“Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”
― Joe Biden
In 2008 the world stumbled into the Global Financial Crisis triggered by under regulation of housing loans in the United States. During this time we learnt that some corporations were ‘too big to fail’ and that western democracies were happy to print cash, cut services and impose austerity measures for big business to ‘make it through’.
Despite this economic shockwave, our cities during the 21st century have increasingly become economic powerhouses. Urbanisation is steadily increasing due to the opportunities that our cities create in a high tech world. In Australia since the end of the mining boom, immigrants have been flocking to the big cities for a slice of the action.
However, amongst this cities boom, a disturbing picture has been emerging, both in Australia and in western democracies worldwide. It is becoming clearer by the day that we are putting corporate profit above livability, safety, community, sustainability and virtually everything that we say we want from our urban environments.
In Melbourne across all scales of city building, neoliberalism and the ability for corporations to mine our cities for profit has gathered so much momentum that the damage to our cities is beginning to pile up. From extra-small to extra-large, here is a snapshot of how neoliberalism is failing Melbourne.
The city is a broad collection of spaces that are separate, but work collectively, across the public and private realm. At the DNA level of our cities, the rules that define the boundaries between these spaces are the land titles.
In Victoria, the State Government is planning on selling the titles office to a private operator. What could possibly go wrong? Well in this age of cyberattacks and information hacking actually quite a lot if you think about it. Imagine the legal chaos that would ensue if the digital database of land ownership in Victoria was wiped out. Imagine if it were altered or digitally forged. It might sound far-fetched but given how economically valuable land is, do we really want this data in private hands? Can we trust a private company to put the public first and profits second?
The Law Institute of Australia also has significant concerns about this privatisation plan.
“There are serious privacy and security issues around the protection of data and the government may be selling off a utility that earns a comfortable profit each year for a short-term financial gain”
Spokesperson for The Law Institute of Victoria
Zooming out on our city to the microscopic level we see a small blob of nickel sulphide. The problem is that we shouldn’t. Tiny pieces of this metal are sitting unnoticed in panes of glass used in balustrades and in other places in buildings across the city. The imperfections should have been taken out by heating the glass in the manufacturing process to test for impurities, but that makes the product more expensive. Glass installed with nickel sulphide imperfections can spontaneously shatter which when installed on a balcony can lead to injury or death.
It would appear that the defective glass being installed is primarily from imported glass manufacturers, who perhaps feel that physical distance makes them less likely to be held responsible for their dangerous product.
Recently The Age reported on a building in Carlton where pedestrians were nearly hit by instantly shattering glass from above. In New Zealand last year a person fell from a glass balcony when it instantly shattered.
Zooming out further into the medium scale is aluminium sandwich panel cladding. After the 2014 Docklands fire, it was evident that there was a problem with how materials are selected for large scale buildings. Then the Grenfell Tower fire happened in London and the full danger of flammable cladding revealed itself. 80 people died in a building that was only recently refurbished.
What these events highlight is the fact that the various systems put in place worldwide to make our environments safe are in fact doing nothing of the sort. This is not the case of a single dodgy supplier, or an unscrupulous individual. These are multiple systems in completely different jurisdictions that relied too heavily upon the private sector to regulate itself.
Many may be quick to point the finger at the architects behind these buildings but this blame is misplaced. Whilst the architect used to be at the top of the decision tree, developers and investors found that by transferring the architect’s role to the builder during construction, the builder can ‘value manage’ the project.
As an example of the value management process, consider the internal painting required on a large apartment building. If the architect specifies paint brand A, the builder might find during construction 12 months later that paint brand B is now cheaper. The builder then substitutes the paint, and once it is on the walls, neither the building surveyor nor the architect is any the wiser. The builder has saved money and the client is happy. However what if the paint was cheap because it was imported and it contains lead. This is type of process is exactly how we end up with buildings covered with flammable cladding and new hospitals built with asbestos.
