The Greens have been pretty anti-development over the years, but it looks like that is about to change. Finally.
For a long time, The Greens seemed the most out of touch when it came to housing policy.
That’s not an endorsement of Labor or the Coalition. It’s just that where Labor and the Coalition diligently did nothing to rock the boat, The Greens just didn’t seem to get it. In fact, they seemed to be making things worse.
For starters, they fret a lot about housing affordability. Nothing wrong with that. We all do. I think we can all see that as a society, we’ve got a problem if younger or disadvantage folks can’t get a place of their own.
Housing is the first step to stability and genuine wealth creation. It needs to be an option for everyone.
But the question is what do we do about it?
Well, we could build more houses on the fringes of our cities.
But The Greens have been the most vocal critics of this kind of strategy, and the “urban sprawl” it implies. We need to limit the ‘footprint’ of our cities and protect the farms and bush land at the fringes.
Ok, fair enough. So can we build up the inner city then? Increase the density of our urban areas through town-houses and so forth.
Oh no no. The Greens want to preserve the ‘character’ of our cities. You just can’t put a price on the former slums that are now the stomping grounds of well-heeled hipsters. Development has to happen somewhere else.
So where do we build then?
The Greens: Eat more tofu.
This is what I mean when I say that I just don’t think they got it. There’s an impossible trinity here. You can’t have affordable housing, no development on the fringes and no development in the inner cities.
Something has to give.
If prices are high it’s because there’s more demand than supply. And this has been one of the characteristics of the Australian property market for years. We just don’t build enough houses.
So we either reduce demand by asking a few people to leave (I could give you a list of names), or we increase supply.
But supply has to happen somewhere. And really there’s only two options. Either it happens on fringe, greenfield sites. Or it’s infill development that increases the density of existing areas.
The first way has been blocked by people seeking to contain urban sprawl – and this move has given us the urban growth boundaries that have come and gone in Sydney and Melbourne over the years. Almost as soon as they’re set up, they get revised and pushed back.
The second way has been blocked by the NIMBY brigade and people looking to preserve the character of existing areas. Through their local councils, these groups have been able to exert considerable influence.
And look, I can see how any one of these ideals is attractive. It’s nice to have affordable homes. It’s nice to preserve farm and bushland. It’s nice to have streets full of quaint terrace houses.
But you can’t have them all. One of them has to give.
But it looks like this tide is shifting, and New Zealand is leading the way.
Across the Tasman, there’s a bipartisan consensus emerging that Auckland’s urban growth boundary (called the Metropolitan Urban Limit) has to go.
The National’s have been pushing the barrow for years, but now Labor has come to the table. Labour’s shadow minister for housing, Phil Twyford has called for the end of the MUL:
“Over 25 years the urban growth boundary hasn’t prevented sprawl, but it has driven land and housing costs through the roof. It has contributed to a housing crisis that has allowed speculators to feast off the misery of Generation Rent, and forced thousands of families to live in cars, garages and campgrounds.”
“Labour’s plan will free up the restrictive land use rules that stop the city growing up and out. It will stop land prices skyrocketing, and put the kibosh on land bankers and speculators.”
Sell it Phil, sell it. (I used to “feast off the misery of Generation Rent” but now I’m trying to lose weight. I’ll just have a salad of discontent with a side-serve of unnameable regret.)
But then, kind of amazingly, The NZ Greens have come on board as well.
Green Co-Leader and Housing Spokeswoman Metiria Turei said the Greens were also open to Labour’s package of relaxed city limits, relaxed density controls and new infrastructure financing, as long as it included integrated planning with public transport and protection of special land.
“On the face of it, it looks like something we could consider and support because it has all of the parts of the puzzle integrated. The devil is in the detail always, but we’re certainly interested in their (Labor’s) proposal.”
I think this is a seismic shift in the politics of land supply, and my bet is that it won’t be long before Australia follows in New Zealand’s footsteps. Urban Growth Boundaries are being seen for the failures they are, and that will make it easier for people to bring much-needed homes to the market.
When you look at it, it’s inevitable. Greens’ voters might have nice associations with terrace houses, but that love affair will be tested when they realise that it’s one of the factors that’s preventing them from getting into the housing market.
The NZ Greens are growing up. The Australian Greens don’t have a choice but to follow in their footsteps.
Ps – Before anyone starts pelting me with tempeh, I will say one thing for The Greens. They’ve had a long-standing ban on donations from big corporations. This month we saw revelations that Trade Minister Andrew Robb accepted $100,000 from a Chinese state propaganda unit on the very day the Chinese-Australia Free Trade Agreement was signed! How anyone can take money from China while supposedly representing Australia’s interests and not get sacked, let alone lynched, is beyond me…
Is the tide shifting? Is this the dawn of a more developer-friendly political era?