Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Manufacturing: "not dead yet"

There’s a famous scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail where dead bodies from the plague are being heaped onto a cart. One body, about to dumped on the cart, protests that “I’m not dead yet.”’ “I’m getting better… I might go for a walk” he protests, until the collector of dead bodies clubs him on the head and gets on with his business. The way we dismiss the future of our manufacturing sector reminds me a lot of that scene. 

Manufacturing, we are told, is largely finished in this country as the art of making things is lost to low labour cost countries against which we simply cannot compete. Disciples of the ‘new’ economy would have you believe that all the jobs worth having are now in high value professional services, which are mostly located in our inner cities. 

Only last year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called for an “ideas boom” for Australia to replace the mining boom and provide growth, prosperity and jobs. A national “Knowledge Nation” summit was held to support the Federal Government’s “National Innovation and Science Agenda” and a host of ‘rock stars’ of ‘the innovation economy’ were announced as part of “Knowledge Nation 100” – the “visionaries, intellects, founders and game changers” destined to drive our future prosperity. 

Our urbanisation agenda aligns with this future vision of work and industry, by planning for centralised economies and highly educated inner urban workforces of the professionally qualified, clustered around urban cores. The preferred urban form to make this happen, we are told, are cities like London or New York or San Francisco or Singapore – centres of global commerce, technology and finance. 

In all this, it seems there is now little room for industries like manufacturing. 

But despite the widespread predictions of manufacturing’s demise, the sector is still surprisingly resilient. The graph below plots employment by selected industry for over 30 years. (Click graph to enlarge). 

The gradual demise of manufacturing is undeniable, although it has far from collapsed and still employs some 800,000 plus Australians. By contrast, the much celebrated rise of the information, media and communication (ITC) sector looks a bit lame by comparison. There are still four times as many people employed by manufacturing as the ITC sector. 

Big growth has occurred in white collar professionals in the professional, scientific and technical sector, as well as education. Nothing however can match the growth of the health care and professional assistance sector (which includes a very high proportion of part time jobs). 

Even by 2020 (graph below), according to the Federal Department of Employment, manufacturing will still be our seventh largest employer, responsible for over 800,000 pay checks nationally. That’s more than four times the number of people directly employed in mining, to put that into context. The much-hyped tourism industry, for further context, is predicted by Tourism Research Australia to employ 656,000 people by 2030 – which is 150,000 fewer and ten years later than manufacturing is predicted to employ by 2020.

What’s the point of this? Simply that the rush to embrace new industries centred around the services sector which offers high incomes linked to technological or particular professional skills can distract attention from less glamourous sectors which continue to chug away, with limited public policy support and even official disinterest. Manufacturing has been one of those. A ‘smoke stack’ industry now generationally removed from the lives of urban elites, it has been largely written off as uncompetitive and with little future. Yet it is one of our largest employers and one which offers longer term full time jobs, as opposed to shorter term part time roles (as you might find in for example tourism, or health care and social assistance). 

It could be that public policy attention (and the industry support that accompanies it) reflects the political favourites of the day. If that is the case, the manufacturing sector might need to revisit its public advocacy and somehow demonstrate to policy makers that Australia’s economic engine cannot just rely on publicly funded ‘bed pan’ industries or high glamour tourism jobs where low wages and part time status are the norm. These industries may indeed absorb large numbers of people who would otherwise be unemployed and they have a tremendously valid role to play in our economy. But it’s always a question of balance and what seems to have been a dismissal of manufacturing’s potential or its future by a cross section of policy leaders and commentators while ‘innovation’ and almost anything to do with technology are heaped with praise is a telling sign that the economic debate needs some rebalancing. 

Note: The “information media and telecommunications industry” includes businesses involved in newspaper, magazine, book, and directory publishing; software publishing; motion picture and sound recording publishing and distribution; radio and television broadcasting; internet publishing and broadcasting; telecommunication services, internet service providers & web search portals; data processing, web hosting and electronic information storage services; and library and other information services.

