Spare me the Economic Fairytales: Approving More Private Developments Won’t Improve Housing Affordability
Barely a week goes by without someone – usually someone possessing a condescending sneer and multiple investment properties – telling me that building more private apartments is the best way to improve housing affordability for young people.
I call bullshit. Contrary to popular rhetoric, increasing the supply of private dwellings isn’t making housing cheaper for first home buyers or low-income renters.
Housing in Australia is treated as a source of profit. Our federal tax system trips over itself to incentivise investment in real estate. So as long as investors feel confident that values will remain high, they’ll keep snatching up new properties like lollies from a piñata, driving up prices and out-bidding first home buyers.
If supply ever rises so fast that investors start getting antsy (e.g. inner-city Brisbane) the property industry responds by slowing down construction. Developers postpone projects, leave sites sitting empty and hold off on advertising new stock to avoid saturating the market.Read more
14 November, 2017
A few months ago, the State Government announced that a new high school would be built somewhere in Brisbane’s inner-south side to help cater for population growth and take some of the pressure off Brisbane State High. The announcement was a welcome surprise to a lot of residents and even to the administrative staff of existing local schools, who had previously been told that it would be many years before a new high school was built in South Brisbane.
The government promised to consult widely with the community before any decisions were made, but so far, the list of possible sites that the government is considering hasn’t even been released publicly.
The decision of where to locate a new high school is obviously a complex and controversial one, requiring consideration of a broad range of factors.
I write to object to Priority Development Area Application #DEV2017/846 for the Queen’s Wharf casino-resort in Brisbane’s CBD.
Having looked through scores of development applications in my time as an elected city councillor, I can say with confidence that it is farcical that the State Government would consider approving this DA in its current form.
Considering that this development is taking place on government-owned land, right on the riverfront in the middle of the CBD, the public benefits of the project are relatively small compared to the value of the land and future real estate the developer is being granted, not to mention the revenue from the enlarged casino itself.
I have many concerns about this development that go beyond the scope of the criteria against which it is being assessed. The assessment criteria are too narrow and omit a number of crucial public interests. At a minimum, the government should have required the developer to provide at least 20% of new apartments on the site as affordable community housing or social housing. The fact that 2000 apartments and 1600 luxury hotel rooms are proposed to be built on government-owned inner-city land without including even one single social housing dwelling is deeply embarrassing to the Queensland Government and reflects poorly on the values of the developer. The criteria also fail to specifically include and assess the social impacts of this casino-resort development in terms of how it will shape the lives and influence interactions between residents and visitors from different demographics.
However, the development application also fails to satisfy a number of elements enunciated in the Queens Wharf Brisbane Priority Development Area Development Scheme
My most significant concerns are:
- There is insufficient public green space to cater for the new residents of the proposed apartment towers, let alone the thousands of visitors, and the net useable area of Queens Park will be reduced by a shopping mall entrance
- Hydraulic assessment and flood mitigation measures do not appear to account adequately for increased frequency and severity of flooding due to climate change
- The public realm will be specifically designed to deter and discourage the presence of rough sleepers and marginalised demographics
- There is insufficient protection of established vegetation and ecologically significant areas within and around the PDA, and no genuine attempt to promote biodiversity as part of the development
- The design of the riverfront walkways will create excessive and suboptimal conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians
- The proposed footbridge is of minimal public benefit from a transport and connectivity perspective and its location should be reconsidered to fill more significant gaps in Brisbane’s inner-city transport network
- Key design elements which have been used to promote the development, such as the ‘Skydeck Viewing Platform’ will not be freely accessible to the public on a regular basis
- The built form of the main towers is excessive, will overshadow nearby streets and public places, and undermines the character and historic significance of heritage buildings both within and adjacent to the Priority Development Area
Why Brisbane residents should maintain a healthy scepticism towards Urban Renewal Strategies and Neighbourhood Plans
Neighbourhood plans and urban renewal strategies are major catalysts for change. Usually, such documents include a lot of positive elements that the vast majority of residents and local businesses support, such as more trees and garden beds, better pedestrian connectivity, and sometimes much larger infrastructure projects. The trade-off is that new neighbourhood plans almost always permit higher density development within parts of the plan area.
I don’t have a general objection to development and densification. But it’s crucial that population growth is accompanied by timely infrastructure investment and social services. Unfortunately, Brisbane’s current neighbourhood planning framework doesn’t guarantee the delivery of public infrastructure, so you end up with higher density development, but no other major improvements (Some of the main reasons for insufficient local infrastructure are explained at www.jonathansri.com/infrastructure-shortfalls/).
What’s in Scope?
