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Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities
Australian government's role in the development of cities

MEE, Associate Professor Kathleen (Kathy), Deputy Director, Centre for Urban and Regional Studies


CHAIR: I now welcome the representative from the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies to give evidence today. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Prof. Mee : I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which I live and work, the Awabakal and Worimi peoples, their elders past, present and future, and the land itself. Today, I'm going to talk about my reflections on the role of government in enhancing livability and how this connects to housing affordability, drawing on research I've been conducting with colleagues from the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies here at the University of Newcastle and with colleagues from the universities of Wollongong, Macquarie and Western Sydney.

What is livability? Livability in an urban context relates to many different things. In a recent article, Tapsuwan and her colleagues, drawing on work from Lowe in the Major Cities Unit argued livability is defined as the 'degree to which a place supports quality of life, health and wellbeing.' Tapsuwan said:

Hence, a livable neighbourhood or city should be peaceful, safe, socially cohesive and inclusive, harmonious, attractive, affordable, high in amenity, environmentally sustainable, and easily accessible. An example of a highly liveable neighbourhood is one where there is a diverse range of housing that is affordable, well-linked to public transport, provides walking and cycling infrastructure, has easy access to schools, employment, public open space, shops, health, community and social services (Lowe et al., 2015). All these qualities contribute to people’s quality of life, health and well-being.

Clearly, our governments—federal, state and local—play an important role in many, if not all, of these things. It's also important to consider who the livability of the city needs to be improved for. Given that government resources are scarce, should there be groups or places in the city that are more overtly targeted in our efforts to improve the livability of our cities. Helen Jarvis, who works in the School of Geography in Newcastle upon Tyne, has argued that livability has increasingly become associated with the marketability of our cities. We've all seen reports of different indices which rank cities against each other on the basis of livability. More recently, we have seen the growth of indices which rank the suburbs within cities—Domain did one for Sydney last year. What Jarvis suggests is that what a focus on the marketability of livability rankings does is to draw policy, attention and action to improve livability to some of the most affluent and well-resourced parts of cities in an attempt to win the livability rankings. According to Jarvis, we need, instead, to consider the impact of livability for households, in particular, households containing vulnerable people.

My own research with colleagues has identified that livability is an important and hotly-contested concept. How regeneration efforts can be best managed to make Newcastle a more livable city, for example, is certainly a concern for residents, community and business groups and governments. Our research also revealed two aspects of livability that are critical for my presentation today. First, the livability of the home, building, street, neighbourhood and city is interconnected and impacts on households in important ways. Residents are actively involved in creating livable spaces, what geographer Peter Kraftl calls the 'becoming lively of the city'. Livability cannot simply be read off from a series of characteristics. Rather, it is built through the efforts and interactions between residents and the environments in which they live. Second, housing affordability is a critical aspect of livability for residents. While residents indicated that all of the aspects of livability I mentioned at the opening of my presentation were important, without affordable housing residents could not access the livable city at the home, street, neighbourhood or city scale.

Following Jarvis then, for some of our most vulnerable fellow citizens,what government intervention has a proven track record of enhancing livability through providing affordable housing? There is a great success story to be told about this, with robust and repeated evidence that this success is enduring. According to the most recent report, 74 per cent of tenants in this housing are satisfied. More importantly, over 80 per cent of tenants said this form of housing enabled them to feel more settled; be able to manage their rent or money better; be able to continue living in the area; feel more able to cope with events; have better access to services; have better access to public transport; feel part of the local community; and enjoy better health. And over 60 per cent said this housing let them feel more able to start or continue education and training, and feel more able to improve their job situation. These things are all crucial for improving livability for vulnerable people at the household scale.