“I’m not dead yet” scene - Monty Python and The Holy Grail: Youtube clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jdf5EXo6I68


Dead Collector: Bring out yer dead!
[A large man appears with a (seemingly) dead man over his shoulder]
Large Man: Here's one.
Dead Collector: Nine pence.
"Dead" Man: I'm not dead.
Dead Collector: What?
Large Man: Nothing. [hands the collector his money] There's your nine pence.
"Dead" Man: I'm not dead!
Dead Collector: 'Ere, he says he's not dead.
Large Man: Yes he is.
"Dead" Man: I'm not.
Dead Collector: He isn't.
Large Man: Well, he will be soon, he's very ill.
"Dead" Man: I'm getting better.
Large Man: No you're not, you'll be stone dead in a moment.
Dead Collector: Well, I can't take him like that. It's against regulations.
"Dead" Man: I don't want to go on the cart.
Large Man:' Oh, don't be such a baby.
Dead Collector: I can't take him.
"Dead" Man: I feel fine.
Large Man with Dead Body: Oh, do me a favor.
Dead Collector: I can't.
Large Man: Well, can you hang around for a couple of minutes? He won't be long.
Dead Collector: I promised I'd be at the Robinsons'. They've lost nine today.
Large Man: Well, when's your next round?
Dead Collector: Thursday.
"Dead" Man: I think I'll go for a walk.
Large Man: You're not fooling anyone, you know. Isn't there anything you could do?
"Dead" Man: I feel happy. I feel happy.
[The collecter paces for an idea, then whacks the body with his club, solving the problem]
Large Man: Ah, thank you very much.
Dead Collector: Not at all. See you on Thursday.
Large Man: Right.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Affordable housing in plentiful supply

Australia’s ongoing (some would say interminable) debate about housing affordability was given fresh impetus last month when Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison weighed in with calls for liberated land supply and planning reform by state and local authorities. Scott’s call closely followed a less edifying observation by demographer Bernard Salt that young people simply needed to change their breakfast preferences to afford a house. 

Predictably, discussion swirled around the excessive cost of housing in the inner city markets of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, the declining rate of first home buyers entering the market, the rise of a renting class and the push for higher density apartments of limited size as a means of gaining a foothold in the market. It’s a familiar conversation and one that’s been repeated for a long time now. The same arguments were being thrashed around in the lead up to the 2007 Federal Election: release more land, reduce up front development levies, and free up a notoriously dysfunctional planning system. At the time, I was National Executive Director of the Residential Development Council, and to make the point, we famously sent every Member of Parliament a rubber banana, likening housing to the price of bananas (which when in short supply, rise in price).  The debate got a lot of traction and both then Prime Minister Howard and Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd made a number of statements on the issue.

Fast forward ten years and nothing has happened on the policy front. What’s worse, the level of market analysis in the debate hasn’t improved. One of the realities which ought to get serious attention is that Australia has plenty of affordable housing. It’s just not where the jobs are.

That might sound simplistic but if we continue to push for greater concentrations of employment in the inner city areas of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane we will only make the affordability problem worse. And this is what we are doing. Prime Minister Turnbull’s ‘Smart Cities’ plan has been much celebrated by the inner urban cognoscenti but in reality it is mainly an inner cities plan. Infrastructure priorities by State and Local Governments continue to lavish inner city regions with transport and social infrastructure in a vain but futile attempt to keep up with the pressures of further economic centralisation.

More economic centralisation is the last thing we need. It will create an infrastructure challenge we simply cannot afford and will never win. It will add to competitive pressure for housing near city centres and lead to social and economic inequity as wealth splits into the sort of ‘haves and have nots’ more typically associated with the British aristocracy in the 19th Century.

Yet in all the debate about housing affordability and urban planning, there is a consistent implication that centralisation is the objective. Governments at all levels (with the partial exception of NSW’s Mike Baird) have centralised their considerable departmental operations in central city locations.  Business is encouraged to do the same – via a planning regime which promotes centralization in high density employment zones. Costly transport investment is focused on servicing the needs of a centralized workforce.  Housing increasingly focusses on limited land opportunities as close as you can get to centralized employment areas which often means dwellings that are both idiotically small for a country the size and population of Australia and prohibitively expensive.

