Development issues

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[The following short presentation was made to a meeting of Moreland Socialists on February 28, 2013 to kick off a discussion on developing our policy platform.]

Scope of the question

What are “development” issues? “Development” concerns housing and all the issues of liveability associated with it: transport; urban environment; sustainability; green spaces and parks; schools and other facilities; jobs; and food (how and where it is produced, the cost to the consumer); and many more.

Look at question as a whole

We can develop policies on all these issues but I think that first — as socialists who are committed to changing the whole system — we should step back and try to grasp the thing whole.

Here is a list of what seem to me to be some of the main features of life in our big cities. I have taken it from a talk I gave at the 2008 Climate Change Social Change conference in Sydney (see here).

  1. Modern capitalist cities are absolutely dominated by cars and the trucks. This leads to massive, life-threatening pollution and a vast network of roads and car parks which scars the urban landscape. People live on islands surrounded by seas of asphalt and concrete — 40% or more of the city surface is asphalt and concrete. The city creates its own, warmer climate.
  2. Motor vehicles also directly kill and maim large numbers of people each year; still greater numbers die from the pollution. Vehicle emissions are also a major contributor to greenhouse gases and the climate change which threatens the human race with utter catastrophe.
  3. The corollary of this is that public transport systems are weak and take second place to the motor car. Similarly, the great bulk of freight is carried by trucks not rail.
  4. Developers aided by governments have created the appalling urban sprawl with all its ecological and social consequences (erosion of farmland, huge distances between home and work, etc., etc.). The word “developers”, of course, is an appalling euphemism — capitalist sharks would be a more accurate description.And now, in the name of urban consolidation, these same developers are being encouraged to build their often crappy blocks of units anywhere and everywhere. In Melbourne this has led to a great deal of angst in the suburbs. And one result is no better than the other.
  5. Then let’s look at what the developers actually construct. Modern houses and buildings are generally not only hard to maintain but ecologically wasteful and often extremely unhealthy (emissions from building materials, plastics and cleaning agents). They could be designed differently — we could easily have ecologically sensible houses instead of the current extremely wasteful “McMansions” favoured by the building industry.
  6. In the cities, public land — modest though it is — is constantly being alienated by greedy developers in league with councils and city and state governments.
  7. Not only are house prices soaring beyond the reach of most workers, but homelessness is growing sharply (estimated to be over 100,000 nationally) as governments refuse to build public housing and rely on the market to solve everything (preferring to give subsidies to people to rent from private landlords).
  8. Shopping centres (malls and supermarkets) dominate much of city life. They kill most of the neighbourhood shops and force people to rely on cars to do their shopping. But these juggernauts are purely the result of the capitalist thirst for profit — they appear before us as facts of life; people never get to discuss what is really needed. Moreover, the ubiquitous shopping mall represents a serious privatisation of social space — we all have to use them and they thus fulfil a social function but access and control is wholly in the hands of the private owners.
  9. And as the supermarkets and malls kill off many of the neighbourhood shops, their place is taken by chain outlets (7-11, Coles Express, petrol station shops) all offering emergency supplies — at much higher prices.
  10. Within the city we have the hypertrophy — a monstrous swelling — of the city centre (full of truly ugly buildings all jostling for position) and the bleak wasteland of the sprawling suburbs.
  11. In the sixties, “decentralisation” was a buzzword. Governments encouraged a modest movement of services and industry to regional centres. But today country towns and villages are dying as governments cut services and jobs and banks close branches. This has a multiplier effect. People move to the city (or at least to the big regional centres) and the rural crisis intensifies.
  12. There is a movement back to some regional centres but — under the wonderful capitalist system we have — it becomes ghastly caricature of what is really needed. The rich and middle classes build holiday homes in coastal towns forcing up prices and making life impossible for ordinary people (working-class pensioners and renters) who have to move elsewhere.

Finally, we should understand that the developer-led feeding frenzy we are experiencing in Melbourne today is not new. Key elements of “Marvellous Melbourne” were laid down over a century ago, in the boom of the late 1880s and early 1890s. In his 1966 book, The Land Boomers, Michael Cannon paints the scene:

Hundreds of miles of track, some of it quite useless, pushed out from the egocentric city to the rampant suburbs and the far countryside. Hardly a member of parliament whose vote could be bought went without his bribe in the form of a new railway, a spur line, or advance information on governmental plans to enable him to buy choice land in advance — the value of which was enormously enhanced when the line went through. It was a dispiriting chapter in Victorian political morality. [p. 39]

As the saying goes, the more things change the more they remain the same!

Local councils

While councils are the most visible arm of government for most residents, their powers are severely constrained by state government which sets out what they can and can’t do (through the Local Government Act).

Just as the state governments are kept on a financial leash by Canberra, so the councils are kept on a tight financial leash by state treasury.

The great bulk of their income comes from the rates of home owners and businesses; some comes from state government grants; another section comes from fines and fees.

The great bulk of their expenditure is not really discretionary but has to go on things like roads maintenance and rubbish removal.

Our general vision of the future

While most of what we want is not achieveable under the current capitalist regime it is nonetheless necessary to have some general ideas in mind. The following points seem key to me:

The rates system should be abolished. Rates are an indirect tax and are highly regressive, falling on owners irrespective of their ability to pay and being determined by property market values. Councils should be properly funded by the state budget so that they can carry out their responsibilities fully (roads and footpaths, childcare, aged care, housing, etc.).Obviously this would amount to a revolution in government finances. Where will the money come from? By ending corporate welfare and properly taxing the rich. Furthermore, if a future workers government took more and more of the country’s economic infrastructure into public hands, truly vast resources become available to deploy to meet pressing social needs.

Provision of housing needs to be taken out of the hands of the capitalist “developer” sharks. Councils should have a housing arm which builds good quality, low-cost public housing on the necessary scale. With such a system there could be actual integrated planning which would not produce the current “sink estates” or the present private developer profit-driven mess.

Democracy — combining local with state-wide and national considerations — will be vital.

We need a rational urban consolidation — medium density housing together with a high public amenity (public transport, generous green spaces, schools, shops, etc.).

Public transport must be the key mode of transport in the cities and suburbs. Cars need to be relegated to the margins. The same goes for freight.

What should we call for now? 

With our maximum program firmly in mind, we need to develop linking or intermediate demands which form a transition to it. Our Moreland council election platform has the basic elements although as we gain more experience and as the situation develops we will have to concretise it further. I will just make two points:

Under the heading “Community need not developer greed” we demand: “Developers must reserve 20% of all new developments for low-cost housing.” Fine, but what does this mean in practice? How is it enforced?We should demand that the 20% is sold at cost to the council which then uses it to house poor or homeless people with rents capped at, say, 10% of income. This means the council needs a fully functional housing arm (and a budget to go with it).

Under the heading “A campaigning council” we call on the council to pressure the state government to improve train services on the Upfield line and improve the east-west bus frequencies. Improving peak-hour tram services, especially in Lygon Street, should be added there.

We need to think about what sort of a community and council campaign might actually get results (public meetings, demonstrations, blockades, etc.) and how we can develop that. A few polite representations will get nowhere at all.