What is this intervention? It's social housing, including public housing and community housing. The statistics I just quoted come from the latest Australian government National Social Housing Survey. In my own research in Newcastle, I concluded that public housing was a space of care, and care is crucial to livability, as Jarvis also argues. One tenant in Cooks Hill, living just down the road from here said in research I conducted:

Living in public housing has permitted me to care for my family. As a sole parent with two young children and no child support help, I found it impossible to manage in the private sector. Without public housing accommodation, I could not have managed. My health was poor and my job opportunities limited. Being able to afford the rent in public housing made a huge difference to our lives, and opened opportunities to pursue further education.

The enhanced livability in social housing depends on the security of tenure, stability and affordability of social housing, so it's crucial that these are not eroded. Recent research has indicated that the need for social housing will likely grow in the future as the population ages and home ownership rates decline, particularly in our larger cities. To give one example: social housing is very important for the growing demographic group of older women, who are disadvantaged in the housing market due to longer lives and lower lifetime incomes as a result of family breakdown and, for some, domestic violence.

There are things that the government could do to improve this wonderful livability solution. There isn't enough of it for a start. In many places in Australia, including in the Hunter, people wait for a long time to gain a place in social housing, and while they wait they are often under housing stress, living in inadequate conditions or enduring uncertainty about their future housing. Much of the social housing infrastructure we do have is in urgent need of maintenance to improve livability in order to address issues posed by an ageing housing stock and concerns raised by tenants in the National Social Housing Survey—for example, to improve thermal comfort or the energy efficiency of these dwellings.

Providing more funds for social housing would address critical aspects of livability for vulnerable Australian households, and ensuring that this type of housing simultaneously addresses other aspects of liveability is important too. Social housing needs to be located to give vulnerable people access to good quality health care, public transport, shops, schools and other educational facilities as well as physical and social environments that allow all our fellow citizens to contribute to enhancing the livability of our cities.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Mr WALLACE: I don't want to harp on this, but I don't know whether you took notice of the conversation or the questions I was asking the previous presenters. I know that you were here, and I think that you were listening to the 'sticky city' concept—the importance of trying to retain young people and talent to a regional area. Do you have a view on what impact introducing a casino into a regional city such as Newcastle would have in terms of the economic benefits it might bring as opposed to the social damage that it may cause? Do you have a view on any of that or is that not up your alley?

Prof. Mee : It's absolutely not up my alley, I'm afraid. I've never done any research on anything vaguely like that, so the answer is I just don't know.

Mr WALLACE: Then I will come back to you.

CHAIR: In regard to social housing, again, we are looking at the development of our cities and regional cities with an idea of planning so that we don't commit the sins of the past. So often we've had social housing developments where people are clustered together or ghettoed together, whichever is the correct term, as opposed to salt and peppering social housing, so that in every development of housing, a percentage or a number would be dedicated. Do you have a preference for one of the other?

Prof. Mee : The short answer to the question is that I think social housing is of great benefit to people no matter where it is because having a place to live is a very important thing for people who can't otherwise afford it. That said, there are some significant challenges that come from concentrations of groups of people in public housing in areas that don't have a lot of other services, because the entry criteria into that housing means that there's a good chance that those people will have a lot of other support needs. I've done quite a bit of research in inner Newcastle, and we're very lucky here to have quite a bit of public housing throughout the inner parts of Newcastle, which started being constructed almost as soon as the New South Wales housing commission was developed in New South Wales in the late forties and was constructed through the nineties. There's been a bit more recently as well. What my research has shown is that that housing has been incredibly successful; that the tenants who live there really like living there; and that they appreciate many of the other things that those of us who are lucky enough to live in inner Newcastle appreciate about it, such as the ability to walk around, the access to services, the capacity to access beaches and the capacity to establish relationships with their neighbours and health professionals and all sorts of things.

So I think that there's a lot to be said for ensuring that our cities, as they develop, retain a presence of lots of different groups in all parts of them. My concern is the development of affluent ghettos, rather than ghettos where poor people live, where there's a whole bunch of services that most of the residents of cities can't access because they can't afford to live in those kinds of places. I think that what we've seen in many parts of Australia is quite a bit of pressure not so much on social housing but on public housing in particular in areas where land values have increased. Governments think it's a good idea to sell this off in order to make money, but what that does is take away from the housing stock housing for people that has really good access to services and all those other things to do with livability. And I think that we should have housing access for a whole range of groups in all sorts of different parts of our city.