The practical scope of BCC’s neighbourhood plans is quite narrow. A neighbourhood plan can change built form rules (e.g. height limits, boundary setbacks) and zoning for different uses (residential, industrial, mixed use etc), however other elements that require funding from council, such as ‘completing a riverside footpath’ or ‘building a new pedestrian bridge’ are usually only aspirational or advisory. A new neighbourhood plan is not accompanied by strict deadlines and a specific budget allocation for local infrastructure.
Many crucial urban renewal ingredients are also out of scope of a neighbourhood plan, even though the cost to council is quite low. For example, lowering speed limits can increase pedestrian safety and encourage local commerce. However speed limits are controlled by a different section of council, and even where a neighbourhood plan might state that a particular precinct will become a ‘pedestrian-friendly area’ or an ‘activated street’ there’s no guarantee that lower speeds will actually be introduced.
In partnership with the State Government, BCC could introduce rules specifying that a certain proportion of new commercial floorspace can only be leased out to Brisbane-based small businesses and non-profit organisations. You could also include requirements that a certain percentage of new apartments are social housing or affordable community housing, to be rented out to people on lower incomes.
But all this is out of scope for the BCC’s neighbourhood planning process.
The proof is in the outcomes
The South Brisbane Riverside Neighbourhood Plan (the ‘SBRNP’) shows how the practical outcomes of an urban renewal process don’t always live up to the positive propaganda.
Introduced in 2011 (several months after the January floods), the SBRNP rezoned much of the West End floodplain for higher density development. This applied not only to old industrial sites, but to existing medium-density residential properties. The trade-off was that council would improve public parks and intersections, and install a new CityCat terminal near Victoria St in West End to service the growing population.
Seven years later, West End’s density has increased substantially, with many apartment developments approved that are even taller than the height limits set out in the new SBRNP. But there’s still no new ferry terminal or public transport infrastructure for the Montague Road side of the peninsula, and the neighbourhood has seen no significant improvement to pedestrian safety or public green space. (I’ve written more about the broken promise ferry terminal at www.jonathansri.com/victoriastferry)
Pushing for Up-front Investment
When a new neighbourhood plan is being drafted, residents must insist that infrastructure should be funded and delivered up front before any sites are rezoned for higher density development.
It’s also important to recognise that increasing height limits to encourage private development does not necessarily improve affordability for lower-income families. Affordability is improved by increasing the supply of public housing and affordable community housing, not privately owned apartments.
When council tells a community that a neighbourhood planning process will deliver new infrastructure and a better public realm, residents should point to suburbs like West End and ask where and when the money for new public transport, public parks, pedestrian upgrades and communities will be spent.
The hard truth is that if council isn’t willing to spend the money on public infrastructure, the many potential benefits of densification and ‘urban renewal’ will largely go unrealised.
Here's the basic problem:
- Too many people are buying single-use bottled water products
The obvious solution:
- Provide more free public drinking fountains that are clean and well-maintained
- Fund education campaigns to encourage people to use reusable water bottles and remind the public that water from drinking fountains is safe, clean and much more environmentally sustainable than bottled water
- Ban the sale of single-use plastic water bottles
This week I was invited to participate in a debate/discussion about sustainable development and over-development at the Urbanity 2017 conference. It was primarily a free-flowing Q&A discussion format that covered a range of issues... below you can find a rough transcript of my opening remarks...
Recently I organised a bunch of residents in West End to paint rainbows on a footpath. I thought it might be useful for some people if I explained the legal status of these kinds of projects and the easiest way to go about getting approval from council for your own project. Getting a permit is sometimes worth the trouble as it significantly reduces the chance of council workers removing the artwork down the track. This info is current as of September 2017.Read more
There’s been a decent amount of media coverage about the fact that the NSW Greens did a way-less-than-ideal job of responding to concerns and complaints that a younger male member of the party had raped/sexually assaulted one or more women.
School over-crowding is one of the big planning issues in Brisbane’s inner-south side. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around which makes it harder to focus on and push for policy reforms that will actually improve the situation. This post isn’t intended to be a detailed analysis or policy proposal. But I thought it would be constructive to articulate a few key facts and highlight what I think some of the main issues are, in order to stimulate further conversation and provide a framework for more nuanced critical analysis down the track. I should preface this by emphasising that I’m just a humble local councillor. I don’t have any direct responsibility for education policy or school resourcing. However, as a city councillor, I see it as my responsibility to help ensure there is sufficient infrastructure and resources to cater for the residents of my ward, and right now I’m concerned that Brisbane City Council is encouraging and facilitating extremely rapid densification even though local educational institutions are already well over capacity.
