Let Society Shape Itself

It’s hard not to be cynical. Especially when a developer lobby claims giving the government power to force people to sell their homes – to developers – is for “community benefit”, as the chief of the Urban Development Institute did last month.

It’s universally agreed that developers have nothing but the interests of the community at heart.

Anyway, that’s the proposal of the state government: to set up a government planning authority with the power to compulsorily acquire property and hand it to private developers.

The developers will then build higher-density housing – one house replaced with nine – and flog them off at a profit. It’s an ingenious business model. Unless it’s your house they have their eye on. The government believes some houses will just have to be demolished if it is to realise its grand Metropolitan Strategy and relax the pressure on house prices.

I guess you can’t make an omelet without first passing legislation that forces poultry farmers to sell their eggs to an omelet factory.

Traditionally, governments have had the power to compulsorily acquire property for new freeways or rail lines: obviously public things.

But in recent years, that power has become a lot more extensive, allowing private companies to benefit. NSW isn’t the only jurisdiction taking one person’s property and giving it to another.

In 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled that the local authority in a town called New London, in Connecticut, could force people to sell their property to other private property owners – in that case, to the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which would inhabit a new corporate facility on the land.

The court made the same argument as the NSW government: compulsory acquisition powers can be used if there is a public benefit from doing so. In the New London case it was claimed that bulldozing homes to make way for Pfizer would bring taxes and jobs. To the New London authority and the US Supreme Court, the property rights of the homeowners were just a trivial obstacle on the road to the town’s bright future.

The court’s decision was widely condemned. Especially because Pfizer left the new site a couple of years later, taking the best hopes of the New London planning establishment with them.

Those people whose homes were forcibly purchased to make way for the Sydney Metro, before it went embarrassingly defunct, have had a similar experience.

These new powers would eliminate something that has dogged urban planners since their profession began: property rights.

Urban planning has always been about more than nominating where streets should go. Planners imagine that if only they could impose their ideal configuration of roads, apartment complexes, and “community spaces”, they could save the environment, improve quality of life, fix the obesity crisis, restore social capital, encourage historical awareness, and boost a city’s self-esteem.

I’d trust them more if their plans weren’t always thrown away well before their use-by date.

The first major plan for Sydney, the 1948 County of Cumberland Plan, was supposed to be in place up to 1980. It was supplanted by a new plan in 1968, supposed to last until 2000. Then came one in 1988, another in 1994, in 1997, in 1998 and in 1999. That last plan should have lasted until 2016. It didn’t.

The planners imagine that the next one will last till 2036. It won’t.

But not discouraged by this seemingly endless cycle of bluster and disappointment, the government’s plans are always extremely ambitious. They’re full of watercolour drawings and accompanied by expensive dioramas.

For modern planners the challenge is how to impose their vision of paradise on existing urban environments. These environments are already full of roads and parks and businesses and various-density housing – remnants of older, forgotten plans, or just a reflection of where people want to live.

The complication is property rights. People own the houses governments want to bulldoze. And the government that tramples property rights tramples the foundation of economic growth, of personal savings, and of economic security. Because, fundamentally, property rights are human rights.

So compulsory acquisition to expedite the government’s planning strategy should be seen for what it is: a cartel of developers and legislators offering a blank cheque to urban planners to undermine the fundamental right of property ownership.

But there is something Sydney can do to ease the pressure on house prices. Governments could just let society and the urban environment shape themselves. It would take the fun out of urban planning, but it’d be a lot more successful.

Some people like living in inner-city shoeboxes. But not everyone does – should their preferences be forfeited? Instead of trying to force as many people into as small a space as possible, the government could release more land for new houses to be built.

There’s enough land on the Cumberland Plain to expand Sydney 50 per cent. And infrastructure spending could follow where people want to live. (That really shouldn’t be beyond the capability of a competent government.)

That would ease the pressure on house prices. Certainly more than giving urban planners the power to eliminate property rights would.