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Dictatorship of the High Density Bullies

Tony Recsei Tony Recsei - President, Save our Sydney Suburbs

Some two years ago I became increasingly aware of the State Government's urban consolidation policy. I had a gut feel that a policy of cramming people closer togetherwould be detrimental and I wrote to the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning requesting the reasons for their approach.

My letters were rarely answered and it gradually dawned on me that maybe they could not justify their actions. I did some research on my own and wrote an article for the SMH entitled Dictatorship of the High Density Bullies - the reasons for this title will become apparent.
Today I wish to tell you what I discovered. With an increasing population the authorities have only two options - cram people closer together or establish new growth areas. The State Government has chosen to crowd people closer together. To describe the process they have used various euphemisms over time: "Urban Consolidation"; "Compact City"; and "Sustainable City". But they all means the same thing.

DUAP has promulgated several planning policies to force higher densities upon residents:
  • SEPP 53 There is State Environmental Planning Policy Number 53, which enables DUAP to impose high-density living on a community. It orders a local authority to supply a residential strategy that will result in higher density to its satisfaction. If the municipality fails to satisfy DUAP (in reality with a certain % population increase although this is strenuously denied), it is threatened with the take-over of its planning powers. DUAP cynically states that the strategy must have community acceptance in spite of the fact that the community has no option. That is why we may describe the situation as "Dictatorship of the High Density Bullies".

  • SEPP 5 State Environmental Planning Policy Number 5 is a Medium Density sham which avoids Council Planning Rules. It poses under the cloak of being housing for the aged and disabled but in reality it permits medium density housing for rich empty-nesters in locations which are zoned for single-residential. These medium density developments normally lack on-site facilities that are needed for the aged and the disabled. In fact, I know of evidence that estate agents discourage genuinely disabled people from purchasing these units, presumably they are considered to lower the tone.

Paris before infill . This slide is a depiction of housing in Paris before infill occurred. You'll note that the houses look out on the street. Behind them are gardens, there are trees, shubbery, vegetables, grass . . .

Paris half infilled. Then this is what the same area looked like half-infilled. We now see a lonely tree.

Paris as it is now. This is what it looks like now - and this is the process we are told we must aspire to.

When Sydney visitors return from overseas, they are generally thankful to be in a less congested environment; to get away from the traffic and the crowds.

Barcelona has high density living. The rich have places in the country to get away from the congestion; the poor are stuck where they are in their cramped conditions. Sydney suburbs by contrast typically have many trees.

Compare Lucca (in Italy), Narrabeen (Sydney), and Shustar in Iran.

This is Toronto . At DUAP's sustainability conference in November last year, this is the type of living the keynote speakers held up as a model.

Scarpnack in Sweden is another model that they gave . It makes sense for people who live in climates with long harsh winters and short summers not to have a garden. It is noteworthy that many of these folk own summer retreats in the countryside. This enables them to get away from congested living.

One sees a similar pattern with people who own expensive apartments in inner Sydney. Many possess seaside cottages to which they periodically travel to escape the crowds.

In the19th Century, the huge increases in population density caused many problems. The early 20th Century solution was to provide and value open space. However we are now doing a 'U-turn', and being forced to accept higher densities.

What are the justifications given by DUAP for higher densities? In summary, these justifications - better labeled myths - are:
  • SAVING BUSHLAND DUAP maintains that squashing people closer together saves "valuable farmland and bushland".

  • COST The Department maintains that costs will be saved if high-density living is imposed when compared to allowing people to live in conventional residential blocks. It says that high density will result in savings in infrastructure costs, such as water supply, sewers and roads.

  • TRAFFIC Another deception relates to the use of motor cars. DUAP refers to an increased tendency for Sydney's population located in the inner-ring to travel to work by public transport compared to people living further away from the city centre and implies that urban consolidation reduces traffic and consequently air pollution.

  • POLLUTION The Department maintains that high density living results in less pollution as they say that traffic will be less.

  • HOUSING CHOICE The Department bizarrely says urban consolidation will "increase housing choice". It says that local government areas should be transformed until all housing styles are available in all municipalities and that people should be able to move to a different housing style in the same locality.

And, yes, it's all there, just look at their publication called Shaping Our Cities .

SAVING BUSHLAND Let us look at the facts of the allegation of saving farmland and bushland.

This [slide shows] remnant bushland within Sydney. It was attractive to residents and visitors, it was a source of recreation, it counteracted pollution, mitigated run-off, cooled the city and it provided a sanctuary for wildlife This is what the area looks like now.

This is what the units look onto; they look onto the amenity of the gardens on the other side of the street. As a result the units command premium prices, because they have a pleasant outlook.

The houses now look onto [the units] instead of the previous bushland. They have lost value, a process we call theft of amenity.

DUAP tells us that over the past 10 years high density has saved 8,500 hectares of bushland and farmland. Now if you do the calculation, and take into account such factors as the residential area of Sydney only takes up forty per cent of the total area you'll see that it amounts to a mere 700 metres on Sydney's 40 km diameter so far. So ten years of urban consolidation has saved 700 metres. Compare this figure to the area of one and a half million hectares of bush cleared in NSW in the same period, you'll realise where the real problem lies. This 8,500 hectares is just 0.005%, of the bushland that's been cleared in other areas. If you put six million people into Sydney, all you'd save is 2.4 kilometres off the boundary. Admittedly it will be an irregular saving, because some areas will stick out more than others. But, one's got to put it in perspective. Of all [the enormous amount of Australian bush and farmland] we are saving 700 metres on the fringe of Sydney.

What is better - gardens and pockets of bushland within the city or 700 metres on the fringe which few of us ever experience?

