We can’t rely on developers to fix the housing crisis

Feb 7, 2024
Unique lighting house sign in group of houses. Real estate property industry concept background. 3d illustration

If you were running the state suffering the very worst of Australia’s housing disaster, a state where the number of public and community housing dwellings actually went backwards last financial year, you might want to grab any and every opportunity to ease the crisis – but you’re not running New South Wales.

Since defeating the Coalition a year ago next month, the Minns government has talked a big housing game but increasingly appears set on hoping private developers will magically do the work for it at no public cost.

If anything at all has been learned from the housing crisis, it has been that relying on developers to solve it does not work – it was in their interest to create it.

Given a major opportunity on government land in Frenchs Forest to increase and extend the affordable community housing component and add public housing, Planning Minister Paul Scully has squibbed it, preferring to stick with the previous government’s failed housing strategy of at most 15 per cent subsidised community rental housing for the site.

The Coalition’s policy lets the subsidised units revert to “the market” after 15 years.

As reported by the  Sydney Morning Herald, Scully has dismissed a call by the local independent MP, Michael Regan, to lift the affordable housing portion and add public housing when the soon-to-be-former Frenchs Forest school site is redeveloped for 2,000 new dwellings.

Yet Scully still told the paper: “We have a target of 30 per cent social and affordable housing on surplus government land that’s used for housing.”

He claimed Labor had introduced “the most progressive housing policies in the last 12 years” – which actually means extremely little, given the previous failed policies.

Last month’s Productivity Commission report on government services showed total NSW community and public housing went backwards last year as the government continued the tradition of outsourcing public housing to community groups.

Size and scope of housing in NSW

Indications are that the Minns government “target” doesn’t add up while it continues to rely on developers paying for it in return for increased height and density limits.

Instead, a picture is emerging of big developers having first call on the ear of the state with the biggest population, the highest housing prices, the most expensive rental accommodation and the worst record for meeting social housing needs.

Another NSW tradition is for the pubs‘n’clubs’ gambling industry and big property developers to be the most powerful and effective lobbyists.

Tradition is being upheld.

Labor went to the election last March with a much friendlier policy for gaming machines – a voluntary trial of cashless gaming, as opposed to the Liberal Party’s pledge to make all gaming machines cashless in keeping with a National Crime Commission recommendation.

And one of the government’s earliest planning-related decisions was to scrap the independent Greater Cities Commission (GCC), in keeping with a hard and fast campaign run by the big developers’ lobby group, Urban Taskforce.

The Urban Taskforce chief executive is Tom Forrest, a Labor policy advisor and chief of staff and then senior public servant under previous NSW Labor governments.

The big developers did not like the planning constraints that came from the GCC. The lobby claimed the commission wasn’t focussed enough on housing.

Urban Taskforce now appears to be running a campaign through the Daily Telegraph against constraints around the Badgerys Creek aerotropolis development.

Like the GCC, the Western Parkland City Authority was absorbed into Scully’s planning department, but the independent board, chaired by former Business Council CEO Jennifer Westacott, remains to “set the direction for the building of Bradfield City and for economic development and investment attraction to the Western Parklands City”.

Urban Taskforce does not like that either. Developers, understandably, prefer as little oversight and direction as possible. Much better just to deal with the planning department.

The long history of revolving doors between government and developers and lobbyists is more comfortable without any independent bodies with broader responsibilities getting involved.

Regan, whose state electorate of Wakefield takes in the prime Frenchs Forest site, told The New Daily that when he was the local mayor, he would receive phone calls from distressed residents within days of the council submitting proposed zoning changes to the planning department. Developers would be knocking on their doors.

The Frenchs Forest site has been a long time coming. Major developers will have been running their metaphorical tape measures over it in slavering expectation.

The “town centre”, as currently planned, will have 1000 units in buildings up to 12 storeys high with another 1000 dwellings around the precinct.

The top floors of the high-rise buildings will have 360-degree views from the ocean to the Blue Mountains, making for valuable real estate, as does a high degree of ready demand from professionals and workers associated with the adjoining Northern Beaches Hospital.

Regan’s call for at least 50 per cent affordable rental housing reflects the inability of nurses, teachers and bus drivers to live in the area they service.

There would be some very disappointed developers if much of the site was “lost” to perpetual social and public housing.

And there’s a problem with the government’s idea of extra height allowances for developers as an incentive to include more affordable housing – the figures don’t add up. But that’s another story (not storey).


First published in THE NEW DAILY February 2, 2024

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