Homes for all in our cities

As a former ministerial advisor to UK ministers now working in Sydney it is clear that our capital cities are in danger of being ‘liveable’ only for those on high incomes or with access to the bank of mum and dad. We have to do better not just to make housing affordable – and boy is it hard given the political power of nimbys to build enough homes to actually reduce house prices – but to provide affordable and indeed key worker housing. I wrote this piece for the Sydney Morning Herald after my organisation, the Committee for Sydney, ran an innovative workshop with younger leaders last week. At the same time, firefighters called to a fire at a warehouse complex in the nearby suburb of Alexandria were required to rescue migrant workers living on site in shipping containers and caravans. I see this as the only way forward: we have to get the previously unheard voice of younger people into the civic dialogue about housing supply. Home ownership is becoming something older people do – and public policy on housing has been dominated by the self-interest of baby boomers, ignoring the coming generation who cannot get into home ownership and increasingly are being priced out of rental in our cities.

If the dramatic events in Alexandria make us focus on Sydney’s acute housing crisis then good will have from evil. It’s often said in Australia that change doesn’t happen without a burning platform.

We have one now.

The discovery that migrant workers were living in Dickensian housing squalor at the heart of our city must now focus the attention of government, community and media on the housing stress being felt in Sydney. And just in case you think that such stress is confined to migrants who can be conveniently filed under ‘marginal case: nothing to do with us’, I remind you there are 60,000 Sydneysiders on public/social housing waiting lists, 70% of people under the age of 35 can’t afford home-ownership in this city and those on average earnings are being priced out of rented accommodation within an easy commute of Sydney’s CBD.

So mismatched are the supply and demand of any type of housing in Sydney that although housing supply doubled between 2009 and 2014 – it is still only at the 2004 level although our population has gone up 13% since then – house prices went up 13% last year alone. Currently housing supply is 30,000 a year in Sydney which seems to be the peak in this cycle. To make up the backlog we need 40,000 a year at least – and year in year out for the next generation. On current policies and attitudes there is no prospect of this. We are just not building enough of any housing type or tenure. This failure is damaging the prospects both of our own children and our city.

Our offspring are having to live with their parents much longer not out of inertia or love but because they simply cannot afford to rent let alone buy. Or they are moving to edge locations with poorer economic opportunities and long commutes. And while all cities are experiencing housing stress, some are doing better. One of the reasons why Melbourne will overtake Sydney as Australia’s biggest city around 2050 is because we are losing mobile talent in their 30s on the basis of housing affordability. Melbourne is retaining that cohort: some of ours is going to…Melbourne.

Obsessed as many of we home-owners are with house price inflation madly deemed to be a good thing in North Shore dinner parties and property supplements, we have missed the crisis affecting our young. Home-ownership is becoming something that older Sydneysiders do.

So beloved are we of this special status that in the form of nimbyism many of us are preventing others getting access to the homes they need. Also, via the uniquely generous tax incentives, superannuation benefits and liquidity available to home-owners in Australia, owners are becoming possessors of multiple units, pricing potential first time buyers out into the rental market. This then puts demand pressure on cheaper rented units, social housing and public housing waiting lists. Increased homelessness and what we saw in Alexandria are at the end of this spectrum of unmet housing need. Something has to be done if we are to have a city with homes for all.

Someone is doing something about it. At the very moment of the Alexandria fire, 60 young leaders from all parts of Greater Sydney were at the first Youth Housing Summit. Brought together by a partnership between the Committee for Sydney, the community organisation, Sydney Alliance and Youth Action, young people from the public, private and not for profit sectors met to thrash out answers .Government and our community need to listen to this voice which has been absent from our sometimes un-civic and often selfish dialogue on affordable housing, higher density development and the future of our city.

These impressive young leaders know what is needed from government. How about targets for affordable and key worker housing? Applying first home buyer incentives to shared equity schemes? Replacing stamp duty with a land tax? Allowing public land to be used for sub market rental? Schemes to prevent homelessness in the first place? And for any nimby readers: from all a desire to see a reformed planning system, an embrace of the benefits of a higher density future and a vision of a Greater Sydney with homes for all.