The final thing I'd say about that, though, is that, a few years ago, one of my students did research in the southern parts of Newcastle—in Belmont and Swansea, around Lake Macquarie, just before you get to the central coast. There's quite a bit of public housing pepperpotted and spread around there, and that was great. Certainly, the tenants liked living there much better than the alternatives, but the assumption often is that doing that sort of thing will reduce the stigma for people living in public housing because they don't get associated with the postcode of places where there is public housing. That does work to some extent, but what people found is that, without significant effort, what they often experienced was stigma on a day-to-day basis from people living in private housing nearby. So, if public housing or social housing are integrated into the rest of the environment, we have to be careful about making sure that there are all sorts of opportunities for people to actively participate in community life there.

CHAIR: So you need a healthy community where people care for each other and are accepted.

Prof. Mee : Absolutely, and what my research has shown is that public tenants play a really important role in that. The public housing tenants I've worked with do a lot of work in caring for fellow public housing residents who are their neighbours, and we need to ensure that there are ways in which they can have voices in the communities that they live in, I think. That's really important.

CHAIR: You talked about older women who are disadvantaged, along with single parents. In a mixed community, there would be all sorts of opportunities for a woman or, similarly, an older man to engage with others in their community to provide various services and find employment, I would think.

Prof. Mee : Indeed, but these things don't just happen because you put people together—

CHAIR: You've got to have an accompanying plan.

Prof. Mee : They tend to happen because there are interests that bind people in common. For example, there's been a lot of research on neighbourhoods in the UK that suggest that the sorts of bonds that you talk about are formed more easily if parents have kids who go to the same school, because, then, so long as you can actually get access to the housing in the first place, the sort of housing that you live in isn't as important as the bond you have through your kids and that you have a capacity to interact. But what happens sometimes is, the way school catchments work, the people living in the public housing might send their kids to different schools to the people living in the private housing, so the opportunity for those kinds of bonds to form isn't necessarily so strong.

I'm going to tell you something that's a bit odd. Another thing that you need is things that people who don't have much money can engage with as equals. What some of the tenants told me about living in inner Newcastle is that having the beach is terrific because you can just go to the beach and other people can go to the beach and your kids can be part of Nippers, and it doesn't cost very much. You don't have to form interactions with people that are based on your capacity to afford $200 tickets to go to the opera or something. The opportunity for people to interact in ways that they want to and can afford to across a spectrum of different things is really important, because otherwise what you can get is people living side by side but not actually interacting. In the literature, they talk about tectonic neighbourhoods. You have poor people and richer people living next to each other, but they're essentially on different plates and don't interact and, when they do, maybe the plates bang together. But if there are things that people can get together about, then that's different.

Mr WALLACE: Sport would be a great example of that—

Prof. Mee : Sport's a great example, but—

Mr WALLACE: provided it's not polo.

Prof. Mee : Providing you don't need to be able to afford a pony. Sport's a great example, but it's often more difficult than you'd think for people who are on really restricted incomes to be able to afford to participate in sport. Our local community housing provider, which is the biggest one in this part of the world, Compass Housing, has a program it calls Grow a Star. They do many things to support their tenants. One of the things that they do is support kids with the dreams that they have, including providing access to sporting equipment and the capacity to represent the state in a sport—for example, by paying for the transport—and so on. It's not just the housing; it's the other levels of support that can come with it that enable those types of things to happen.

Sport is another really great example. One of my students who is working on something completely different in Newcastle, but who has done work on refugees in Newcastle and the ways they've interacted with the community, has suggested that sport and the establishment of soccer teams, cricket teams and all of those kinds of things has been particularly important for refugees developing connections with other people in the community—in that case, particularly for young men. It depends on the group you're talking about; sport is not so important for your over 80s, usually. Certainly for young families it's really important.

