10 March 2023

Unlock the suburbs for housing but do it properly and for the right reasons

| Ian Bushnell
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Apartments and townhouses

Densification will present many challenges for Canberra’s suburbs. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Many would see the Master Builders’ call for Canberra’s single-block residential zone to be unlocked for medium-density housing as simply self-serving.

The conversion of suitable-sized blocks to duplexes, townhouses and low-rise apartments would be a bonanza for the building industry.

But whatever reflexive aversion to the loss of the traditional family home and the garden city values it embodies does not detract from the fact that Canberra needs more housing, especially in the more affordable range.

READ ALSO ACTPLA slammed for approving government’s non-compliant supportive housing project

There is already a rental crisis in this city, with extremely low vacancy rates and rents among the highest in the country. That hurts, especially for those on low to moderate incomes.

For many, the homeownership dream is now a fantasy, and for those middle workers who can somehow muster a deposit and qualify for a loan, a house with a backyard is just not on the menu.

The economic forces in play – overblown prices, rising interest rates, high inflation and stagnant wages – are driving more permanent rental arrangements, demand for public and social housing, and denser, cheaper housing types.

In Canberra, with its relatively high salaries, there will still be those who can afford a million-dollar mortgage, but even many of them are reassessing their needs.

Master Builders rightly points out that sprawling ever outward is no solution, especially when people want to be closer to where they work and play and have lesser commutes.

It may be a hard fact to swallow, but this is what Australia’s housing market has come to.

Cannibalising the suburbs is the only way Canberra, as it heads to half a million or more people, can realistically meet its citizens’ housing needs.

Having large under-utilised blocks in suburbs that have virtually locked out many people can no longer be justified.

If infill is the way forward, as this government argues it is, then the key questions are how it is to be executed and who it is to be done for.

The obvious contradiction to be managed is between the government’s Living Infrastructure policies, including the 30 per cent tree canopy target, and the increased building footprint.

Master Builders wants more flexibility with plot ratios, but infill must not mean paying lip service to these and climate change policies and end up with heat islands and the loss of the Bush Capital character.

The new flexible planning system, which arguably is being devised to facilitate infill, should not be a free-for-all that means those vaunted outcomes Chief Planner Ben Ponton is always going on about just amount to a new urban jungle full of dodgy developments.

READ ALSO Unlock the RZ1 suburbs for medium density to meet housing crisis, says Master Builders ACT

The push from Master Builders and other pro-housing groups is directed to the missing middle – compact, but not cramped family housing, at a reasonable cost.

That is what should guide the government.

Included in that mix will be the need for a greater public and social housing component because the market itself cannot be expected or trusted to deliver housing where it is needed most.

A totally market-based approach will only lead to gold-plated developments from which only the wealthy and investors will benefit.

The other contradiction for an ACT government to manage is its role as land seller and property developer and tax collector.

Despite the tax reform process and increasing stamp duty exemptions, infill also promises a windfall to government. It will have to balance the need to boost housing with the need to maintain the revenues to provide the Territory’s services.

This will change Canberra. It is imperative that if we are to go down this road that it be done properly.

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HiddenDragon7:27 pm 10 Mar 23

“It is imperative that if we are to go down this road that it be done properly.”

But it won’t, because the ACT government, its planning bureaucracy and the developer chums simply can’t help themselves.

Trusting that lot to deliver the utopian outcomes suggested in this article would be like giving a bunch of rabbits a good talking to about chastity and continence and then expecting appropriate behaviour modification.

In the couple of decades of Labor and Labor-Green government in this town we have had what seems like countless iterations of planning processes and policies. Every time, it’s going to be a new dawn, or spin to that effect, and yet (with the occasional worthy exception) nothing gets better – all that happens is that the production line of over-priced, unimaginative, alienating, unhealthy, incongruous crud continues apace.

At the same time, and in spite of a tree protection regime which verges on the unhinged in its selective zealotry, we have managed to diminish the tree canopy and create a network of brutal, irremediable heat islands.