Where in all this is the realization that the affordability problem is confined mainly to the inner and middle ring areas of mainly three cities. (Perth is sorting itself out via the deflation of its housing market bubble, as is Darwin. Adelaide firsts need an economy before seriously worrying about affordability and the same largely goes for Hobart).  There are dozens of larger regional towns and cities where affordability is not a problem. Jobs are.

In an era when digital technology has all but obliterated the tyranny of distance, why continue to live with this tyranny? Why don’t we have a genuine strategy to encourage employment growth and opportunities in regional cities and towns? In the US, this has been happening for years. It’s not the New York’s or San Francisco’s but the middle cities like Austin (Texas), Salt Lake City (Utah) or Denver (Colorado) that are the fastest growing economies. Here in Australia however we seem hell bent on ever greater populations and densities in a small handful of cities while we allow regional centres – many with more than adequate infrastructure, good climates, and plentiful and affordable land for housing – to languish.

Australia does have a housing affordability problem but that problem is largely confined to three or maybe four cities, and then mainly to the inner and middle areas of those cities – because that’s where we insist on putting the jobs. Rather than fretting over this dimension of the problem, perhaps instead our debate could turn to expanding and distributing the economic and employment footprint into outer urban and regional centres, where housing is affordable and land plentiful. What’s needed is a slightly larger share of the economic pie. Not only could this alleviate the affordability problem but it would reduce the impossible infrastructure burden associated with even greater concentration of economic activity in a select handful of inner urban areas.  

Footnote: the property featured in the above image is a current listing, in Orange, NSW. The median house price in Orange is $340,000 so this is representative. Orange has a population of around 50,000 within a region of around 100,000 and has quality educational and health infrastructure plus it's a very scenic city and region. (A video is here if you're curious). 

Just consider the difference between being able to earn $100,000 in the Sydney metro region but paying close to $1million for a house and enduring an irksome commute every day, to having the same income, a house for $340,000 and little congestion in Orange. All that's really missing is the job, which is overly simplistic I know, but all that extra money not going into a mortgage that feeds bank profits would find its way into either household savings or productive non-housing investment in the economy. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

What Utah could teach us about affordability, growth and density

Utah may not spring to mind as a region Australian developers and planners should study in more detail but I came away from speaking at an American Planning Association conference there last month wondering why it doesn’t feature more prominently in our thinking. It is more comparable and relevant to Australian conditions than say Vancouver or Portland plus its economic and housing market fundamentals present the sorts of metrics we aspire to.

Utah is one of the fastest growing economies in the USA today. A recent article by Forbes described it as the fourth fastest growing region in the country at 6.93%. And it is tech and financial services driving that growth, with companies like Goldman Sachs transplanting 2000 employees to the state and countless other tech firms doing the same. It is a strong economy and it’s attracting knowledge based industries at a rate that cities in in Australia would be jealous of.

Its population growth is broadly double the average for the USA and parts of the region are growing at close to 6% per annum. A big attractant is the state’s low unemployment and very affordable cost of living. Housing costs are said to be one tenth that of New York and a fraction of what cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, or Los Angeles are commanding.

Centred around the capital Salt Lake City are numerous regions and city authorities. Much like the our metro regions, there are multiple jurisdictions each with their own planning controls and development plans. Salt Lake City itself is home to only around 200,000 people while the wider Salt Lake metro region is home to around 1.2 million people. This in turn is part of a largely contiguous area that stretches some 200 kilometres from end to end, which is home to around 2.5 million people.

These numbers are reminiscent of south east Queensland, and like south east Queensland the corridor of growth is largely contained by water (plus a desert in Utah’s case) on one side, and mountains on the other. It’s an elongated urban growth corridor for this reason. 

Given then its high growth, strong economy and low unemployment characteristics, combined with broadly similar population numbers, how is it that the region has maintained such affordable housing? The median house price across the Salt Lake County region is a multiple of only around 4.2 times median household incomes. Sydney’s housing is a multiple of 12 times median household incomes, Melbourne 9 and Brisbane is 6 times median incomes.

The typical response of some commentators in Australia is to dismiss US cities with excellent affordability as “places where no one wants to live” but Utah and the Salt Lake region is growing fast – faster than any Australian urban economy. So that excuse doesn’t cut it.