Mr GILES: Following up on your discussion about tectonic neighbourhoods: I appreciate what you're saying there, but I am increasingly concerned that we're seeing neighbourhoods in our bigger cities that don't have those kinds of inequalities but where spatial inequality is much more profound. I have responsibility for schools, and we see that in divisions and outcomes in public schools as much as in independent schools: concentrations of advantage drive further advantage. When I came in, I think you were talking about housing. I'm wondering what you think can be done, through the devices that are available to us through the Commonwealth government when they listen to our report, to challenge that spatial dimension of inequality with regard to housing—obviously in terms of purchasing but also in terms of what we might do to facilitate more social housing in areas close to amenity and opportunity. Do you have any thoughts about how we can deal with more security for people in the private rental market?

Prof. Mee : I think you're absolutely right: spatial inequality, particularly in larger cities, is really important, but I think it's important in all sorts of sizes of open settlements. I think that concentrations of advantage are part of the problem. I think that following the lead of the New Zealand government in stopping the selling of public housing completely is not a bad idea, particularly in the most affluent areas of our major cities. Reflecting a bit on how successful social housing is for the people who live in it rather than focusing on the ways in which it might function not quite so well as we'd like is important. I think that there are lots of different mechanisms that can be used to fund more social housing in all sorts of different parts of the city. I'm not a housing economist; I'm a geographer, but I draw your attention to the work of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, AHURI. In the last month, they have released research that is precisely about those kinds of things, about ways in which we can have different models of both social and affordable housing. The year before last, I went to a presentation from New South Wales Aboriginal housing that pointed out that it's not just at the social housing end that it's important that people be able to access housing—although that's very important, obviously—it's also at the level just above that. Often people have real trouble getting access to their first home if they need to move from a country area into the city for educational opportunities or whatever, so focusing on ensuring that there is such housing in areas where there are employment and education opportunities is really important for continuing to nurture the opportunities for people.

Mr GILES: Thank you very much.

Ms McBRIDE: Thank you so much for your presentation. One thing I'm particularly interested in is health and wellbeing and how the built environment affects that, particularly in regional centres. I'm not sure if you've looked at areas like the Central Coast of New South Wales or other regional areas nearby, but do you have any comments that you could make in terms of how a federal government may be able to successfully work with others, particularly local communities, in order to improve people's health and wellbeing?

Prof. Mee : I haven't done any research on the Central Coast for a while, but a few years ago I did do some research with the Premier's department at the state level looking at the Central Coast and its distribution. There are some real urban challenges to providing—I don't know why I'm telling you this; you know already. There's a whopping great lake in the way of doing all sorts of things that would make more sense if it were land, especially around transport connections and things like that.

In terms of federal government intervention in general, I think Commonwealth government funding is really important for the establishment of the social housing that I was talking about before, and social housing is really critical for the health and wellbeing of our most vulnerable people. Adequate funds for that kind of housing have always needed to come from the federal level in Australia since that sector grew. The way it has worked in our federation is that it comes from the federal government. It has been provided to the states. The states have gone about doing things differently to some extent, so public housing is different in New South Wales to what it's like in South Australia, but Commonwealth government funding is really important.

I think that the Commonwealth government also has an important role in directing funds around enhancing centres of cities. If we look in Newcastle, where we're sitting at the moment, the Building Better Cities program in the 1990s played a large role in kicking off the inner part of Newcastle regenerating. It was responsible for funds that came to Honeysuckle and so on. Thinking about ways in which federal government funds can be directed towards developing centres so that people can access services without having to travel so far for them is really important.

Ms McBRIDE: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you for your attendance here today. If you've been asked to provide any additional information, would you please forward it to the secretary by Monday, 19 March. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have the opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors.

Prof. Mee : Thank you very much. Enjoy your time in Newcastle.

CHAIR: It has been great so far.