All of that said, this is the second (that I have noticed) “unlock the suburbs” spruik on this site this week, and other local outlets are presumably doing much the same – so the push is clearly on.

The really interesting possibility raised by this is the chance for the ACT Greens to stand apart on this fundamental issue and, after the 2024 election, become the majority party in the inevitable next left of centre ACT government. That might be something for Andrew Barr to contemplate and ask himself whether his dogged opposition to “sprawl”, and simplistic, unquestioning pursuit of rapid population growth, is worth it.

The ACT Government and planners should target some key Canberra suburbs for higher density development in RZ1. Reid, Turner, Ainslie, O’Connor and Braddon obviously first come to mind. I know many locals won’t like it though.

Otherwise…… you will get what has happened in some other countries where wealthy people and high value inner city land areas don’t get as many higher density builds as expected through the policy change.

Property developers soon learn they can buy much cheaper land per square meter in outer suburbs, knock down and rebuild with less organised resident and legal resistance, make a bigger profit, but equally as importantly leave the government to sort out the extra residents in parts of the city with poor infrastructure, poor transport connections, poor community services and poor work and education options.

I’ve seen some of these area’s first hand in the US and most surprisingly in Auckland a few months ago.

Michael Cuddihy6:23 pm 10 Mar 23

You are in luck then cause the ACT Govt has already targeted the entire Inner North including those named subjects for much higher density development. You can look in the Inner North District Strategy and you will see large chunks of these suburbs coloured in with a yellow highlighter.

These are Future Investigation Areas, and the govt wants to put in 17,000-21,000 additional dwellings in the Inner North, and these areas are in the firing line. Similar in the Inner South. That will require thousands of houses to be destroyed, and many existing open space areas and other facilities (eg race courses, horse paddocks, parks) to be developed into apartments. Some of that is a good idea, particularly where large greenfields areas can be developed into high density.

Campbell (where I live) has already had a lot of infill. Some it good, all of it expensive, some not so good. After a decade of pretty serious ongoing development it is now roughly 50:50 houses and high/medium density along with very significant increase in population over the last decade. The past greenfields sites have now already been developed. ACT Government released projections saying they believe that Campbell’s population will grow from currently 4775 to 8061.


The ACT Govt is now expecting something like another 1300 townhouses and apartments to built in the suburb purely through knocking over existing houses. There will not be any the Master planning associated with large greenfields development like C5 or Doma.

Just block by block demolitions followed by large, expensive duplexes and triplexes. Recent history of development demonstrates that it will neither be affordable or diverse types of dewllings, nor than trees and vegation will be retained.

Tom Worthington3:10 pm 10 Mar 23

How about some different more affordable options, such as for groups of adults to share? Not everyone can afford their own apartment, but could afford a room in a share house, but one designed for sharing, not a family home.

Michael Cuddihy6:05 pm 10 Mar 23

I think that was one of the types of demonstration houses proposed. Stellulata. I think that they are a reasonable idea and would suit some people. I do wonder how it would work over time and how the commercial aspects work when people move, pass away etc.

I think it would fall into the type of dwelling that planning legislation might ‘allow; but which developers would not actually build. Hence, I think that developers and MAster Builders talk about diverse housing as a means to get support for rezoning, but they have zero intention to build co-housing projects as a means to sell and make money.

Secondly, I think it is unlikely that architect designed homes in high land cost areas are likely to meet the definition of affordable.

I do think that the Govt actually building these homes as public housing is a more likely pathway. The barriers seems to be hit when Govt tries to cram in too many units into a location.

Is the ACT government really capable of ensuring that medium density housing is designed and implemented so the precincts are plesant, livable places that maintain the valued character of the area, including heritage landscapes? Well thought out solutions that respond to residents’ concerns are possible if there is the will do that. The government is primarily responsible to its electorate, the people who live in the ACT, not to developers who seek to maximise their profits.

Michael Cuddihy2:59 pm 10 Mar 23

I think Governments can step up and lead.

