One of Victoria's leading urban planners argues that government needs to intervene more actively in the housing market and keep key decisions out of the hands of developers in order to preserve the liveability and sustainability of Australian cities.

According to Michael Buxton, a professor of Environment and Planning at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, leaving key housing decisions in the hands of major developers could undermine the liveability and sustainability of Australia’s urban centres.

Buxton contends, however, that this is exactly what cities like Melbourne are doing by pursuing a more hands-off approach to urban planning and development.

“At the moment, the government is adopting a facilitative planning approach,” he said. “It has taken away the rules, and assumed that the development industry will identify where people should live, allowing them to select the land for available development as well as the dwelling types.

“This laissez-faire approach is the wrong way to go about it – the developers are building the wrong type of housing by concentrating on tiny high-rise and medium-rise apartments in the wrong areas, and relatively large houses on the urban fringe.

“It’s really going to affect Melbourne’s future viability as a city unless something is done about it, because it doesn’t cater to the needs of emerging demographics, such as the new households forming in the middle suburbs.”

Buxton believes part of the reason why developers make for poor urban planners is the inherent conservatism of the Australian housing industry.

“[Developers] are very conservative and very lazy, they roll out their standard business-as-usual model which has stood the test of time, and they don’t want to change. It’s quite wrong for large development companies to be making decisions for the buying public,” he said. “But now the housing producers are dictating the type of product and therefore they’re also determining demand. They’re pretending to give people what they want, but they’re not really providing many alternatives, if any.”

Recent development trends along the fringes of Melbourne, where planners have sought to raise density by mandating an increase in the number of lots per hectare, exemplify the types of problems that can arise when government gives free rein to developers to fully determine the character of new housing stock.

“While over the past year or so average density appears to have risen, this isn’t driving a variation in the dominant house type, which is still large detached houses,” said Buxton.

Buxton notes that developers have turned to one of two expedients to satisfy the increased density requirements, neither of which serve to improve the quality or variety of new housing.

“The first is to just lower the average size of housing lots to something like 430 or 450 square metres and still put the same size house on the smaller block. So what we’re getting now all across our outer urban areas, particularly in lower priced localities, is a very high site coverage from the houses. From the air it just looks like a sea of roofs, almost boundary to boundary, with very tiny backyards,” he said.

“The second way is to put a certain percentage of smaller lots on their development, maybe between seven and 15 per cent of smaller lots, some down to 280 square metres, while still maintaining most development in the traditional form of relatively large lots and house types.

“Both these methods are most unsatisfactory – they’re not fundamentally changing the business as usual practice of large houses on comparatively large lots.”

Buxton believes these development quandaries along Melbourne’s fringes, as in other urban areas, would be best remedied by further intervention from the government, particularly when it comes to design quality.

“The key is mandated minimum average lot sizes and and mandated high quality design standards to achieve variation in lot size and housing type,” he said. “The only way this is going to happen within a reasonable time frame is if governments really intervene in the market, and stop leaving these decisions to the large development companies.

“Public governments have a role here, and it’s a government responsibility to intervene in the market when it isn’t delivering what the community needs.”