Underpinning this evolving program were two caveats and one ask. One, that engagement processes around city planning be modernised/digitised so that young people can help shape Sydney as never before. Two, that the emerging Metro strategy really promotes a more polycentric Sydney and the economic development of the West, to divert some of the current ‘close-to-CBD housing’ demand. The ask, politely: that our young premier engages with this key demographic – and becomes a champion for their expansive vision of Sydney.

The poor are always with us but that doesn’t mean areas have to stay poor forever

Have a look some time at the McKinsey map of world wealth which tracks the moving centre of gravity of global wealth over the last 1000 years. The centre of wealth in 1000 AD was somewhere in the Near East then moved decisively west during the industrial revolution. It has been moving decisively east since the 70s oil crisis and has been given a massive impetus by the re-emergence of China. The centre of gravity of global wealth is hovering over Kazakhstan at the moment and will be over India in the next ten years on its way back to its natural location: China.

The rise, fall and rise of China shows both that the economics of imperialism mattered but also shows how ‘regional imbalances’ can be re-arranged to favour the previously fallen. The economy of the Asian region was raped and pillaged by Western Imperialism for centuries but they are the future now with 90% of the world’s growth over the next generation likely to be in the East. China’s reemergence is partly about a political struggle against imperialism but also about identifying a uniquely Chinese route to the market – the Beijing Consensus clearly involving a massive role for government by contrast with the previously dominant and now mostly abandoned Washington Consensus.

The issue for Wales is not to wallow in a useless form of historical and economic determinism which sees some permanent imbalance between the periphery and the centre – South Wales was after all at the heart of the British imperial economy for 70 years and almost all of the Latin American economies previously thought to be being ‘under-developed’ by imperialism are now booming and outperforming their former masters – but to work out with the tools and institutions we have how can we make serious economic progress again.

One clue is the need to reflect on the key economic fact about ‘place’ at the moment. This is that the world’s leading cities – not just the mega cities – are outperforming their countries. This ‘London effect’ is being replicated all over the world. China’s growth has partly been about enabling its rural poor to create wealth in its exploding cities rather than fester in the economically stalled rural areas. Our small scale equivalent would be to enable Cardiff particularly to provide jobs for and house a far larger population at higher densities, than conceived of at the moment. The Welsh Government should work towards Cardiff being a city of just under a million by 2030 with much smaller population than at present living at the top end of the Valleys, far away from opportunity. A ‘city-region which doesn’t dramatically increase the population and economic activity of that city will not enable the region to flourish. That’s the real world discussion to be having.

Luckily for South Wales, whatever the policy inertia about urban renewal in the Welsh Government, Cardiff itself is experiencing new momentum and has good ‘Big City’ thinkers in its leadership and management. Its newly released LDP envisages significant residential growth and the announced relocation of the BBC HQ to the centre of Cardiff will create a new CBD/innovation district right outside the Central Rail station. The challenge is both to enable Cardiff to massively increase its residential base and to connect the Valley communities via a modern and speedy network to this growing centre of economic agglomeration. There is indeed a new rail network planned for the Valleys which I believe will be far more important for the economic future of my homeland than an ‘city-region’ governance initiative. As to the latter, I fear that having little of the local government leadership over it we have seen in Greater Manchester where council leaders genuinely understand that making Manchester itself more economically vibrant and connecting their town centres to it are the keys to success, the Welsh version lacks both the political drive and economic rationale of a proper city-region. The Welsh government has also shown no interest in devolving any powers to such a governance structure unlike its English equivalents. Devolution is currently a one way street in Wales – to the Welsh government from England and to the Welsh government from local councils.

It’s official – suburbia kills: walking back to happiness and health with Jeff Speck

I’ve known for some time that higher density inner city living was economically good for you – being close to jobs and enjoying reduced transport costs – and socially beneficial – providing services and experiences on your doorstep but until I read ‘Walkable City’ by Jeff Speck, I hadn’t realised it was so good for your health.

