A newspaper headline “Fleeing locals ease population pressure on New South Wales” highlights a trend over the last few years. Since 2002 the Australian state of New South Wales, the country’s most populous with over seven million residents, has been losing its residents to other states at some 20,000 per year.
During the year ended December 2009, 0.2 per cent of the New South Wales population moved to other Australian states. By contrast the State of Queensland, gained 0.3 per cent. Total population growth (consisting of net immigration, natural increase and net interstate movement) in the states of Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia was 2.13, 2.44 and 2.65 per cent respectively. By contrast New South Wales grew a desultory 1.64 per cent.
The main reason ascribed to the exodus from New South Wales is the cost of housing in Sydney. The 6th Annual Demographia Housing Affordability Survey shows that its capital city Sydney has the second highest housing costs of the cities in the six countries surveyed, behind only Vancouver, Canada. For many people, 9.1 years of median family income required to purchase a median family home Sydney is becoming too expensive to live in.
The Demographia Survey indicates that a price/income ratio of 3.0 can be considered affordable and 9.1 severely unaffordable. As a result many people, especially the young, will never be able to aspire to the Great Australian Dream of owning their own home. For those who can afford a home, the average wait time to save for the required deposit is 6.2 years. The newly appointed Federal Sustainable Population Minister recently is quoted as saying “people have said all I can see for my kids is they’re never going to be able to afford to live in this suburb because of what’s happening with housing prices”.
The high cost of housing has significant social impacts. The Demographia Survey estimates that in Sydney 57% of median gross family income would be required to make mortgage repayments for a current median priced house. This may be compared with the 20 per cent figure applicable in Atlanta or Dallas-Fort Worth. There are already some 11,000 homeless persons in New South Wales and some 4,000 sleeping rough.
Why is the cost of housing in Sydney so high? The Demographia Survey portrays a widespread relationship among the cities studied between high housing cost and overly restrictive planning regimes. New South Wales is among the most restrictive. In order to implement a high-density policy it has restricted the release of greenfield housing sites from an historic average of 10,000 lots per year to an average over the last five years of only 2,250. This is in the face of a annual state population increase of some 115,000. It is staggering to consider this constraint in a continent-sized country of which only some 0.3 per cent is urbanised.
The scarcity resulting from the miserable allocation of greenfield lots has been most notable in land price, whose share of housing costs has increased from 30 per cent to 70 per cent of the total cost. The result has been an increase of overall prices some three times what it was ten years ago.
Only seven per cent of people, wish to live in apartments. However, in order to implement its high-density policy the State Government intends to force this lifestyle on reluctant consumers. It plans 460,000 extra dwellings within the existing footprint of Sydney by 2031. In practice the production rate of these high density units has fallen well short of that planned.
These high-density planning policies result in a dwelling scarcity which enables developers to make large profits on apartments. Developers now comprise by far the largest group (29.5 percent) among Australia’s 200 richest people. They have the resources to make sizable donations to both major political parties. Donations help fund election campaigns and in the past have helped keep the politicians who promote these policies in power. Numerous cases have been documented that show a large donation being made to a governing party shortly before permission was granted for a particular development.
The shortage of land also impacts commerce and industry. Higher housing costs result in higher rentals or mortgage costs. Workers have to make ends meet and so businesses have to pay higher wages. Additionally employers must shell out for higher commercial rentals. The cost of industrial land in Sydney is roughly 70 per cent greater than in the other Australian large cities. Recently there have been a number of well publicised instances of industries closing their factories in Sydney and moving to Victoria, the state located to the south.
Communities in Sydney are now paying the price for misguided state planning policies. Concrete, bitumen and tiles dominate vast areas where streetscapes of flowers and foliage once reigned supreme. There is a rising consciousness of disasters resulting from the government's high-density planning policies. as Along with the topic of unaffordable housing, traffic gridlock, disintegrating public transport, frequent power blackouts and a city running out of water hit the headlines with increasing frequency. Dissatisfaction is escalating.
The latest Newspoll puts the primary vote for New South Wale’s ruling Labor Party at 25 per cent, the lowest ever recorded. It faces a devastating defeat in the forthcoming March 2011 election. There can be little doubt that ill-advised planning policies are a major factor underlying this pending electoral calamity. But will politicians ever learn?
(Dr) Tony Recsei has a background in chemistry and is an environmental consultant. Since retiring he has taken an interest in community affairs and is president of the Save Our Suburbs community group which opposes over-development forced onto communities by the New South Wales State Government.
Photo by Nelson Minar