Housing choice or future disaster? Who’s right about the urban fringe controversy?
Sandra Edmunds | 18 April 2016
Government has ceded control over the urban fringe and density to developers who have squandered our most valuable resource, land, planning experts say. The Property Council in Victoria says Plan Melbourne is wrong to argue for greater densities and Stockland and Frasers Australia are themselves divided on the issue.
A completely different model of urban design is needed for Melbourne’s outer urban fringe areas if higher housing densities are to be achieved, says RMIT University’s planning expert Professor Michael Buxton.
The latest ABS figures show Melbourne is the nation’s fastest growing capital city with an average of 1760 extra people each week during 2014-15.
Plan Melbourne, the planning document that guides the future of the city, is under review with the Victorian government pushing for 20 dwellings per hectare within green field developments on Melbourne’s outer fringe.
The Property Council of Australia and major developers say townhouses on the urban fringe work “in pockets” but, with the vast majority of buyers wanting bigger blocks, a mandatory high-density requirement is doomed.
Professor Buxton, who teaches environment and planning at RMIT’s School of Global, Urban and Social Studies and has a research focus on fringe areas, said 20 dwellings per hectare is “eminently achievable”.
“Twenty lots per hectare is still one of the lowest average density requirements in the world,” he said. “Many of the fringe areas in American cities are exceeding that now.”
The London area and England generally has achieved 25 lots per hectare for decades but is working towards to 35 to 45. In Germany, rates are between 45 and 100 dwellings per hectare.
“What we need is a completely different model of urban design for the fringe areas where you have a range of lot sizes. You are still going to have a proportion of lots that are going to be detached – some are going to be quite large – but you have a range of lot sizes and a range of house types.”
Instead of a majority of detached housing, Professor Buxton advises a mix of types including more apartments and townhouses – at present just 5-7 per cent.
Outdated and irresponsible practices rule the entire urban land market
“But this requires the building companies to actually get off their backsides and do a bit of innovative design and planning and they don’t want to do that,” he said. “Why does the entire outer urban land market have to be subject to their outdated and irresponsible building practices?”
The Property Council’s Victorian deputy executive director Asher Judah said there was no demand for such high density living. “We support 15 (dwellings per hectare) and some of our members do 17 and 18 but we think there is no demand from the public for lot densities at that level,” he said. “There is a fundamental misunderstanding in government circles about economics of development in the growth areas – just because the government wants people to live a certain way doesn’t mean they actually want to.
“And when you start imposing higher density development than the community wishes … then you are trying to tell people that their housing choices are wrong. The community is demanding to live out there for a reason and that is a house of a certain size.
“So in regards to townhouses on the urban fringe of Melbourne – I don’t see them happening in large numbers, there will be a few examples around train stations and retail hubs but we are not there yet and if we manage things properly we will never have to go there.”
Townhouses work in pockets
Frasers Property is developing urban fringe communities in Clyde North and Cranbourne West in Melbourne’s south east; West Meadows, Greenvale, Wallan and Sunbury in the north; and Point Cook in the west.
Victorian residential division general manager Sarah Bloom said Frasers had concerns about higher density requirements on the fringe.
“Twenty houses per hectare is really dense,” she said. “That is delivering density at average lot sizes of 300 square metre to 320 sq m as opposed to 15 in the hectare which is in the mid-400s. When you get down to that density, they are small lots and there is less demand – they don’t deliver a good outcome.”
According to Ms Bloom, Frasers Property has had “success in pockets” with the development of townhouses, provided they are in good proximity to infrastructure, retail and parks.
“The key is to deliver an affordable built-form solution,” she said. “Townhouses are an alternative to the traditional house and land package in these areas; we need to deliver it at a good price.”
Stockland selling well with townhouses
Stockland is seeing strong demand for its range of townhouses especially lakeside townhouses in residential communities such as Highlands in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Craigieburn.
The developer will start construction on more than 500 townhouses this year, and has identified a future pipeline of about 2000 more within its residential developments in key growth corridors throughout Australia.
Stockland Victorian general manager residential Mike Davis said townhouses were appealing to a wide range of people from first home buyers and young families, to older people wanting to downsize, or investors.
“We operate in a very broad residential property marketplace, and we respond to this diversity of demand with an equally diverse range of products,” he said.
“Our townhouses are available for a comparatively lower price than a detached house and land package within the surrounding community. For other customers, such as downsizers or investors, it is the low maintenance requirements of a townhouse that is a particularly compelling feature.”
Like the Property Council, Mr Davis says a diverse range of housing types are required to meet the needs of Melbourne’s growing population.
“We believe that the planning framework in Melbourne needs to be suitably flexible, and should not be mandated to a maximum density of 20 dwellings per hectare,” he said.
Sydney’s fringe opts for townhouses
With average lot prices in Sydney now $400,000, people are buying townhouses on the outskirts of the harbour city. However, Mr Judah believes that’s out of necessity not a desire for a more sustainable way of living.
