Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Urban consolidation policies designed to change the way we use existing suburban areas receive a mixed reaction.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Eighty five per cent of Australians live in urban areas. So it's no surprise that it's estimated that by the year 2011 more than 1.25 million new dwellings will have to be built on the fringes of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane. This urban sprawl could be cut by changing the way we use existing suburban areas. But Jonathan Harley reports that policies designed to do that in Australia's most popular city, Sydney, are meeting very mixed reaction.

JONATHAN HARLEY: Seventeen million Australians and almost eight million square kilometres on which to live - not surprising the national psyche supposedly embraces a sense of expansiveness and unlimited available land. Ironically, we occupy less than one per cent of that land mass. But the social and environmental effects of the way we live has inspired political responses at Federal and State levels. It's called urban consolidation and it's a strategy borne and sustained by the perception that urban Australia, especially Sydney, is fast evolving into a Los Angeles-style, ever-radiating sprawl.

But short of dramatic LA-style imagery, urban consolidation as an issue may seem rather pedestrian, except for the fact that it inspires the most fiery of passions.

PATRICK TROY: Urban consolidation is unfortunately one of those most destructive of ideas which has gained currency for no really good set of reasons other than some short-term political objective which, as I say, it is actually ill-conceived, under-researched and now can't be justified.

JONATHAN HARLEY: Patrick Troy, head of the urban research program at the Australian National University. The conviction urban consolidation inspires is understandable when you consider that it strikes at the way in which people live, the amount of say local governments have over development and the amount of money governments at all levels spend on services like sewerage, health, education and public transport.

PATRICK TROY: The policy actually started because governments had, for a variety of reasons, got themselves in the situation where they didn't have enough capital for infrastructure investment. So they thought of this intuitively obvious solution of making cities smaller, more compact, and they thought that would lead to a reduction in the need for infrastructure capital. When that argument is not or cannot be sustained, they then reverted to an argument that was to do with the reduced, alleged reduced environmental impact of higher density development of the city. And when that argument in turn also couldn't be sustained, they then turned to a justification which was based on the alleged needs of .. changed needs for housing of the population, and part of that was then claimed that there was a lack of choice in the housing available to the Australian population.

Now, this is actually also just a construction which is unfortunate because it doesn't bear any connection with the aspirations of the people or, indeed, their real needs, nor their ability to afford what they really want.

JONATHAN HARLEY: Patrick Troy. But Sandy Halley, from the Australian Urban and Regional Review Task Force says urban consolidation is the logical response to the falling popularity and affordability of the quarter-acre block.

SANDY HALLEY: I think that the quarter-acre block was a housing form and an urban form designed for a society that was predominantly made up of nuclear families. Only one in four households in Australia now has children in it, and housing form and urban form that's designed for a population structure that no longer exists doesn't seem to be a very sensible way forward.

JONATHAN HARLEY: Dual occupancy , basically subdividing land and building another house on it, is one plank of the New South Wales consolidation platform. Sandy Halley says it should mean greater housing choice.

SANDY HALLEY: Handled properly, dual occupancy in particular offers lower income people and opportunity to capitalise on their properties, and I think that, particularly if they're given guidance and assistance from local councils who can help them with design and put them in touch with best practitioners, that there's a lot to be said for it. Take the case of a pensioner who's living in a house that's too large for him or her, often her, who doesn't want to move away from the area in which she's grown up and where her friends are, if she had the capacity to subdivide her house or to do some other form of conversion or dual occupancy, she could benefit quite significantly from that. So I think that there are opportunities there to increase the advantages for lower-income people. I'm talking about lower-income home owners. But in that case, for instance, there's no reason why this strategy couldn't also increase the private rental stock.

JONATHAN HARLEY: But Pat Troy believes dual occupancy is a case of good intention led astray.

PATRICK TROY: It's a particularly silly policy because what it is in effect doing is putting on an existing block, which may or may not have been provided with - in a general area - which may or may not have been provided with an appropriate level of public infrastructure, on that block putting at least one more dwelling, and sometimes more, with no extra provision of community facilities. Indeed, the argument is then, this is one way of actually reducing the standard or provision of open space in particular, but also reducing the standard of provision of education facilities as well. And it means that, because it becomes an as-of right condition, it means that people, whether they know it or not, they might choose to live in an area because it offers a particular level of amenity and has a particular level of services, but without them having any say in it, they can find that their neighbours can, when they propose to leave the area or some developer can move in, and simply develop the rest of that space as though that was their right. And that means that the amenity of the people who choose to stay there is injuriously affected in this way. It's a kind of slow moving cancer, but in some cases, when it starts to pick up, you find that it moves with great speed and the whole character of an area can be changed, usually for the worse.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Jonathan Harley reporting.