Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Some New Year Resolutions

In no particular order, here’s a bunch of ideas for resolutions for 2012. Some are a bit tongue in cheek, some are impossible, but maybe one or two just might be worth trying?

We live in a democracy. Consumer preference should lead public policy, not the other way around.

Market forces and consumer preferences are now not just largely ignored, but too frequently the subject of public policy disdain.  Where consumer preferences don’t align with some ideologically driven position, they become the subject of attempts to ‘re-educate’ the public.  Stalin would be proud of how far we’ve come. Instead, in 2012, let’s have some public policy settings that actually ask the question: “what do the majority of people actually want?”  You can’t - and shouldn’t in a free and democratic society at least – impose unwanted ‘solutions’ onto an unwilling public just because someone in a position of power has deemed it’s good for them.

The suburbs are fine, thank you.

If you live in a suburb of one of our cities you could be forgiven for thinking you’re the root of all problems from traffic congestion to obesity to rising seas and falling skies.  Anti-suburban intellectual snobbery isn’t anything new but lately perhaps it’s been getting a bit too much air time? So in 2012, let’s hear a bit less from the anti-suburban elites, and perhaps celebrate the fact that our suburbs have proven remarkably successful as places to live, work and play. There’s a lot that’s right about them, they’re popular with the community, and most of our suburbs were delivered before highly deterministic planning schemes were thought of. (How could that be?)

We can handle the truth!

Gathering impartial evidence and examining the facts are increasingly out of favour in public policy, at least it seems that way.  It’s become quite trendy to recite slogans and ‘truisms’ without asking for the evidence of whether they’re true and can be readily substantiated, or whether they’re just some new form of urban myth.  Maybe myth-busting and healthy scepticism should be taught in schools and universities, as opposed to the slavish adoption of public policy fashion. So how about in 2012, evidence and impartial factual analysis makes a comeback?

A bit less dogma?

‘Four legs good, two legs baaad.’ So bayed the sheep at Napoleon the pig’s insistence in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’  Dogma is not a good thing. But much of what passes for public policy is often little more than dogma, designed to push, cajole or direct people toward some outcome that they’re otherwise not fond of. The private car, for example, is not a bad thing, but we are frequently told it is (or at least that’s implied). The detached home is not a bad thing either. The backyard, likewise, is something we can ‘afford’ to have. The truth about dogma of course is that’s often a willing bed partner of hypocrisy. ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’ was where dogma led to in Animal Farm. In public policy, it means ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ And there are plenty of examples of that. Maybe in 2012, we could have much less of that?

Let’s give the word “appropriate” a rest.

A pet hate of mine is the way the word “appropriate” (or more often “inappropriate”) is used in justifying public policy assertions. Just what do people mean, for example, when they say ‘this form of housing is no longer appropriate’?  Appropriate? You mean it’s something you disagree with on a personal or philosophical level, and you want to impose your thinking onto others by suggesting there’s something fundamentally wrong with it? If that’s what’s come to be meant by the word in the public policy context, let’s give it a rest in 2012. If you just don’t like something, just say so and express that as your opinion, but don’t load it with a value judgement by telling me it’s not ‘appropriate’. 

A few less study tours to mediaeval towns or frozen metropolises

In 2012, maybe we could question the relevance to Australian cities of town planning study tours to Copenhagen, Venice, Paris, Portland, or Vancouver (just some of the places cited as ‘cities we should be more like’). For starters, the town centres of most Euro cities were designed and laid out in the middle ages. Transport economics was unheard of. Private transport was mainly by foot because most people were too poor for a horse.  And they were all created before the advent of ‘town planning’ as we know it. And as for more modern centres like Portland and Vancouver, why choose some of the world’s least affordable cities as benchmarks for Australia to study? We’ve got enough problems on that front already. Then of course there’s the climate issue - cities designed for freezing winters and very brief summers may not be the most logical case studies to use? Why not instead visit cities in regions of similar climate, and where affordability and quality of life and economic opportunity are all in a healthy state? Maybe the junket factor for Houston, USA, just isn’t quite as appealing as Hamburg? Or at the very least, if it’s simply impossible to resist the latest planning study tour to Paris, try at least getting out of the ancient and touristy centres of town, and away from the 5 star hotels and conference rooms, and visiting the suburbs where the majority of Parisians live and work.

It’s OK to count heads and ask what they do

I was surprised to be corrected about a recent article which guessed that the $17million budget for the planning and assessment ‘directorate’ of the Sunshine Coast Council might indicate some 200 people working in that department. I was wrong:  the figure I’m told is more like 270 staff. Just what do 270 staff do in a planning department for a local council with a population of just over 300,000 people? That’s almost 1 planning department employee to every 1000 residents. According to the Australian Medical Association of Queensland, the ideal ratio of GPs to population is one to 1000, but we’re currently experiencing a shortage of GPs such that the ratio is closer to 1:1500. Surely planners haven’t become more important that doctors? These large planning bureaucracies spend a lot of taxpayer funds, and have grown exponentially in size and power in the last decade. But for what outcome? It is fair to question bureaucracy wherever it’s found, and town planning bureaucracies are no different. The solution isn’t more bureaucrats, it’s less red tape. Let’s start asking some questions in 2012?