“Sydney’s housing affordability equation is in deep trouble – probably irreversible now,” he said. “The average price of a house in Sydney is $1 million. Ours is around $600-700,000 depending on where you buy … so the reason people are buying townhouses and smaller properties in Sydney is because they simply can’t afford to buy what they want.
“It’s not because there is a fundamental shift in the mindset of the public that they are happy to live in smaller housing – townhouses or apartments – they have no choice if they want to enter the housing market. Melbourne hasn’t lost that freedom of choice yet, and we certainly don’t want it to, and that is why the continual expansion of the urban growth boundary will ensure that choice remains.”
Where exactly is the choice?
However, Professor Buxton said home buyers on the fringe, particularly first home buyers, were not being offered any choice. “What they are being offered is one standard model with a little bit of variation,” he said. “So young couples have to go and buy a four-bedroom house with a rumpus room and an en suite when they are probably not going to have a family for some years.”
He said young buyers needed to be provided with information on running costs of large houses on the urban fringe and offered alternatives. “If you buy, for example, a two bedroom townhouse out there close to public transport, you’re going to save an enormous amount in transport costs and heating costs and you’re going to save a lot of money on the capital purchase of your house. So we could actually be offering homes for a third less in price down there.”
To fix or not to fix the UGB
The PCA’s position is that Melbourne’s urban growth boundary should not be fixed.
“We think there is ample room to expand in the north and the west and parts of the south east and not only do we think there’s space but we think it’s inevitable that expansion will occur along those key corridors,” Mr Judah said.
Logical expansions, according to the Property Council, would include along the Hume Highway in the north, towards Geelong along the freeway and the train line in the west, and towards the Port of Hastings in the southeast.-
However, Professor Buxton said an enormous amount of land had been “squandered” on the fringe and this could not continue. He reflected that a mandatory 15 lot per hectare was introduced when the new urban growth corridors of Whittlesea, Berwick/Pakenham/Cranbourne and Werribee were released in 1990. When the Kennett government arrived in 1992 it was the first policy that Planning Minister Robert McClelland jettisoned.
“If we had of maintained 15 lots per hectare, it would have been 25 lots per hectare today,” Professor Buxton said. “It would have gone up incrementally … a quarter of a century of wasteful land development! We have squandered a wonderful opportunity.
“The only way to stop this wasteful, irresponsible and socially divisive use of land is for governments to mandate [more efficient land uses] and bring these companies at least towards best world practice. Even in America they are doing it better. Why are we so bad? We have handed over control to the development companies. It should be regulated and made to come into the 21st century.”
Services are crucial for high-density living
Locating townhouses and apartments close to shops and other services is seen as vital to their success on the city’s fringe.
“Our townhouses are generally located close to the centre of our communities, which provides our townhouse customers with easy, convenient access to cafés, neighbourhood shops, public transport and nearby playgrounds and parks,” Stockland’s Mike Davis said.
Frasers Property’s Sarah Bloom said townhouses should only be developed once infrastructure is in place, “when the estate has reached a level of maturity with a lot of housing stock on the ground.”
She said about two years into a development was appropriate, although admitted there was “no hard and fast rule” and earlier might be suitable if the estate adjoined an established area with existing infrastructure.
The Property Council recognises that one of the big challenges is to match service delivery and infrastructure provision with growth.
“There is a mistake in thinking that you can just plonk these high-density developments out there and expect people to live there,” the Property Council’s Asher Judah said. “That lifestyle hasn’t become viable there yet because the shopping centre doesn’t provide all the services or the government services aren’t there yet. They still need a car to get to a lot of things they want to visit so that kind of maturity of the urban landscape hasn’t quite happened.”
According to Mr Judah, the medium-rise residential development and expanded retail space at The Glen shopping centre is a good example of planning framework evolving over time to reflect population changes. More than 100 apartments now sit above the Glen Waverley train station, within a stone’s throw of The Glen.
Smarter housing, better design from the start
However, Professor Buxton believes we can create smarter suburbs from the outset.
“It’s not a matter of lowering all lot sizes, it’s a matter of lowering average lot sizes,” he said. “Mix up house types and lot sizes – I don’t think that’s rocket science.”
He said houses of all sizes must be close to employment, services and retailing. “It’s not just a matter of density, it’s a matter of design,” he said.
“You’ve got the model of massive housing estates where you can’t walk anywhere; you’ve got to drive to get a carton of milk and you drive to big box retailing.
“So we have lost this whole idea of integration between uses and attractive varied urban design and unless we get back to that we are building future hells.
“These are car-dependent suburbs. It’s one of our huge issues in planning in this country and no state government is doing it properly because they have handed over control to a few large development companies, and I don’t think that’s in the interests of the people.”
See recent news article in InDaily , Warning of “urban deserts” on Adelaide’s fringe, quoting Professor Buxton saying Adelaide had similar issues:
“… a failure to protect the semi-metropolitan food bowl would ape the policy failures of the Victorian Government, which in 2008 reneged on its own commitment to an urban growth boundary.
“They accepted the narrative that there’s a land supply problem… it’s totally faulty reasoning, and just based on errors of fact.”