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Save Our Sydney Suburbs (NSW) Inc.
News Release September 2005

A cunning move

In our last email we told you that our lobbying the Sydney Morning Herald to modify its constant pro-consolidation stance seems to have a result. An article mentioning Save Our Suburbs by Michael Duffy appeared, described as the "best column ever written on the subject". It states "We are the first inhabitants of Sydney that will leave this city worse than when we found it. In pursuit of the policy called ‘consolidation’ we are turning one of the most liveable cities in the world into a congested rats’ nest". See below for the full text. This article must have upset the likes of high-density advocate, Sydney's Sustainability Commissioner Professor Peter Newman no end.

In what appears to be a wily reaction to this SMH article, today's Daily Telegraph (see rough scan below) refers to a report by Peter Newman, "obtained exclusively" that urges that no more land releases be made. What is downright misleading is the heading. The article implies that no more people will come to Sydney. What is not stated is that Peter Newman believes that there should be no limits on people coming into Sydney and that all the increasing population must be crammed into existing suburbs. Also, the article gives the impression that Peter Newman's proposals will alleviate problems. In fact high-density will intensify the many disasters resulting from the government's high-density planning policies.

Save Our Suburbs believes that if the population has to increase this must be accommodated in satellite cities properly environmentally designed from scratch. We can do without all the problems resulting from retrofitting higher densities onto suburbs with infrastructure originally designed for lower densities.

This has to be stopped in its tracks. Letters please, lots of letters to The key to success is a short letter submitted as soon as is possible. We cannot afford to let the high density advocates get away with this latest subterfuge.


Sydney isn't full, so let's stop the rot
By Michael Duffy
September 17, 2005

Page 37

WE ARE the first inhabitants of Sydney who will leave this city worse than we found it. In pursuit of the policy called "consolidation", we are turning one of the most liveable cities in the world into a congested rats' nest. Artificial restrictions on growth have increased housing prices so much that many of our children cannot afford to live here. It's a mighty political and social failure.

Things are about to get worse. About 70 per cent of all new housing in the next quarter-century will be built within the existing city boundaries. That will be half a million new homes, most of them as part of an estimated 7000 blocks of flats, to be built in streets like yours and mine. More and more people will be forced to live in concrete boxes or to spend their lives paying off some of the largest mortgages in the world. More suburbs will be blighted, deprived of oxygen, grass and space by denser housing, as remnant bushland disappears and roads and rivers become clogged like arteries running through fat.

The policy of consolidation, sometimes also known as "smart growth", is international and enshrined in the State Government's Metropolitan Strategy. It is based on a number of false assertions that fly in the face of common sense or have been exposed as false by academic research. Yet they persist, for reasons we will consider later. But first let's look at those assertions.

The biggest is the claim, popular with all ideologues, that there is no alternative. We are constantly told that Sydney has reached its natural limits. In fact there are enormous areas of empty land on the city fringes, as anyone who drives along the Northern Road from Penrith to Camden can see. As the Australian Institute of Urban Studies demonstrated years ago, there is huge potential for extending the city into the Southern Highlands, half an hour by fast train from Central station. So there are alternatives.

The next big argument is environmental. Many people assume Sydney can only expand by eating into national parks, but as the two examples above show, this is not true. It is also claimed that the environmental cost of more freestanding houses on traditional blocks of land (700 square metres or more) is no longer acceptable, mainly because they use too much water. The first issue here involves equity: why should those who already own suburban houses on decent blocks be able to deny them to the young, the poor, and newcomers? In any case this is a furphy. Sydney's water crisis is as artificial as its land shortage. It could be solved in a few years by changes to the pricing system and the introduction of large-scale recycling. We could even build a new dam. (Many environmentalists are opposed to this but they shouldn't be. Dams involve the green ideal: large areas of bush - the catchment areas - from which humans are excluded.)

A variant of the environmental argument involves public transport. It's often claimed that we need to get people to stop driving their cars and use public transport, and that consolidation will achieve this.

Unfortunately, evidence from around the world shows this to be wrong. Denser housing increases public transport in the affected area by a little and road use by a lot, so creating traffic congestion. Tony Recsei, the president of anti-consolidation group Save Our Suburbs, notes that "in cities all over the world, traffic congestion increases with density, even in cities with public transport systems Sydney can't hope to match". The reason for this is obvious: public transport, no matter how much is spent on it, just doesn't go to most of the places most of us want to go to when we leave our houses. To ignore this, as many planners and their supporters so persistently do, is to indulge in nostalgic left-wing fantasy.

There's a social argument that's often pushed to support consolidation: because the number of single-person households is growing, we need more smaller dwellings. We're often told there's a lack of choice in our housing stock. But most of the newly single are divorced or separated men, who want to remain in their suburban homes because they like it there, to receive visits from children, or because they hope to remarry one day, when they will need the extra space. In fact, Sydney does have a choice problem - but it's too many flats, not too few.

Patrick Troy is emeritus professor at the Australian National University and author of The Perils of Consolidation. He says research shows that 85 per cent of people who live in flats would rather live in a house.

Given all the above, why have governments imposed consolidation on our city with increasing fervour? Flats and townhouses suit large builders and developers - big companies like big projects - and they show their appreciation by being the major donors to state political parties. It's an appalling situation and for the health of our democracy such donations should be banned. But I doubt they're responsible for consolidation.

I suspect it's driven by something more prosaic, a desperate effort by government to minimise the increasing expense to itself of providing new housing.

