Melbourne 2030 - Planning Rhetoric versus Urban Reality
Russell Degnan

Ch. 3 - The Urban Growth Boundary

See also: Ch. 1, Ch. 2

Much like activity centres, how you perceive the urban growth boundary makes all the difference. As described by the authors, the State Government perceives the boundary as a way to slow down and manage growth on the suburban fringe, rather than as commonly held: a strictly enforced limit to Melbourne's growth. I base this on two facts: that the government has a policy of maintaining 15 years worth of land inside the growth boundary; and that it wants to retain the green wedges, and guide development. It should be obvious then, that the UGB is a significant market distortion in a field that seems to specialise in them. But what exactly its affects are is complicated, and the basis of the criticisms in the book.

The authors have three criticisms of the UGB. Firstly, that there it is encouraging housing trends that are reviled by almost everyone but the thousands of people buying them: McMansions on small lots. Secondly, that it has substantially increased the price of housing at the expense of first home-buyers. And finally, that it detracts from a more sensible regional planning policy.

Much of the criticism of smaller lots-sizes is based on the lower number of trees in newer housing estates. This is covered more extensively in chapter 5; I won't comment now except to say two things. That the poor quality of design on the urban fringe is an architectural fault, rather than a lot-size issue. Architects who continue to let garage doors dominate will produce ugly houses. And that the lack of trees is a function of the lack of age. Front yards may be smaller, but it is backyards decreasing. If you were to compare them to the houses of the 1920s through 1940s on quarter acre plots they are not substantially different and there is plenty of room for decent foliage for the street.

The pricing issue is more interesting. In their rush to quote the Productivity Commission report on first home buyers as saying price rises were 'inevitable' they missed the section that says current prices were the result of low interest rates and increased demand in the bouyant economy. Even the author's own figures don't support the claims they are making. There difference in price growth was not substantially different between the inner and outer suburbs, nor were changes in the number of first-home buyers substantially different to what you'd expect from the government funds under the first-home buyers scheme. Even when their evidence is correct, for example that housing on the fringe is becoming more expensive and is being filled by older, second and third home-buyers, their conclusions aren't. This trend can easily be explained by the increase in average marrying and child bearing ages, and in any case, having to buy a home nearer the city is hardly a great imposition being, in general, better serviced.

What the Productivity Commission does say is that it will cause long-run changes. Evidence from other cities - notably Portland - is that by disallowing the most cost effective housing type (low density suburban housing on the fringe) will result in second-best choices occuring: movements to regional centres and a longer commute; rural living in areas no longer available for higher housing densities; and increasing densities inside the UGB. These may not be optimum outcomes, but if planners are to actually "plan" then those outcomes are probably acceptable.

The last point, that the growth corridor approach is mindless. That it is causing a strain on infrastructure and creating communities with no identity, and that the implementation is not adequately addressing these problems is correct. It isn't good enough to put a macro-level policy in place that only weakens the ability of the local government to direct and handle growth; nor is it acceptable to put that same policy in place without considering required infrastructure needs (in particular transport). But this is not an argument against a UGB; the alternative could still be worse -- though more likely it will be much the same.

Next: Demographic Constraints

Finer Things 6th September, 2005 01:12:13   [#]