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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1628

Mr PROSSER(11.45 p.m.) —-I would like to direct my comments this evening towards the housing component of the Health, Housing and Community Services portfolio. Housing accounts for nearly $1.3 billion of the 1991-92 budget for this portfolio. Of this, just over $1 billion is earmarked to meet Commonwealth-State housing agreement commitments. The remainder will be directed towards such programs as the national housing strategy, the building better cities program, the housing cost reduction program and the housing industry development strategy. A proportion will also fund staffing and administration of the Housing Services Division. By far the largest amount of the housing budget, apart from the Commonwealth-State housing agreement funds, will be spent on the building better cities program--$56m in this financial year. It is interesting to note that this $56m is only the first instalment of an $815m allocation which has been promised by the Government over the next five years.

As I understand it, the better cities program is aimed at reshaping Australian cities and, in particular, containing urban sprawl. The program is intended to bring together Commonwealth, State and local governments to develop ways to improve the quality of life of the citizens in our cities. There is no doubt that there are problems within our cities. Urban sprawl, resulting from continual development and expansion of the suburban fringes, has created both social and economic problems. For many Australian families, the outer city suburbs are the only place where they can afford to buy a home. Unfortunately, however, this affordability often comes at the cost of isolation from their family and social support networks. Their feeling of isolation is compounded by the limited health and medical facilities, education services, child-care and other community facilities located in these regions.

There are difficulties for the breadwinner, too. The growing city boundaries mean that they are frequently required to travel long distances to the major employment centres, often on poorly developed and inefficient transport links. In economic terms, the growing urban sprawl and provision of associated infrastructure is expensive. For example, it currently costs around $60,000 per block to develop land in the southern and western suburbs of Sydney, including the provision of infrastructure and community facilities. In Melbourne the cost is around $52,000; in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, land development costs are around $47,000. If we take development costs on their own, which include water, sewerage, drainage, roads and electricity, for an average suburban block in Sydney the cost is nearly $40,000.

But, having recognised that problems do exist, the better cities program is not the most appropriate way of addressing them. For a start, the program is vague and it lacks direction. There is no clear set of program objectives or perceived outcomes. Rather, as the Minister says:

The focus will be on areas where a package of related urban development projects in infrastructure, service provision and improved Government processes can be identified and agreed upon.

Government will also ensure that programs are implemented so as to protect, and where appropriate, enhance the environment.

The actual programs will vary according to each geographical area, but might involve urban consolidation and improved public transport.

But what does all this mean? More roads and schools, better sewerage and electricity services or, given that a program objective is to enhance the environment, more parks and gardens? Alternatively, are we talking about new initiatives which will slash the cost of housing, thereby increasing its affordability to ordinary Australians?

The better cities program is also somewhat patronising. Just like the Whitlam Government before it, the Hawke Government has developed its own idea of model urban life and is seeking to inflict that model on the community by approving only those projects which meet its own objectives. Effectively, the Government is removing the choice from housing and dictating not only the location, style, cost and surroundings of our houses, but also the social mix of people who will live there. The market and market preferences of the community have been completely overlooked.

But the most fundamental failure of the better cities program is that it does not address the underlying problem of our cities and, in turn, the major reasons for the growing urban sprawl. In fact, it illustrates succinctly this Government's tendency to tinker about the edges of a problem rather than to get to the heart of it. The better cities program will fail to get people back into our cities to utilise the existing infrastructure, including transport networks, health and education services, power, water and sewerage. Instead, it will plough money into duplicating existing services, relocating them a few kilometres down the road in a way that conforms to the Government's designer city plan.

Essentially, the program has failed to tackle the major regulatory impediments to urban redevelopment, such as zoning, planning density requirements and planning approval delays. Furthermore, the Government has overlooked the need to encourage local councils to offer more flexibility in developments by increasing planning densities and providing for more flexible design, boundary setbacks and more rapid approval times. It is this lack of negotiation at the local council level and the consequent failure to tackle these issues that has led to the continual expansion of our cities' boundaries. If there was more talking between the two levels of government, it is quite possible that the accelerated reductions in building and planning regulations and better density planning and mixes would have already been put in place, resulting in better housing affordability, a slowdown in the rate of urban expansion and a better utilisation of our inner city areas.

However, one can ask whether, in ignoring the fundamental problems of planning densities and approval times, the Government is concentrating its efforts on a few carefully selected areas for its own political expediency. An education and awareness program about different housing alternatives is also omitted from the Government's housing initiatives.

It is interesting to note that a recent survey found that 70 per cent of respondents thought that the only alternative to a house was a high-rise flat. There was little awareness of other housing options, including courtyard homes, townhouses, cottages and villas. Likewise, many in the community regard high density housing as being high-rise flats. Again, they are not aware of the very stylish yet affordable townhouse and villa unit developments available. This indicates a pressing need for a sound and practical education program about the different types of housing and the implications of those developments on existing property values.

Australians must also acknowledge that housing types exist well beyond the three-bedroom brick veneer home on a quarter acre block. New and innovative housing developments are making better and more efficient use of land. Developers are getting more dwellings to the hectare while at the same time giving consumers greater product choice.

It is important to note that these new developments do not necessarily mean smaller houses or noticeably smaller blocks. Placing stormwater drains down one side of the road or down the middle of the road, shared trenches for telephone, power, sewerage and water and reduced road widths and reduced road reserves all result in more efficient use of land and lower council maintenance costs.

Likewise, the way in which dwellings are placed on the block can be an effective means of better utilising land. These developments, demonstrated most effectively by the Green Street joint venture, will result in significantly lower housing costs and, to a large extent, will also curtail the urban sprawl without compromising the appearance and style of the house or the suburb. Indeed, the Green Street joint venture has demonstrated that, by adopting new practices, developers can save up to $7,000 per block, or 20 per cent of the development cost per block.

However, the key to achieving the maximum benefit from all these approaches lies with educating local councils about the social and economic benefits which can be derived from planning schemes and the density coding that will allow greater product choice; educating the community about housing options and choices available; and educating developers regarding ways to best utilise land. The irony is that, if this Government had looked at some of the alternatives I have just outlined, such as tackling the planning and design constraints, reducing regulation and conducting an enhanced education and awareness campaign, programs such as the better cities program would not be needed, thus saving the taxpayers $815m.

Progress reported.