Talking to some of the Utah planners it became clear that when they speak of increasing urban density, they’re having an entirely different conversation to us in Australia. There are no urban growth boundaries as such in Utah or the Salt Lake-Provo-Ogden-Wasatch area. They are promoting higher densities of residential development but this is largely a voluntary thing negotiated between developer and city planners. Some of those cities in the region have minimum subdivision sizes of three acres. Yes, three acres. Others promote higher densities but there is a strong cultural connection to the single family (detached) house on a large(ish) block of land. It sounds much like we were once - although the quarter acre block largely disappeared in Australia in the 1970s. A quarter acre would be considered small by many in Utah.

Land is plentiful - for now - and planning restrictions nowhere near as objectionable as they have become in Australia. Land is taxed differently and leniently. Growth is a good thing, not an evil that must be contained and brought to submission under the regulator’s rule book. The one thing that left many of the people I spoke to in Utah speechless was the idea that in Australia, the land can be worth more than the cost of building the house. When I pointed out the average lot size was getting down to around 400 to 500 square metres, the jaws dropped further.

However, there are some pioneers of housing density in Utah that are setting high quality benchmarks and winning the homebuyers over in large numbers. The master planned community of Daybreak (first developed as an initiative of our own Rio Tinto) at South Jordan (roughly 20 minutes’ drive south of Salt Lake City) is one such project. Covering 4000 acres (1600 hectares) it will provide 20,000 dwellings for 50,000 people and extensive retail and commercial space once complete. Connected to the region’s rail (‘Trax’) network and serviced by extensive highway connections (got to love the Americans for this) the masterplanned community puts impeccable eco-credentials to work and has been widely and professionally recognized for its innovation and leadership.

Designed along new urbanist lines by the renowned Peter Calthorpe (among others) Daybreak exudes a charm that is understandably attractive to young families and seniors alike. Over a quarter of the site is devoted to open space but this is woven throughout the neighborhoods in wide foot paths, pedestrian connections, shared common area lawns and other natural features, some which serve to help retain 100% of storm water on site.

House and land combinations here are priced from around $400k to $500k (Australian), which is higher than the regional median for Utah. Typical lot sizes for entry level three bedroom homes are around 460 square metres, up to around 550 square metres for larger homes. Attached town homes or town houses obviously are on smaller lots still (an attached ‘twin home’ might be on less than 350m2). So Daybreak is proving that smaller lot sizes and higher median prices are achievable, even in a region known for its love of large housing lots and its antipathy forwards multi-family housing (even townhouses are viewed with suspicion: our approach to high density would be viewed with horror).

Daybreak are meeting a community demand for quality neighbourhood environments and open space that is delivered in a relatively high density format for detached living. They are not being told to do this by regulators nor are they being forced to comply with some arbitrary minimum number of lots to the acre. In fact, I’m told Daybreak’s ‘new urbanist’ design principles met with significant regulatory opposition in the early days and there are still doubters in public policy circles.

The point is that the light regulatory touch in Utah has not prevented innovation or world leading design in urban development. While parts of the region pursue more traditional growth patterns, others (especially in and around downtown Salt Lake City) are pursuing higher density options while others still like Daybreak are successfully pursuing high quality community building around small lots which run counter to convention. The market is free to work, and consumers are free to choose. Prices are competitive and supply is not artificially restrained. Affordability is excellent by Australian standards and the economy powering ahead at rates of growth that leave many Australian urban regions for dead.

Utah has a lot to offer as an example of a less regulated land market with a strong and modern economy, substantial population growth and affordable housing. Australian urban planners would do well to expand their horizons and have a look for themselves at what can be achieved with minimal intervention.


For a gallery of some images of Daybreak with captions, please click here.

If you are interested, I can also put you in touch with the lovely people from the American Planning Association, Utah Chapter. The people at Daybreak have also told me they are happy to show Australians around their project. Let me know and I will put you in touch with their External Relations person.

The Daybreak development’s web page is here.

There is a ULI case study (slightly dated but still good) on Daybreak here.

There are countless stories on the strong economy and growth story of Utah. You can find them all here