The Current Situation
As of the start of 2017, Brisbane State High School has around 3200 students enrolled. This year, approximately 58% of the new cohort of Year 7 students were ‘locals’ from within the State High catchment. The other 42% were students from outside the catchment who were enrolled via one of the three ‘selective entry’ streams – academic, cultural and sporting. You can find a bit more info about these categories via the BSHS website.
The main constraint on school capacity isn’t necessarily the classrooms themselves. In part, it’s the services and facilities (i.e. libraries, computer labs, sports fields/green space), but in particular it’s shortfalls in funding for the specialist staff roles. For example, I’m told most public high schools get funding for one year level coordinator for each grade, however, BSHS has around 500 students in each year level, and they still only get one year level coordinator for each cohort.
State and federal government funding arrangements mean that Brisbane State High School only ends up getting around $9500 per student per year, which compares unfavourably to other public schools. (Don’t even start me on high-end private schools, which receive a lot of government funding that would be better off going to public schools.)
A school of 3000+ students also has other impacts on students that are perhaps less straightforward to measure. What are the effects on a student’s sense of identity when their school community is so large that they begin to feel swallowed up by it? Do some students feel greater pressure to compete with one another and learn to prioritise and value traits like selfishness over generosity? How much extra work do school staff have to put in to ensure that students continue to be treated as unique human beings rather than being reduced to ID numbers and rankings in academic results tables?
Several students have told me that the sheer physical size of the BSHS campus is itself also a problem. Many kids have to travel fairly significant distances between classes from one period to the next, often lugging a backpack full of textbooks with them. There are anecdotes that the mass movement of students during period changeovers can even cause bottlenecks at choke points like the footbridge over Cordelia Street.
I’m sure some of these concerns are exaggerated, and obviously there are also significant advantages to such a large and diverse student body, but staff, students and parents generally seem to agree that the school is already big enough. Even if substantial funding was directed towards redesigning the entire campus to make more vertical classrooms practical, this won’t address concerns about ongoing funding models for staff and resources, or about preserving the school’s sense of community.
More Growth on the Horizon
State High’s biggest year level cohort is 575 students. However the smallest cohort – those who are in year 10 in 2017 – is about 460 students (this smaller cohort is a legacy of the transition a couple of years ago where Year 7 became part of high school). So if nothing else changes in terms of school enrolments, at the end of 2019 around 460 Year 12s will graduate, but at least 550 Year 7s will start at BSHS in 2020, pushing the school’s student population up past 3300.
Of course, that doesn’t even begin to account for what happens as more apartments are constructed and more people move into the inner-city. Right now, a lot of inner-city apartments are sitting vacant, but that could change quickly down the track. Brisbane City Council and the State Government are proposing to squeeze tens of thousands of additional residents into suburbs like West End and South Brisbane over the coming decades. Where will all those students study?
I’m reliably informed that the State Government commissioned KPMG to conduct a study into enrolment and capacity issues, and that a report titled ‘Future Sustainability of Enrolments at State High’ was produced in July 2016. To the best of my knowledge, this report still hasn’t been made public, and I haven’t seen it.
The other factor inflating the school’s capacity is that because of Brisbane State High’s reputation and prestige, many families are pretending to live within the catchment in order to get their children enrolled there. Rather than going through the very competitive selective entry pathways, these families use a range of tactics in order to be treated as locals. Some of these tactics have included:
– households of five or six people pretending to live in a one-bedroom apartment
– temporarily renting a property within the catchment, then breaking lease and moving out as soon as the student’s enrolment has been confirmed
– students from other suburbs pretending they live with extended family members within the catchment
– students moving out and paying high rents to live alone in the South Bank student accommodation towers, coming home to their family in the suburbs on weekends
Staff members I’ve spoken to estimate that there are somewhere between 300 and 900 students who don’t actually live within the catchment, but pretend to do so. Without those students, the school would be able to stay below maximum capacity for the next few years at least.
It’s hard to generalise about the demographic circumstances of these not-quite-genuine-local families. There are probably some poorer families who used to be locals and have a long history of connection to the inner-south side, but have been recently priced out of the inner-city. But anecdotally, many of them seem to be wealthier upper-middleclass families who really want their kids to go to a GPS school. They see themselves as having a choice between paying $25 000 a year to send them to Boys Grammar or Girls Grammar, or spending that money on an investment property down at Montague Road and using the 4101 address to get their kid into BSHS.