The next myth to consider is cost . We are told that the government will save money by the more efficient use of infrastructure if they push more people into existing suburbs. I've asked DUAP: Where are the studies to prove this? And I got no answer. As Genia McCaffery has said, the existing infrastructure was laid 100 plus years ago. It was designed for the population density of the time. There would not have been surplus funds to build in huge over-capacities that we can now use. All that is being achieved is the overloading of existing infrastructure. Sewers are overflowing into creeks, as is the case in Willoughby, because of the huge amount of development that has occurred around Chatswood. Tens of millions of dollars will have to be spent there now to rectify this problem caused by high density. Existing infrastructure will have to be upgraded, with all the expensive problems associated with digging up streets and integrating with outdated technology. The end result is a huge increase in cost, which we as consumers will have to bear in the form of higher charges. The mass installation of greenfield infrastructure must be much cheaper in the long run.

There is another side to cost - the cost of new units being built. Many of us are aware of the price being asked for the new units, in the range of $300,000 to $1,000,000 each. And the developers destroy sound family homes to replace them with these units. The building cost of villa housing is 150% of detached housing; that of town houses is 200% of detached housing.

Traffic DUAP maintains that traffic problems and therefore atmospheric pollution will improve with higher densities. Where are the studies to prove that this will result in the Sydney situation? On Thursday Sue Holliday, Director-General of DUAP misleadingly said on radio that the biggest impact on Sydney is the pollution caused by people living on the outskirts having to drive long distances to work. If one takes the trouble to look at the figures we find this travel can only equate to less than 1% of all private car travel in Sydney. It is completely overwhelmed by the pollution from the stop-start travel caused by increasing densities.

Challenge I have challenged DUAP and their keynote speakers at the Sustainability Conference to give one example of a comparable high-density city that does not suffer from severe traffic congestion.

Here we see Paris, an old, high-density city with magnificent public transport and no freeways - all the attributes suggested by the high-density advocates. But it suffers choking traffic congestion.

Portland, Oregon is frequently quoted as an example of a modern high-density city, which has all the current facilities to avoid traffic problems. What the high-density advocates omit to tell us, is that Portland has a traffic congestion index approaching that of New York. Medium density living creates much concern about traffic at a local level. Interviews reveal that neighbours of medium density constructions remain very dissatisfied with the developments next door and the most significant source of complaint relates to traffic and parking problems. So much for the traffic myth.

Pollution Well we know that atmospheric pollution increases with high density; from vehicle emissions and from cooking. Cities are heat islands. If you chop the trees down, there is nothing to cool them. There is more noise. For example, since consolidation in the City of Yarra, there is three times the noise complaints since they started that. The staff has increased from three to seven, handling those complaints. And as Genia said, windows are closed, air conditioners are used, and there are more greenhouse emissions. And Michael Richardson mentioned stormwater. If you reduce open ground for absorption, there is more pollution into creeks. In fact the run-off figure in built up areas is more like ninety per cent. Composting diminishes. Then there is salinity; if you chop down trees then salinity problems can occur. In fact, we are already seeing that in Western Sydney, right now. And another factor is that multi-dwelling buildings have a much greater embodied energy than single dwellings.

Housing choice The first question to ask is: Where is the evidence that there is a lack of housing choice? Surely the onus is on DUAP to prove that this is the case. In fact, the evidence available shows no current lack of housing choice. That particular study concludes that there is no significant change in house acceptances on the part of household types, or any significant demand from empty-nesters. And they concluded that the large increase in multi-unit housing in inner- and middle-ring locations was being sustained, almost entirely, by new migrants to the Sydney metropolitan area.

So there will be less choice, not more. All the evidence which I have found indicates that high density will reduce our quality of life. Community objections to this destruction are proving that the amenity we enjoy is highly valued.

But the government is not listening. [Slides of low, medium and high density reveal the choices]

The unanswered question is why? Why do this to us. Where can we see a high-density city that is not afflicted with the problems DUAP claims its policies will eliminate? Well, DUAP avoids giving us an answer to our question!

Developers in the planning process It is revealing to investigate the degree to which developers become involved in influencing the planning process. A review in Victoria showed that interaction of developers in the planning process has been very goods for business. The construction industry and shopping centres would like to monopolise a large catchment customer base. And they oppose opposition to their schemes; they spend enormous sums in the courts and on their consultants. And they set up bogus community groups to swing the odds in their favour. In the last electoral cycle, in New South Wales, property developers contributed more than a million dollars to the governing Party - almost four times the contributions from the union movement. And it has been mentioned that the Minister's Residential Strategy Advisory Committee comprises six members, three of whom are from the development industry.

DUAP does not answer our questions. Where is Sue Holliday today? On Tuesday last week I had an article published in The Daily Telegraph. On that day, Sue Holliday phoned Gordon Hocking, the forum organiser, to say that she could not attend for personal reasons. And what is more, she refused to send any substitute. As Gordon says: DUAP's attitude is, "We don't explain our policies; we just enforce them".

What are the alternatives to cramming us together? I feel that we must avoid the mistakes of the past. And there are alternatives, as has been mentioned today by Michael Richardson, and they have been mentioned today by various speakers. We could, in remote locations, or greenfield locations put magnet developments that attract other developments. We can have rapid transport systems, subsidised communications, and very importantly, personal and business income tax concessions as has been mentioned here today. This would employ energy saving features, integrate facilities and all sorts of very pleasant other attributes could be incorporated, instead of ruining the existing suburbs within Sydney.

In conclusion I would like to stress that we need an integrated population policy at federal, state and local government level.
back to Population Forum 2001 index