I should have realised because living in Hackney for 20 years I cycled or walked everywhere and was relatively healthy (subject to honesty about the long term impact of some of the social benefits referred to above). But one year after moving to Sydney – a city a quarter the density of London, without its public transport system and possessing a rather challenging terrain for everyday cycling – I acquired type 2 diabetes. It was always in me but my new city’s low density sprawl and the car-reliance it supports – in a conspiracy with my advancing age and my reluctance to enter a gym – helped bring it out. Clearly, suburbia kills.

This in a slightly less rhetorical fashion is one of the messages of ‘Walkable City’ by US planner and urban thinker Jeff Speck, whose subtitle is worth stressing: ‘how downtown can save America one step at a time’. Not just America, is the plea from this side of the world. The message is relevant to Australian cities. Actually it’s relevant to low density settlements everywhere and in part explains why former industrial areas of the UK such as the South Wales Coalfield, where I come from, are such incubators of diabetes and other obesity-related diseases. There are no longer any jobs or services there which can be accessed by walking. And just to show how deep this shift is in such places my own former mining village doesn’t even now have a pub you can walk to. So some people just drive to the nearest pub but others bring the pub to their home via cheap supermarket booze. I have lost 3 close contemporaries from my childhood who have died because of diseases brought on by a sedentary, workless, lifestyle fuelled by alcohol. Drink kills independently of worklessness and lethargy, I realise – but it is enormously assisted by them.

It’s not that cycling would have saved them, though it might have. It’s that where you live matters to personal and social outcomes. We should surely as a matter of public policy seek to encourage environments which promote physical activity and which reduce the prevalence of environments which promote lethargy and consequent ill-health. This would seem even more important in an era of on the one hand knowledge jobs which by their nature require less physical effort as compared with manufacturing or mining and on the other of increasing workless-ness and thus inactivity of the unskilled who do not have the qualifications to participate in a modern economy. Where people live – and how they access work and services – matters to health outcomes.

In Australia as a whole there is now recognised to be an explosion of obesity and diabetes 2. This is likely to be induced more by lifestyle than by poverty in what is one of the world’s richest countries, though it is clear that most of the clusters of lifestyle related diseases tend to be in the more disadvantaged parts of town. In Sydney these clusters are usually in Western Sydney. But then the communities of Western Sydney, once a manufacturing stronghold, are now having to get in their cars for hour long commutes – and longer – to the knowledge jobs to their east. Shopping is rarely done at local centres which are walkable from home and absolutely no-one cycles: if Cadell Evans lived in Western Sydney he’d drive everywhere. He’d have to.

The answer? We have to go down the Walkable City path as advocated brilliantly by Speck. This doesn’t mean encouraging everyone to walk or cycle to Sydney’s CBD. That CBD is 20k from the current centre of Greater Sydney’s metropolitan population which is currently around Parramatta. It does mean promoting key centres in Sydney – Liverpool, Penrith, Parramatta, Chatswood – as walkable/cycle-able destinations for their hinterlands.

A truly polycentric Sydney is required in which more high value jobs and services are devolved to or attracted to such regional centres which themselves need to have extensive local public transport networks to facilitate this shift. This is happening incrementally at the moment and Liverpool, Penrith and Parramatta are now seeking to create the kinds of environments which will attract talent to work, live and play in their areas. Speck shows that by making themselves ‘walkable cities’ they will not only attract and build investment, they will also build social capital – and the health of their communities. What’s not to like? Public policy needs to back a genuinely polycentric Sydney – with a network of public transport linked ‘walkable cities’ – for both social and economic reasons. As Norman Tebbit advised us in a different context: ‘on yer bike’.