At the moment the ACT Govt (specifically) do not listen to residents concerns, and actively steering the ship in a different direction to the community.

They dont want to talk about form and scale of development, heritage, the lived reality of denuded blocks devoid of trees and vegetation, impact on existing amenity, impact on traffic, or parking all over the shop. They specifically avoid evaluating and looking at what hasn’t worked in past infill development.

We do need to do more infill, but like the headlines says “we need to do it properly”. I wish the community that I am could have some confidence that ACT PLA and the Govt will do it properly and balance the various the various competing interests, rather than simply triavialise or completely ignore resident’s concerns.

Have a wander around Ijong Street for example. Very pleasant and green at street level yet being mid to high density low rise. Nobody but a spoilt NIMBY would walk down this street and think of it as anything but a lovely place to live. A short walk to the CBD and a park at the end of the street. Who could want for more in the middle of a city?

Michael Cuddihy6:28 pm 10 Mar 23

Thanks for the suggestion. I will have a wander on Ijong St, Braddon. I am less familar with that area. Is that an area where I could expect to find affordable housing with a range of dwelling types?

There is already large amount of medium and high density housing in Canberra including in the Inner North. Depending on the area it was often designed that way and purposely built as medium density. This has been the reality for many decades.

I think redevelopment of areas that had houses into far higher density has far less to commend it.

No it wasn’t built that way. It was initially a typical inner suburban street with small bungalows on large blocks. And no, it doesn’t have a ‘rangevod dwelling types.’ It is however, along with a number of streets around it, an example of medium to high density housing on a leafy street with a lovely tree canopy.

Michael Cuddihy10:17 am 10 Mar 23

The ACT Govt and MBA and the Missing Middle lobbyists never actually engage on the quality of what has been done, and the impact on existing residents. The whole planning review process has been a sham with a predetermined answer.

To work out a way forward, in te RZ1 and RZ2 space, I would argue the key questions are:

How has infill within RZ2 and Mr Fluffy actually been executed?
What outcomes actually resulted? Was permeable green space retained?
Who recieved the benefits?
Was the fabled housing diversity actually delivered?
Was affordable housing delivered?
Were existing residents satisfied with developers interpretation of setbacks and design requirements?
From an environmental perspective, have dual occupancies added to suburban canopy or blocks been scraped bare of all vegetation?
From a character perspective, have the the dual occupancies respected scale and form?

I reckon there really been only been benefits for those who sold their land, and the developers who knocked down existing houses and redeveloped exactly. Under a nearly totally market-based approach there have either been gold-plated developments of large townhouses, or dense concrete developments that maximise the number of saleable dwellings.

Where there is a strong govt role leading to a design led, masterplanned greenfield development in the inner suburbs there can be good outcomes. eg C5 in Campbell.

But the past experience with block by block developer knock downs has been pretty terrible. eg 16 Darke st, Torrens Housing has not be become more affordable. Poor environmental outcomes, and all the housing diversity claims are simply misleading in terms of the past, and hyperbolic when looking forward.

And developer led knock downs is really all that the ACT Govt has put on the table. They want to change zoning rules, offer up Future Investigation Areas to point the land banking developers, and then watch as existing suburbs (mainly inner north and inner south) are torn up to fit in literally 10,000s of new high density and medium density dwellings.

So yeh, Master Builder claims are self serving, which is fine, they are a lobby group for their industry. My questions to Master Builders:
“Most redevelopment of Rz2 and Mr Fluffy involve landowners demolishing a house and subdividing their block into smaller lots, creating between 2-3 new town houses that take up most of block with low risk cookie cutter designs.
To what extent have Canberra developers and builders represented to Govt that they will actually build the diversity in dwellings types in inner north that the district strategy indicates?
Have you said it will be economically feasible?
Will profit margins be reduced or increased when diversity in dwellings is constructed?
What are the new benefits to the existing communities in infill suburbs?
What are the proposed developer contribution to fund new community facilities and infrastructre?

