing better outcomes, why not revert to something that actually worked better?  It could be as simple as dusting off copies of the old State legislation at the time, and local government planning instruments of the time, and using these as guides for designing a more workable system.

But taking away this sense of entitlement that the community has been led to believe is theirs in terms of objecting to pretty much anything (they call them BANANAs  - ‘build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything’) is going to hurt. The NIMBYs won’t like it. The anti-progress, neophobic  preservationists who seem to think the current urban form is nirvana and nothing should change (neither grow, nor shrink but just stay as it is) will protest. They’ll argue their ‘rights’ to have a say over what someone else can do on their own property have been taken away. There’d be vocal protests about ‘rampant development’ and ‘environmental destruction’ and ‘attacks on democracy’ - all bywords for self interest.

Protests may also come from the legion of planning bureaucrats and policy makers who have slowly but inexorably grown attached to the current system and feed handsomely off its processes. For example, the 270 (approximately) staff of the Sunshine Coast Planning and Development Directorate (who evidently outnumber the ratio of doctors to the general population), might have less to do if the process became much simpler. There might only be a need for 50 of them along with a number of building inspectors. Jobs would be lost.

This sort of thing is the inevitable outcome of cutting red tape. Less red tape must mean fewer bureaucrats administering it. It must logically mean fewer processes, fewer opportunities to ‘have your say’ at every step of a process; fewer opportunities for political or protestor interference in perfectly legitimate developments. It also means that any new systems put in place needs to be vastly more efficient, transparent, and accountable. (Despite the labyrinthine processes of the current approach, you could never accuse it of being either transparent or accountable, and certainly not efficient).

Plain English plan making and community consultation at the plan making stage will mean using a language the community understands – something which might prove difficult for a generation trained in the language of obscurity. (Mark Twain allegedly once wrote: “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.”)

It might mean moving (finally) to more visual and sensory platforms for plan making, reducing previously complex arrangements to simple, transparent and readily understood plans. Simply knowing what can and can’t be done on particular blocks of land can’t be too much to expect?

Footnote. I was recently swapping notes on this subject with some contacts spread around the globe. I asked if anyone could actually identify a jurisdiction where the burden of overly complex regulatory environments had been collapsed, and where markets had responded and the economy expanded. Their answer?  ‘How about the former Soviet Union?’ they said. How’s that for a comment about the command and control environment we now live in - that it’s seen as comparable to the sorts of excessive controls that existed before perestroika.