I’m told the school has to dedicate a lot of staff resources (apparently as many as four full-time staff) towards checking whether new in-catchment enrolments are genuine, but obviously it doesn’t get any extra funding for this work from the State Government. It’s now common for some parents to fraudulently sign statutory declarations saying they live within the catchment, which means the school then has a very high burden of proof threshold to demonstrate the contrary. The school is now turning away students who’ve only lived in the area for six months before seeking to enrol, which means households who move into the area for a legitimate reason other than to get their kids into BSHS are also getting caught up. Even long-term local families now have to provide more paperwork and jump through more hoops in order to get their kids enrolled. The administrative burden on the school will only increase as our population grows and more students – from both within and outside the catchment – seek to enroll.
My perspective at the moment
This is a complex issue, and I think it would be intellectually dishonest to point the finger at a single decision-maker or a single level of government for the mess we’re in. I’m still seeking more information about alternative options to address capacity issues. But I think both Brisbane City Council and the State Government should put the breaks on upzoning land and approving new development projects within the BSHS catchment until capacity concerns are addressed.
Overcrowding at BSHS is ultimately a result of broader structural issues in Queensland’s education system. Many parents clearly feel their child will get a better education and have better opportunities if they go to State High compared to other high schools. Parents from other parts of Brisbane will continue to find increasingly innovative ways to trick the system and get their kids into BSHS as long as they perceive that it offers a better education than their local high school.
In a city like Brisbane, every child should have the opportunity to attend a good-quality government-funded high school within walking distance (or a short bus ride) of their home. This means that if the school’s overcrowding gets to a point where it’s turning away kids who genuinely live within the catchment area, BSHS should start taking fewer non-catchment students through its selective entry pathways. But the school would not be over capacity right now if not for the fact that hundreds of parents are pretending to live within the catchment in order to get their kids into State High.
From an urban planning perspective, it’s pretty inefficient and undesirable to have kids from the suburbs commuting into the inner-city to attend school. It doesn’t matter whether those kids are attending a private school, or have gotten into a public school like BSHS through a selective entry pathway, or have gotten into BSHS by pretending to live within the catchment. Moving so many students in and out of the city every day when they could be studying locally is a significant and unnecessary burden on the city’s transport networks.
Our long-term goal should be for every child to be able to get a good education without leaving their own neighbourhood. At a time when reducing fossil fuel emissions from private vehicle transport is so urgent, continuing to take around 50% of students via selective entry pathways from outside the catchment is at best only defensible if those students are travelling by public or active transport. The money that governments and councils spend on road maintenance to allow more people to drive into the inner-city would be better spent on improving the quality of local suburban schools.
The term ‘locational disadvantage’ describes the fact that – in general – students growing up today in the outer burbs experience greater hardship and have fewer opportunities than students in the inner-ring. The strongest argument in favour of supporting children from the suburbs to continue to access inner-city schools is that in a city of increasing locational disadvantage, encouraging poor kids to enroll at BSHS offers a pathway towards upwards social mobility. But this approach prioritises the interests of a small minority of students at the expense of the many. And the selective entry pathways are not means-tested. What happens to the kids who are left behind in ‘low-status’ schools when all the high-achieving students take up scholarships to private schools or get into somewhere like Brisbane State High? Would it be more socially just if BSHS’s selective entry pathway prioritised the poorest and most disadvantaged children, rather than the high achievers?
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether BSHS’s target balance of taking 50% of students from within the catchment and 50% from outside the catchment needs to be adjusted. If the argument for taking so many students from outside the catchment is partly based on equity and addressing locational disadvantage, maybe the selective entry pathways should be means-tested and only available to students from poorer families. What percentage split would be more sustainable in the long-term? What percentage split maximises equity and opportunities for all public school students across Brisbane? Should BSHS have to wind back its selective entry pathways altogether?
There are lots of options and questions that need thinking through, but right now it seems to me that the school has no more room to grow. Under these circumstances, it is reckless of the Brisbane City Council and State Government to continue approving developments that exceed the density of the relevant neighbourhood plans. It is short-sighted of the State Government to support new neighbourhood plans (such as the Dutton Park-Fairfield Neighbourhood Plan) that allow for significantly increased populations within the BSHS catchment area until funding and land for a new inner-city public high school is identified and set aside. We need to keep talking about the impacts of development and infrastructure spending shortfalls, and demand that current and aspiring State MPs clearly state their position on these issues in the lead-up to the next state election.
Sometime between 18 and 20 January, 1788, a fleet of 11 ships Captained by Arthur Phillip arrived uninvited at Botany Bay. They didn’t like the spot, so a few days later they left again, and hopped over to Port Jackson, arriving on 26 January and establishing a disruptive and expansionist colony without the permission of the people who already lived there.Read more