It was thoroughly unsurprising that the Architects involved with the Lacrosse building in Docklands were recently given the all clear from the Architects Registration Board. After what was no doubt a thorough review, there was not a single breach of the Architects Act found in that case.
Governments, State and Federal, are now trying to figure out retrospectively what to do. At the federal level an inquiry is ongoing into non-conforming building products, whilst at the State level, architect and former Premier Ted Baillieu has been engaged to head up an inquiry specifically at aluminium cladding.
“Australian Building Codes Board admits ‘there is something in the system that’s not working’ and this has been apparent since 2011”
Senator Kim Carr, Twitter, 14 July 2017
Perhaps the solution is a federal government ‘white list’ of acceptable building products. If the product is not on the list, and a registration number not provided, it cannot be used in Australia. This list should also take into account the potential for a product to be misused. Ultimately if a product is dangerous, it shouldn’t be allowed in. This is the standard we apply to consumer products, there is no reason we should accept a lower standard for our buildings.
Zooming further out to the next scale of our city we see our housing market. Whilst housing is a necessity of human life, it is almost entirely produced speculatively by the private sector. Sometimes this produces homes that meet our needs, but on the whole it is failing. Research from the Grattan Institute shows that the types of housing we want to live in are not being built at the rate that we want them. Put simply, the market is not supplying what we need it to.
“The private sector has failed to build enough houses at the right price point in the right location, so the government should intervene.”
Terry Rawnsley, economist and partner SGS Economics & Planning
Developers exist to make money. We cannot fault them for operating within the rules and then making a profit. However there is no reason why we cannot adjust the rules to make our cities work better. We saw this in a mild fashion with the introduction of the Better Apartment Standards, but there is clearly room for improvement.
Governments need to get back in the business of building housing. Not just any housing. The housing which developers complain they can’t make a profit on. Affordable, liveable, well designed housing that doesn’t also need to function as a financial product for investors.
Taking the widest view of our cities, we can see the largest single pieces of our city are the large infrastructure projects and the precinct level masterplans. At this level we yet again see the over reliance upon the private sector to deliver our built environment.
Exhibit A is the extraordinarily short sighted decision by Matthew Guy to allow the Fisherman’s Bend precinct to be designed and built entirely from developers seeking the biggest returns on their land. How anyone could think that this would lead to a liveable and desirable part of our city is anyone’s guess. However selling out our city is not limited to the Liberal Party.
Exhibit B is the Labor Government’s Westgate Tunnel, formerly known as the Western Distributor. The justification for this project was as a method to allow trucks to get to the Port without using the Westgate Bridge or narrow residential streets. The strategy was never about congestion, or providing vehicle access to the CBD.
Enter Transurban, a private company raking in money from building and operating tollroads. Why we should think for a second that the objectives of Transurban align with that of a liveable, sustainable, 21st century city is a complete mystery. However the government was seduced and the project was extended from a $3 Billion port access project to a $5 Billion tollroad into the city. This goes against years of strategic work from the City of Melbourne to limit vehicle entry into the CBD. From a global perspective it is also against the grain of actually removing highways and repurposing them for public space.
“This was designed, originally, to help trucks get off the inner-city roads and into the port. What’s happened is the strategy has been taken over by Transurban. They’re saying it’s strategic … but it’s really about profit.”
Cr Nick Frances Gilley MBE, Chair of the City of Melbourne Transport portfolio
Time to put people above profits.
If we seriously value safe, sustainable and liveable cities, it is time for us to rethink the role of the private sector. This is not a call for the private sector to be pushed out, but we need to be realistic about what motivates the private sector and what we need them to deliver.
We need stronger checks and balances to protect the public interest. Serious consideration should be given to the systems that enable the construction of our built environment, including the use of private building surveyors and private building inspectors and the supply chains of materials.
Ultimately we need to be more prepared to say no to big business. Furthermore when we do allow them to build on our behalf, let’s hold them to the highest of standards, not just what they can get away with. Anything less is a disaster waiting to happen.
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