Planning and development provides rich pickings for aspiring politicians, both local and State.
There are more votes to be had in kicking a property developer than supporting development so this is the default position of many political election campaigns.
However, once you get elected to Council or Government the reality quickly comes home to roost. In Victoria there are over 2000 new people arriving to live here each and every week. It is up to our political leaders to facilitate housing for all these new arrivals.
City planners try to convince the politicians to increase density in established areas with existing infrastructure. Yet once politicians are elected many feel they owe a debt to limit growth in the established suburban areas as these are the people who voted to have their suburbs “saved”. So densification generally occurs at a very slow rate and only in specific areas such as on main roads. These 2000 people per week discover that the easiest place to find housing is in the new urban fringe estates and when these fill up typically governments rezone more land in a perpetual cycle of suburban sprawl.
The primary problem with outer suburban greenfields suburbs is that they lack the infrastructure and services you find in the inner city which have been built up over decades. It is very expensive to provide all the essential services, roads, public transport, schools and community facilities when you are building from scratch in a paddock as the houses spring up.
The idea of promoting regional centres is a good one as they have established services and land close to their centres available. But not everyone wants to make a tree change and live in Bendigo or Ballarat. For many people they need to be where they can find work and the greatest opportunities are in Melbourne.
It is an impossible conundrum to maintain liveability and neighbourhood character in our established suburbs while increasing housing density in these same areas. Where once you had a beautiful heritage home you usually get an apartment development. The neighbourhood loses its character and the traditional open backyard space is lost to a towering new apartment block.
The answer may well be found in the tiny Californian town of Fresno.
Fresno recently became the first place in the United States to allow tiny houses to be placed as a second dwelling on a block.
Tiny houses can be either small modular truck transportable dwellings or cabins on wheels. There are tiny house and modular builders popping up all over Australia and they are creating amazing buildings, nothing like the old style “granny flat” which can be installed only to house a family member.
While interest in the tiny house movement is huge, it is not currently possible to have a tiny house functioning as a stand alone dwelling next to a primary house in Victoria.
If the State planning scheme were to be changed to include new rules around tiny houses then it will be possible to house tens of thousands of additional people in our established suburban areas with minimal impact to neighbourhood character. People could either pay a home owner to place their own tiny house in their backyard, or the home owner could build a tiny house and rent it out on the private market. There may even be scope for Government to build and own tiny houses that could be installed on land owned by Government agencies for social housing. Many government departments and agencies such as VicTrack and VicRoads own suitable blocks of vacant land in Melbourne.
Of course there would need to be rules to ensure that tiny houses do not impact on neighbours in terms of overlooking, setbacks from boundaries, overshadowing and all the other things that Councils consider before granting permits. However, given the single storey, small footprint of tiny houses they are unlikely to be any more offensive to neighbours than a garden shed or a garage.
If people are able to stay in their homes and generate a small income from renting out a tiny house then they are less likely to be selling up to developers who may build much more obtrusive multi level units on their blocks.
Governments need to pick up on the rapidly growing interest in sustainable living. McMansions on large blocks in far away suburbs are not the only thing that new homeowners are seeking. Many people are now exploring ways to have a simpler life, unburdened by massive debt, living in a community where there is an enhanced level of connectedness.
Fresno may well hold the key for politicians to find that impossible balance between keeping residents in established suburbs happy while at the same time solving our housing supply and urban sprawl issues.
Clem Newton-Brown is a planning consultant with Whitemark Property and Planning and a former Member of the Victorian Parliament.