Magazine of the Socialist Party, Australian section of the CWI

Socialist green planning, the antidote to urban sprawl

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Australia’s population is set to reach 25 million by 2018, and 40 million by 2050. But what is the plan to build housing and infrastructure to match our growing population?

Unaffordable housing is pushing growth further beyond established suburbs, forcing commuters to endure ever-longer journeys to work. Major cities are choked by traffic congestion. Peak-hour public transport services are often at, or past capacity. Long-term planning for environmental sustainability verges on non-existent.

Urban sprawl is the phenomenon whereby cities encroach outwards onto rural and semi-rural land. It typically produces drab low-density suburbs disconnected from proper public services and amenities. The lack of transport options in these areas leaves many people reliant on cars, contributing to carbon emissions at a time when we urgently need to reduce them. We desperately need to ask who is to blame, and what can resolve this crisis of urban planning?

Some commentators have called for cutting immigration. For example, the former Labor leader Mark Latham proposes a “nation-first” policy of slashing the immigration intake by 75%. Pinning responsibility on migrants for governmental failure to invest in public housing and infrastructure is deceitful.

Latham’s suggestions not only play into the divisive, racist rhetoric of anti-worker politicians like Pauline Hanson, but they are also simply unrealistic. Construction of public housing is at an almost 40-year low. No reduction in migration would prevent underfunded, decades-old infrastructure from deteriorating. Nothing short of a major overhaul is required. Immigrant workers are our allies in the battle for this investment.

The major parties advance “solutions” that will only make matters worse. The Andrews Labor government in Victoria, for example, announced in February the construction of 100,000 new dwellings on the urban fringe, claiming they would alleviate property prices.

At best, the dent this will make in the lack of affordable housing will be minor. Soaring property prices are being propelled by investors speculating on the real estate market – that is, buying property with the aim of profiting from it when prices rise.

Real measures to address affordability would involve abolishing tax incentives for speculators, implementing laws to cap rents, and building thousands of new publicly owned homes in order to make housing accessible to all those who need it.

On the issue of transport, the major parties are racing to appease their corporate backers. Urban planners have for decades advised that new highways only add to congestion by encouraging more people to drive. Despite this, state governments are throwing away taxpayer dollars on toll road mega-projects. These behemoths benefit the road freight industry, and a handful of other vested interests, at the expense of everyone else.

The $17 billion WestConnex project in New South Wales was slammed in a report by the Auditor-General, who concluded it did not provide taxpayers with value for money. The former Napthine Liberal government in Victoria was defeated in 2014 by a community campaign, led by the Socialist Party, over its rushed and dodgy plans for the similar East-West Link.

Rail transport is a far superior alternative for ordinary commuting and freight needs – it’s cheaper to maintain, more environmentally friendly, creates long-term jobs, and vastly eases congestion. However, as it is less profitable, rail networks have been left to languish throughout the country.

The 2014 Victorian state election was a clear rejection of the road lobby’s agenda and a mandate for investment to renew and expand the rail network – yet now both major parties are entering the 2018 Victorian election with plans for separate multibillion dollar toll roads.

There are no real technical or financial barriers to building sustainable infrastructure integrated into the community. The problems facing urban expansion in Australia stem from the fact that planning is dominated by the demands and interests of big business.

Socialists argue that planning must be taken out of the hands of the big developers and profiteers. We fight for sustainable development based on public investment and ownership, with genuine democratic input from communities and urban designers.

A greatly enlarged and free public transport network would be capable of wiping out traffic congestion while more public housing would eliminate homelessness. Higher-density living, incorporating communal gardens, public services and entertainment facilities, can overcome the pitfalls associated with urban sprawl. But none of these goals can be achieved without challenging the very basis of the capitalist system itself.

By Jeremy Trott

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