For Sydney's first 200 years, new suburbs were usually opened up with very basic facilities, and gradually improved over a long period. But today we have greatly increased expectations and a media ready to pounce on shortcomings. The old approach is no longer acceptable. So, believing it is cheaper, government crams most new housing into established areas to take advantage of existing infrastructure, from water pipes to schools. When it does provide building sites on the fringes, it now charges developers (that is, homebuyers) for infrastructure costs that would once have been borne by the general budget. So the housing crisis is a corner of the bigger problem, of government trying to cope with budgetary problems that persist despite the growing prosperity of society.

The result of all this is the destruction of the traditional suburban way of life that has suited the vast majority of Sydneysiders. Governments have been assisted in this by certain planners and environmentalists antipathetic to that tradition, indeed contemptuous of the suburbs. They desire to change our cities into a green fantasy of Paris, in which cafes and bicycle paths play a big role. They speak of bringing the vibrancy of Manhattan to Sydney, and contrast this dream with the tedium of ordinary life in a freestanding house with a garden - a life that millions of immigrants have crossed the world to achieve.

They denigrate this bourgeois utopia by calling it "urban sprawl", despite the fact that space and sprawl are part of Australians' cultural heritage. They call their dreams for the city "smart growth", to imply that any alternative is dumb. Government has turned to these intellectuals to provide the arguments to justify its budget-driven assault on suburbia.

It's interesting that suburbia has largely failed to fight back. Although we know that many people don't like what's happening, the boosters of government-imposed densification have dominated public debate, often portraying opponents as environmentally insensitive, uncool Nimbies. One reason for this is that many of the middle-class people who tend to get involved in public issues have not engaged in this one, because they live in parts of the city that were consolidated long ago (for example, the inner west and the eastern suburbs) or which have not been affected until now (Ku-ring-gai).

There have been some efforts to fight the blight, by groups such as Save Our Suburbs. But they've been hampered by the way consolidation has been dispersed over time and place. The planning powers of local councils have been overridden one by one, for instance, rather than all together. There has never been a focal point, one big moment, to bring all those affected together into a critical mass.

Perhaps the worst single effect of consolidation has been on the young and the poor. Wendell Cox, a US expert and opponent of the policy, has calculated that Sydney is now the fourth most unaffordable city in Australia, the US and New Zealand. He reached this conclusion by comparing average wages with housing prices.

Ian Macfarlane, the governor of the Reserve Bank, has suggested young people should leave Sydney because house prices are so high. It's sad this hasn't created a greater sense of shame among those who have created this situation. But then, it's not the children of the elite who are being driven out of their city.

In Cox's view: "The government advocates prefer to think Sydney's growth is the root of the housing affordability problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Atlanta are the fastest growing large urban areas in the English-speaking New World. Each is already larger than Sydney and growing faster. They also have the most affordable housing markets. This is because [they] have been careful not to apply Soviet breadline policies to their housing markets."

Sydney is like the frog being slowly boiled in warm water. Cast your mind back 10 years and reflect on how your suburb, your city, has changed. Changes to views, to the number of cars on the road, to our sense of space and place. These changes are not the inevitable product of growth. They are the product of certain ideas and choices. Bad ones.


Crowded, Polluted and overdeveloped

It's finally official

By MARK SCALA Urban Affairs Reporter

SYDNEY'S urban sprawl has reached bursting point and should not be allowed to expand further, the state's peak planning body warns in a report urging an end to land releases. With air pollution rising, dam levels falling and city roads choked, a report by the state's Sustainability Commissioner, obtained exclusively by The Daily Telegraph, says any future expansion would stretch resources to the limit and clash with agriculture.

In his report to the Planning Department, Professor Peter Newman warned that pending housing releases in southwest and northwest regions were all the city could sustain and should be the last. He urged that plans to expand new homes into the Macarthur area, south of Liverpool, be dropped. Warning of the need to develop "green" public transport, Professor Newman wrote: "These two areas [the northwest and southwest sectors) should be the last land release areas in Sydney." He has already warned that current development levels will see an increase in traffic and worsen the city's pollution problem, "exceeding air quality targets on particular days".

But the report has angered developers, who say not enough land is being released and that limiting expansion would force house prices to rocket further. The Urban Development Institute of Australia wants to see faster releases to prevent further clogging of the housing market.
In a submission to the State Government it will call for acceleration of development in the Macarthur region as the planning department prepares to finalise it metropolitan growth strategy. Executive director of the UDIA David Poole said that by limiting expansion house prices would rise further as people were forced to pay more for condensed living. "We'd be a mug, I think, to shut up shop," Dr Poole said. "If we did get a population spike above what we have now, we'll have huge pressure on affordability. "In the short term we're behind in getting the land releases happening." He said Sydney could not afford to overdevelop in existing areas that did not have adequate transport infrastructure.

But Alex Gooding from the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils said it was time for the Government to make some hard decisions and set aside green space. "At some point you have to make some limit to the footprint of Sydney. We can't keep expanding," Mr Gooding said. "We need to make sure we take up the land that we need, but try to protect agriculture and the environment." He said the rising price of petrol would make people less inclined to travel great distances from city fringes, with, a need to upgrade existing developed areas.

A spokesman for the Planning Department said no limits had been placed on land releases outside of the northwest and soutwest sectors.
"However, any such new releases are considered on their merits and require infrastructure contributions and need to meet high sustainability requirements," he said. He said 220,000-lot northwest and southwest releases were expected to cater for Sydney's housing needs for the next 25 years.

Planning Minister Frank Sartor has called for a check of green spaces.

* No more land releases should be made after those pending in the southwest and northwest regions

* Plans to expand into the Macarthur area, south of Liverpool, should be scrapped

* The Government should concentrate on developing "green" public transport

* Sydney's air will move closer to exceeding air-quality targets

Tony Recsei

President, Save Our Suburbs

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