The dissolution of the libraries: a fightback from Old and New South Wales

Forgive me a moment of pride. I have discovered that some very fine people from the village of Beddau, where I was born, are resisting the closure of the local library. Beddau is a former mining village on the edge of the South Wales Valleys. When I grew up there it was an almost entirely working class community into which a public sector middle class bussed in to provide welfare and education services. Of these services, apart from my school, the only one I was really aware of was the library. I got my first library ticket at 5 years old, before the library actually acquired its one building. Until I was 6 or 7 the library carried on its business from the back of the local Miners Welfare club. Then a spanking new branch library building was open with tons of new books. Somewhere between this library, its dedicated staff and my home I was made a book-reader with a voracious appetite for the printed page. My library-fed bibliophilia grew ever stronger and carried me almost unaided to Cambridge and Oxford Universities and a Ph.D at the University of Wales. I was so aware of this that when I was asked at Cambridge where I came from I used to say ‘from Beddau and books’. I add:so strong was the commitment to learning in my culture that I can say with Karl Miller, the founder of the London Review of Books, who himself came from a mining background that it wasn’t until he went to Oxbridge that he realised it wasn’t just working class people who read books.

I mention all this because when the cash-strapped Council which funds the Beddau library announced its closure I was both incandescent and depressed and wondered at whom I should point my Kalashnikov. While contemplating my guerrilla campaign against the philistine leadership of the council I suddenly realised that some people I knew in Beddau weren’t going gently into any goodnight; nor were they raging ineffectually. They were fighting against the dying of the light. And quite effectively.

Their campaign is not just to keep the library open as a council facility. It is to run it as a community-backed social enterprise. I have been asked to support it. It’s inspirational and brilliant so how could I not? Pride may come before a fall but if this happens I would be delighted to be the fall guy. Already the campaign has attracted great support from the local community and the organsiers have the right idea that to be viable the library needs to be more of a multi-use facility than previously – perhaps having a café or a food cooperative and a crèche. There was a tradition of community self help in mining communities and indeed early health and social welfare interventions were once funded by the pennies of the miners. I was myself helped to go to Cambridge by a small gift from the local miners’ lodge. Furthermore, many of us worrying about the corrosive impact of conventional state-welfare on a once self-reliant community have always pointed out that that form of welfare isn’t the only way communities can be supported. They can support themselves through community enterprise as they once did. Indeed, given the fiscal crisis of the local state in Wales – and the absence of private sector jobs – we are going to have to rediscover our communitarian enterprise roots and not just in the form of cooperative consumption but of cooperative production and innovation. Good on yer Beddau: lead the way to a more sustainable and reinvigorated South Wales. Just don’t ask me for that book back!

Cities Rule the Economy

Tony Abbott wants to be known as the ‘Infrastructure PM’. Since his election there has been a commendable emphasis on improving national productivity. All good. However, there has been less focus on the unheralded main driver of our economy – the performance of our cities. I sometimes worry that by ‘infrastructure’ the Feds mean the roads between cities not vital infrastructure projects in cities.

Though the G20 finance ministers’ meeting in Sydney focused on national performance, global challenges and the prospects for business, productivity today is a largely urban phenomenon. It has to do with how we manage our cities as much as how we manage our enterprises. Cities, through their density, capacity to attract talent and ability to promote collaboration and knowledge spill-overs, play a dominant economic role. This role will grow stronger as activity shifts from resources and manufacturing to the knowledge economy.

Despite cities vital wealth-creating role they are orphans of national policy. A recent study called them ‘Australia’s Unintended Cities’. It’s time to stand up for them and say out-loud: cities create most Australian GDP, productivity and innovation. Investing in the infrastructure which promotes their economic performance is a national priority, particularly as the commodities boom moderates.

Greater Sydney produces a quarter of Australian wealth. Sydney CBD’s financial and professional services alone produce much more wealth than the Nation’s mining and agriculture sectors combined.

This is not about local pride though a Sydney First focus for scarce national infrastructure funding is rational at this moment when the NSW economy is leading the Nation forward. Getting behind Sydney’s momentum is in the national interest. But all our key cities are big drivers of productivity and innovation. Their contribution needs to be supported in national policy and investment.

This is why I ask our national government: what is your vision for Australian cities? What priority will you give them in policy and investment? And how will you collaborate with state governments to align resources behind the right infrastructure projects and to fully exploit opportunities? Such collaboration is vital. Our capital cities are too important for their futures to be determined by one tier of government alone.

