With the price of the average home spiralling upwards in Australian cities, politicians are being flushed out at federal, state and local levels.
At the federal level, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took a holiday season swipe at convoluted planning systems with a focus on his home city of Sydney. The PM saw the Sydney planning system as taking three times longer than the equivalent in Brisbane. His assistant Minister for Cities, Alistair Taylor, continued the theme with a call for 40,000 new homes a year in Sydney, well above the current number of 31,000, and he too laid the blame on a slow planning system.
At the state level, NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes, called for federal government taxation changes, particularly on negative gearing, to help with housing affordability and to give first home buyers a chance against investors. Stokes was partly responding to an attack on the NSW planning system by federal Treasurer Scott Morrison, who supported his PM in deflecting the blame onto the NSW planning system and its inability to lift supply up to the levels needed for Sydney.
The NSW Minister for Planning along with NSW Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian pump out media releases applauding the record housing supply numbers that the current boom is delivering, but they neglect to mention the shortfall of 10,000 or so new homes a year.
Meanwhile, the third tier of government in Sydney is simply doing what it always does by working against planning applications for new projects. In fact, the situation is worse than normal because many Sydney councils are going through a process of amalgamation and boundary changes. So developers who thought they were dealing with one council now find that that has shifted and a new council’s planning department wants to rethink the town centre or corridor renewal plan.
In an opinion in the Sydney Morning Herald, journalist James Robertson questioned the need for local government with its reputation for corrupt councillors, implying we had become too democratic.
“Democracy is a fine idea, but its time might be up.” Robertson stated.
He is partly right as a catch-22 is being played out by the various levels of government. It is the state government, for instance, that puts out plans for urban renewal along Parramatta Road, or the proposed Metro Rail from Sydenham to Bankstown, or the Epping Town Centre. These plans begin as drafts and then become final and according to planning guidelines must be taken into account for rezoning proposals by local councils.
The catch-22 is that councils ignore the plans of the state government and even the Greater Sydney Commission Planning Panels seem to side with local concerns. So an applicant must wait another two or three years before the ‘local’ plan is done presumably in accordance with the ‘state’ plan.
To demonstrate national leadership, Morrison is looking at the British approach to housing affordability where institutional funding is able to prop up a rental market at affordable levels. Of course, the big advantage the UK has is is that they do not have state governments with the level of power Australia has. Morrison may draw the conclusion that, as Morrison suggests, we have too much democracy.
There is, of course, an advantage for each of our three levels of government in having the multiple layers in that there is always another level of government to blame. Certainly many developers see a lot of buck passing with their projects as the state delegates and the local council claims the priority of the (local) public interest over state issues like providing the number of new homes needed for a growing population. Even the state politicians seem unimpressed with any concerns raised by industry groups that targets for new homes are not being met and prefer to focus on the record high production.
The ultimate answer to all of this buck passing should be to give one level of government the full priority so they can make the hard decisions to get more homes built and ensure there is some dent in affordability. The state government is the obvious candidate to drive outcomes, but in NSW the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC), an arm of the state government, seems to be more concerned to not upset local government and to continue to delegate outcomes to those most opposed to change. It is early days with the GSC, so things might improve.
One glimmer of hope is that the Chief Commissioner of the GSC, Lucy Turnbull, is an ex-Lord Mayor of Sydney and the wife of the PM. If anyone can sort out the relativity of the three layer of government in Australia to help with housing supply, she should be the one. The property industry is not holding its breath, but there is some hope through the ‘City Deals’ approach announced by the federal government to work out an outcome based approach that involves all levels of government might help.
The other hope is that Scott Morrison finds the answer in the UK, but then with BREXIT, they may be in a process of change. The signals of a solution will no doubt come from further articles in the mainstream media so keep your eyes open for the next political statement.