THE “Housing Choices” discussion paper released late last year provides a fascinating, if very concerning, insight into how the ACT government is using the issue of housing to support an agenda to change the built form and plan of Canberra.The Minister for Planning and Land Management, Mick Gentleman, in a “Message from the Minister” sets the scene and outlines the apparent rationale for the paper.
“This discussion paper on housing choices is looking at how we can better meet the needs of our residents, be they single, couples, families or groups. As I found out during consultation on my Minister’s Statement of Planning Intent, there is no longer the presumption that everyone aspires to a large block with a garden.
“People want different forms of housing in the suburbs, as well as in centres and mixed-use areas. This includes townhouses, terrace houses, secondary dwellings and apartments as well as a continuing demand for detached houses.
“While this is being driven by the younger generation it is also being sought by older residents who do not want to leave the suburb they may have lived in for 50 years, but no longer want, or are able, to live in a big house that can be better used by a larger family.”
The minister is quite clear. He is saying all the evidence available to him is that the once great Australian dream of an affordable detached house on a quarter-acre block is over. People, the minister assures us, now want “townhouses, terrace houses, secondary dwellings and apartments” as well as, he says, almost as an afterthought, detached houses.
There have, of course, always been people in Canberra who have chosen to live in other than a detached house. For some it is a choice dictated by circumstances over which they may not have control including for example poverty or other disadvantage; or perhaps they fall within the rapidly expanding cohort of workers and families for whom the price of detached housing is simply unaffordable. For others the decision to opt for other than detached housing may have been a lifestyle choice or simply a question of personal preference.
The questions begged by the discussion paper and the minister’s assessment of a desire for greater choice in housing are, of course:
- What evidence has the minister relied on in forming his opinions?
- How great and widespread is the desire for housing other than a detached dwelling?
- What are the major drivers for change?
- What proportion of the Canberra community is looking to move from a detached house to other types of housing and what form should that housing take?
The discussion paper provides, on page 20, a hint of an answer to these questions by referencing the findings of a major and statistically sound community survey into housing choices, which the government commissioned in 2015, from Winton Sustainable Research Strategies. Unfortunately, the discussion paper includes only minimal information about the survey but the actual report, if you can get hold of it, is a gold mine of data on what the residents of Canberra really think about housing in Canberra.
A snippet of what the Winton survey of housing choices in Canberra reveals (CLICK HERE), for example, from those surveyed, is:
- That 85.5 per cent currently live in a detached house;
- Of those who have plans to move to a new dwelling in the future 91 per cent propose to move to a detached house;
- Of those who have plans to move to a new dwelling in the future none intend to move to a townhouse or dual occupancy and a mere 8.3 per cent want to move to an apartment;
- Asked what form of dwelling they would like to live in, “in an ideal world”, 84.2 per cent of Canberrans say that they want to live in a detached house;
- The most prevalent reason (52.7 per cent) dictating people’s choice of dwelling is affordability.
The Winton report also provides a revealing insight into the opinions of Canberra residents on various forms of dwelling type. For example, according to the survey:
- A mere 4.6 per cent of people in Canberra think there should be more apartment buildings of more than six storeys and only 5.7 per cent support more apartment buildings of between four and six storeys;
- A staggering 79.3 per cent of the people of Canberra believe that there should be no more apartment buildings of more than six storeys built in Canberra.
The two principal conclusions that can reasonably be drawn from the Canberra community survey on housing choices undertaken by Winton in 2015 is, first, that the housing choice most commonly denied to Canberra residents is an affordable house on a detached block and, secondly, that the ACT government has completely ignored the views of Canberra residents in relation to land supply and the built form of Canberra.
The fact that the overwhelming first choice of a detached dwelling is simply not realisable for thousands of Canberrans is in major part a result of decisions taken by the Labor/Greens government to strangle the supply of land and abandon the Affordable Housing Action Plan.
Why it has done that has never been explained but we can surmise it is a response to a combination of factors such as the state of the budget, purported concerns about the spread of the city and the alleged paucity of developable land. What is becoming increasingly clear is it is also a reflection of a pervasive neo-liberal ideology within government.
I agree that we need a conversation about housing choices. That conversation will be all but meaningless if the government refuses to be open and honest about its real intentions and continues to ignore its own research about community views.
Jon Stanhope was chief minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only chief minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.