No-one’s asking for free money. Investing in Sydney will deliver more bang for the public buck than anywhere else. And the Feds can demand reforms in return. Sydney may be Australia’s Global City but with over 40 councils – Auckland like Brisbane has one – it is not currently run like one. How about governance reform as a condition for the cash? That really would be productive.

Cities and innovation

A new emphasis for urban regeneration specialists, economists and other nerd-like herd-like creatures such as ourselves is the increasing identification of cities with innovation.

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Mind the gap: booming London leaves Wales behind – and shows how disposable income is not an adequate indicator of prosperity

I wanted to add a thought about how recent house price inflation is increasing the wealth gap between London and the rest – and how London benefited from the global crisis it helped to cause .

I have just caught up with the Smith Institute research on the Great House Price Divide. It shows what many had suspected but not proven: from the crisis to now house prices have gone up dramatically in London and down catastrophically in the most of the rest of the UK. A comparison of two places I know well will clarify. In Hackney where I lived for 20 years to 2010 prices have gone up 35.6% since 2007. In Rhondda Cynon Taff , where I am from, they have gone down 21%. Indeed, up the road in Blaenau Gwent they went down 47.7% where homeowners lost over 40k of value on homes now costing on average a pitiable 47k. At the same time the average homeowner in London has grown 40k wealthier. As Prime Minister David Cameron so eloquently put it: ‘we’re all in this together’.

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We’re for an ambitious Sydney – not ‘we’re full-up’ inertia

It’s official. The Australian Bureau of Statistics confirms what the Committee for Sydney has been highlighting for a while: sometime between as early as 2030 and no later than 2053 Melbourne overtakes Sydney as the biggest city in Australia. That’s right. ‘Australia’s only Global City’ will be smaller than that township on the Yarra. The NSW Government may want our state to be ‘No.1 again’ but on current trends our capital city will be number 2. If we are to stay No. 1 – and I assume Tele readers share the view that it must – we have to find something which has been in short supply since the Olympics: ambition.

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Why housing and wealth inequalities matter – and the challenge of social mobility in a spatially divided nation

I’ve been reading again. One thing I’ve been reading is a Harvard research paper from their ongoing ‘Equality of Opportunity Project’(published in July) .The second is a book of essays about urban development and housing in Australia, entitled (tellingly and accurately) ‘Australia’s Unintended Cities’(edited by  R. Tomlinson, CSIRO Publishing ,2012).  Both should be read by urbanists everywhere. And both explain why governments need to intervene to shape the development of cities to ensure they deliver their potential in terms of both productivity and equity. The final thing I’ve been reading , as I suspect have most of you , is the latest edition of the Economist on why many of the most failing former industrial heartlands of the UK need to be abandoned as they have become poverty traps for their people. The Economist editorial should act as a corrective for any optimists left and remind us that spatial inequality is not just a problem within cities: the gap in performance between cities – and thus the differential life chances of the communities in those cities – is as much a challenge ,and arguably in the UK, now the biggest question for public policy.
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#We the city: collaborating to compete in the digital era

On Wednesday I launched ‘We the City: collaborating to compete in the digital era’. I wrote it with Martin Stewart-Weeks of Cisco on behalf of the Committee for Sydney. Although written to promote new public policy around digital engagement and innovation in Sydney, it has a range of case studies from a dozen global cities. It attempts to link the importance of the new online and digital tools for community and business engagement, the ‘internet of things’ such as sensors in infrastructure or GPS currently producing Big Data and Big City management. It is about the democratisation of data and how effective cities are collaborating to use these new tools of social innovation to compete economically. This is the speech I made to introduce the launch. A link to the report is provided below.

Please note that we also launched with the report a new Committee for Sydney/Cisco Global Cities Online Dialogue which included presentations by Steven Koonin of New York Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative called the Centre for Urban Science and Progress. Steven discussed the work of CUSP which is essentially helping to link on the one hand the Big Data becoming available from digital media, sensors, the ‘internet of everything’ whether from government bodies, the private sector, universities or the community with on the other hand the task of improving the management of New York as a city. We also heard from Chris Vein of the World Bank but previously instrumental in creating San Francisco’s impressive municipal-community-business digital framework. Innovation is now social and urban: discuss!
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