Let’s imagine for a moment that the policies on housing affordability put forward in recent days work and, in a few years, more people are able to pay the purchase price for new homes again. Let’s imagine – and this is easy to do – that these policies are implemented in a vacuum, without consideration of other, interlinked issues. What might be the flow-on effects?
Well, for starters, the dark roofed, eve-less, concrete boxes that people have bought are heating up as another record-breaking summer arrives and there is no immediate alternative but to crank up the air-conditioning. At a time when Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme is coming into play, raising energy prices, this is very unwelcome. To make matters worse, the price of oil will still be steadily rising and petrol prices going through the roof. The housing developments on the urban fringe have all been planned around freeways which are reaching gridlock, and, without any serious public transport infrastructure, there is simply nothing for commuters to do but climb into their cars each day.
Mortgages and rents might be more affordable, but people will really struggle to pay higher bills for transport and energy.
It’s not far from here to the scenario described recently by world-renowned Australian transport planner, Professor Peter Newman, of eco-enclaves for the rich, surrounded by Mad Max suburbs. His warning is clear: unless we start a proper, holistic planning process now, factoring in climate change and peak oil, those who can afford it will move to efficient homes in the inner suburbs, well-catered for by public transport, and the vast bulk of people will simply be shut out.
Inefficient housing is not a sustainable solution. We need to link any tax breaks, streamlined development processes, or whatever tools we use, to the construction of highly efficient housing stock — at least seven star. This is not hard to do. The UK is legislating to require all new housing stock and public buildings to be zero net carbon by 2016. For a marginal increase in building costs, you can dramatically reduce energy demand and therefore running costs for the life of the building.
Building on the urban fringe without fast, efficient mass transit is not a sustainable solution. We shouldn’t forget the option of effective urban consolidation, but where we spread, it is vital that housing developments are planned around mass transit. With oil already at US$100 a barrel, and set to keep rising as supply constraints get worse and peak oil starts to bite, we cannot build suburbs where the only transport option is the private car. According to the ABS, transport is right up there with housing in household expenditure. There’s no point providing cheap housing to people if it locks them into expensive transport.
It’s about time our governments started to work constructively together to find solutions to housing affordability. Not being an expert in that area, I cannot pass judgement on whether the proposals of recent days might actually work. But one thing I do know is that we cannot address the issue – any issue – in a vacuum. If we ignore climate change and peak oil, if we fail to see that affordability is not just about purchase price, we will fail to meet the underlying goal – to help Australians who are struggling to make ends meet.
There is no reason why we can’t address the housing crisis and help progress the shift to a carbon-free economy at the same time. But unless we deliberately decide to do it, the real danger is that we will entrench energy and fuel-poverty, thereby entrenching a high-emissions lifestyle.