There is a coterie of Sydney commentators who have vastly differing motivations and objectives, but whose thinking converges around opposition to high rise / high density urban development.

Some establish a ‘straw man’, then delight in burning it down.  So: what is the ‘straw man’?

In this case, the ‘straw man’ is the early examples of affordable high-rise apartments built in the 1970s.  While architectural merit and build quality was often lacking, they serviced demand for private affordable housing and these apartments were usually located close to public transport.  Often ugly (in retrospect) they were simple and functional. For many, apartment living at that time was an affordable alternative to weatherboard or fibro homes in the sprawling western suburbs of Sydney.  Attacking apartments without acknowledging the vast improvements and change is nothing more than attacking a straw man.

Apartments have come a long way since then.  Design guidelines have played their part in lifting the standard.  The building commissioner has built an imputes for improved quality and a vast reduction in critical defects.  But despite the negative attention drawn from Opal Tower and Mascot Tower, the number of poor apartments built is amazingly low.  The quality and quantity of Sydney’s apartments are growing, and this is market driven. This is assisted by having a strong Building Commissioner in David Chandler help rebuild confidence in the sector.

Both first home buyers and down-sizing `empty nesters’ demand quality in their apartment.  The acoustics, water proofing, structural engineering, quality of the balcony, bathrooms, air conditioning, energy use, appliances, amenity are all improving each and every year.  Developers are simply meeting market demand; and make no mistake, there is plenty of demand for apartments.

Over 65% of all new dwellings built in Greater Sydney are “attached”.  This is the ABS category used to describe high rise apartments low rise apartments and town houses.  Demand is increasing for apartment living from “empty nesters” – those who want to down-size from larger family homes after their children have left.  This is driving demand for high quality multi bedroom apartments – often with 3 or 4 bedrooms and high standards of construction, fit-out, appointments and amenity.

So attacking the straw man is an effort to demonise this new modern form of living.

Then there are those NIMBYs who just don’t want their own suburbs to change. This group are the true conservatives of the modern era.  They have often benefitted greatly from the property boom and as a result are wealthy for no other reason than luck.  But having attained this, they will fight to the death to prevent change.  They talk of the need to “protect the character” of their suburb! Why?

They are often land hogs.  They occupy large lots of land with multi-bedroom homes and vast front and back yards and actively use only a minority of the land.  They push young families away and oppose medium density or high-rise development, even when it is supported by government investment in roads and transport infrastructure.

Over time, a shift to land tax (away from Stamp Duty) will sort these selfish NIMBYs out.  They can pay to be selfish.

There are some who oppose population growth.  This group ranges from greenies (on the left) concerned with the impact of population growth on the future of the planet, to those on the far right who simply oppose immigration.  This seems an unusual combination, but both the Greens and the far right are the ultimate conservatives. Both long for the past (different aspects of it) and oppose change.

In the meantime, there are the realists.  Those who have read and understood the Commonwealth and State Inter-generational Reports.  Those that understand that we have a structural problem with public finance.  Those that appreciate that it is possible to be green and progressive while embracing change and growth. In fact, the changes to the demographic makeup of our population demand that we embrace growth. People are living longer because of improvements in medicines and medical treatment.

The ageing population from the baby-boomer generation typically own their own home and are now entering (or are in) retirement.  Those who own their own home are asset wealthy – but they nonetheless often draw a pension (low superannuation balances and the non-inclusion of the family home in asset tests).

As this cohort grows as a proportion of the population you get what economists at Treasury call a “fiscal gap” – or the jaws of economic death.  Expenses grow.  Revenue declines.  The ratio of taxpayers to non-taxpayers is already in steep decline (ie. there are less and less people working and paying tax and there are more and more people not working and driving up expenses).

Our ageing population is a key driver of the fiscal gap as, unlike other factors, it acts on both revenues and expenses but in opposite directions. As noted above, ageing drives higher expenses in health (already 33% of the entire NSW recurrent budget is consumed by Health) and reduces revenues.

The irony is it is often these same cohort of ageing baby boomers with privileged un-earnt wealth (the home they bought cheaply and is now worth many multiples of their income) who oppose immigration, oppose growth and oppose change.  This hypocrisy (or at best myopia) drives inter-generational inequity.  The reason why young people cannot afford a new home is because the baby boomers won’t allow a “change in the character of their precious suburbs”.  They oppose high rise – usually with reference to the straw man arguments detailed above.  This is most evident among the educated and privileged on Sydney’s North Shore, the northern beaches, the inner west and the eastern suburbs.

But what they are really doing is killing Sydney.  If Sydney stops growing, it won’t be able to pay for the aged care needs of its aging population.  The public transport, the health care, the aged care, the improved public open spaces, the arts and all the things that baby boomers take for granted.  If Sydney stops growing, the population numbers show it will become a big retirement home.

We need population growth.  We need immigration – particularly of students and post-graduates from around the world.  We need to accept that the “character” of our suburbs will need to change.  To house the growing population, we need to build high-quality high-rise.  By doing this we can also have room for buildings to be separated from each other and set back from the road.  We can afford parks and public open spaces, but this requires a step-change in the view of our planners and architects.

The planning community has been let down by its leaders – both professional and academic. Their failure to imbed economics and feasibility into the core of their teachings has resulted in planners being largely ignored when economy shaping decisions are made.  For a start, Planners need to catch up with the Intergenerational Report.  Further, they need to appreciate that community consultation amplifies the views of the incumbents but fails to represent the view of the next generation.  The very generation which will generate the economic activity and associated tax revenue that will pay for health care and long life of many of those busily campaigning against change.

The current planning system in NSW, reflecting a broad shift away from the primacy of economic growth by our politicians generally, has tied itself up in a quagmire borne from opposition to the straw man.

Get over it – for the sake of our great city.