When it’s not ‘our land’– it’s private property

The legal rights and protections afforded to owners of private property have been whittled away to the point that some landowners must wonder why they bother. It might be timely in 2012 to start reminding NIMBYs, bureaucrats, academics and sections of the media who make pronouncements about what should and shouldn’t be done on someone else’s land, that it’s not ‘their’ land make decisions about: it belongs to the person holding the title, and paying the taxes. Owners’ views ought to hold substantial sway.

Hyprocrisy on affordability

Another little resolution for 2012 would be to ask that local, state or federal governments simply stop pleading their concerns about housing affordability if at the same time they continue to raise taxes, add regulations, limit or delay supply and add to the complexity of construction for simple housing development. You can’t have it both ways. If you are concerned about affordability, cut the taxes, free up the constraints, and fix what the industry’s been identifying as a huge problem for more than a decade.

‘Yes you can’ cut levies

On the subject of taxes, it is of course quite possible to cut taxes on property and new development in particular. Upfront per lot or per application development fees are tightly focussed on new supply, to the point where new supply becomes prohibitively expensive. But at the same time, the justification for these development levies seems to be that rates and other general taxes can’t rise beyond inflation. Surely though if the community as a whole benefits from a certain activity or infrastructure investment, the community as a whole should pay? And if you want to provide new libraries and pools, and cultural facilities for the community as a whole, it’s unfair to expect only new development to pay for it. Cutting levies is possible, as is raising rates, or reducing the scale of promises. It just requires more political will. Maybe 2012 will provide some?

Demand some KPIs

A simple measure, easy to put into effect in 2012, would be for new planning schemes, initiatives or regulatory mechanisms to have attached some very clear and measureable KPIs. In short, if the regulation is intended to produce a certain outcome, how will you measure that outcome? And if it fails to measure up, scrap it.

Realism not heroism

Heroic assumptions are fine in their place, but maybe not in public policy. Realistic, evidence-based approaches are far superior. For example, I still don’t know (nor can anyone tell me) how we are going to create 138,000 infill dwellings in Brisbane, or 374,000 infill dwellings in south east Queensland, in 20 years.  Just where will they go? 374,000 infill dwellings is the equivalent of 4,675 twenty storey apartment buildings, or 212 such towers per year for 20 years. Sound stupid? But that’s exactly the target contained in the SEQ Regional Plan. And if it realistically just can’t be done, is it time to revisit those assumptions with something more realistic?

Forecasting the future?

Is something best left to gypsies. Some developers now complain that it can take 10 years from site acquisition to the first sale, and in that time, much changes. Ten, twenty or 30 year plans are OK for stimulating the mind and provoking debate, but locking in public policy inflexibility for something that may happen in 20 years’ time based on what we know today and the assumption that things won’t change, seems odd.

Take a helicopter view (we’re not running out of land)

To all those ardent believers of the view that we’re fast running out of land, or at risk of ‘LA type sprawl’ my wish for you in 2012 is a helicopter ride over south east Queensland. Look down. There are trees and open land everywhere. We are so far from ‘running out’ that to suggest otherwise is to refuse to believe what your own eyes are telling you.

Private enterprise pays for public services

Basic economics 101 is the lesson that a healthy and profitable private sector generates the wealth (taxes) that pay for the public sector. Cripple the private sector and the public sector fast runs out of money (or has to borrow it). This is something the Greeks and Italians forgot. Let’s not forget the lesson here in 2012. Governments (dare I harp on but planning departments included) could spend a bit more time on the ‘how can we help you make money’ line of thought rather than the ‘making money from economic or urban development is wrong’ culture. Without money, without the profit motive, the music stops and tax revenues that pay for all public services dry up.

Developers create things. Plans don’t.

Look around. Most of our region was developed and built before modern town planning , as we now know it, came to such prominence.  Developers made this happen. People who took risks.  Almost every house in every suburb, every shopping centre, factory, office or workplace was created by a developer taking risks to develop the land on which these things now sit. There are some notable exceptions – SouthBank being one – where public sector planning and development, using taxpayer funds, has created something positive. But even here, it could not have been done without developers. They are not the enemy. They create value. They create jobs and places for people to live, to work and also to play. Planning regulations and brightly illustrated planning documents or policies don’t create these things.

No more ‘initiatives’ that add cost

Here’s a wild idea. Every time some new ‘initiative’ designed to save the planet or achieve some public policy objective is raised, the costs involved in doing so are subject to an affordability test. If mandatory building code changes are going to add several thousand dollars to the cost of a new project home, that test should ask “can young families afford this extra cost on their mortgage.” If not, the proponents ought to have to work much harder to get their ideas up. At the very least they ought to get a thumbs up from the people who are ultimately being asked to pay.

The city is not a museum

We’ve become very protective of our urban form, to the point that NIMBYs have become replaced with BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). It’s almost as if we now have some collective desire to see nothing much change. But that’s a strange way of thinking, because it suggests that nothing we have today can’t be done better tomorrow. Our city can evolve, grow and develop, improving the lives of its residents and meeting their changing needs during their lives. But if we are being asked to place a giant glace dome over the region and declare it all a museum piece to be preserved for all time, then evolution won’t be possible and the quality and standard of life will decline.  It would be nice for the positives of change to get some more air time in 2012, as opposed to this sense of wanting to cling to everything as it now is.

Hope that lot got you thinking, please feel free to suggest a few more.

Happy New Year!