I dont think that builders will do anything different in the future compared to their past behaviour in RZ2 and Mr Fluffy. Most redevelopment of in a rezoned Rz1, Rz2 and Mr Fluffy will continue to involve landowners demolishing a house and subdividing their block into smaller lots, creating between 2-3 new town houses that take up most of block with low risk cookie cutter designs. Nearly always two or three places will be sold for vastly more than the original block. End of story.

The government itself needs to play a far larger role in the delivery of public and social housing. It should actually follow its own rules, which it demonstratably has not been doing. The current market led approach has not worked, nor cannot be expected or trusted to deliver housing in the way the community needs in the future. The ACT Government is doubling down on a failed approach, ignoring the Canberra community, listening too much to self-interested lobbyists and placing too much trust in ACT PLA and developers.

Small developers knocking down crappy old ex govies on oversized blocks and replacing them with two or three townhouses is exactly what we should be doing. My 810 metres is prime for the plucking. Unless you think our only option is to buy an overpriced box from the big boys (who incidentally don’t give a fig about RZ 1 – 2 as they are playing in a much bigger sandbox).

Michael Cuddihy3:54 pm 11 Mar 23

I don’t think apartments are all bad. We will need more in the future, and there all far more now than 10 years ago. Especially need them in the city centres. My suburb has about 500 more apartments than 10 years ago.

Also agree that large developers don’t care about rz1 and rz2. But small developers and builders absolutely do, hence the concerted ongoing lobbying campaign by their industry lobby group to change planning rules.

Similarly, the hundreds of thousands of people who already live in RZ1 and RZ2 zones have opinions and beliefs about their development rules in their community.

“Canberra needs more housing, especially in the more affordable range.”
Yes, agreed. But land values are highest in the inner south and inner north, so building there means more higher priced housing, benefiting speculative corporate developers like Geocon, not those in need of their first homes, family homes or affordable homes.

Michael Cuddihy10:22 am 10 Mar 23

It is pretty bizarre to think that Canberra is hoping to get affordable housing in the most expensive areas. Diverse affordable dwelling have not been built in RZ2 and Mr Fluffy blocks in Inner North and Inner South cause developers build what makes them the most money, and some parts of the community can afford it.

Hoping for affordable diverse housing in inner areas is different to having an evidence base to support a rational belief that it will actually happen.

You have raised some excellent points Michael. The Draft Territory Plan and District Strategies are lacking evidence in a range of areas to support the Governments wishful thinking. A detailed evaluation of the types of developments that have been built in RZ2 zones and Mr Fluffy blocks, the impact on neighbours and the local community, local infrastructure and the environment, should be conducted urgently to help inform future strategies. The Government are specifically targeting areas in the inner-North and South for one reason – to increase revenue from rates resulting from the increase in the number of dwellings. The Government are not seriously interested in providing housing choice or affordable housing. The deplorable lack of sufficient social housing and the fact that the ACT has the highest rents in Australia (largely due to high rates and land tax) highlights this. The Productivity Commission reported recently that the number of public housing dwellings in the ACT in 2021 was below the number in 2012 (10,950) and the peak in 2018 (11,181). Planning at its best.

Michael Cuddihy6:34 pm 10 Mar 23

There are a few other reasons that intense infill is also attractive to ACT Govt. It means that they can continue to neglect investment and expenditure in social infrastructure in Tuggeranong, outer Belconnen and Gunghalin. They can avoid hard infrastructure costs in developing new land, plus avoid sprawl.

They never talk about the honeypot of stamp duty that comes from splitting RZ blocks, and the increased land tax on a per unit basis.

Whilst I agree in part to the sentiment in this article, I think the emotive language isn’t helpful. Leaving aside the racial connotations of ‘white flight’ to the American suburbs in the 20th century, the notion that Canberra is in danger of becoming an ‘urban jungle’ is laughable.

Our city’s density is ~440 poor km for built up areas and ~171 per km for the ACT. To put that into perspective, greater London’s density is ~5500 per km and England’s is ~370 per km, countryside included!

As for Bush Capital, what does that even mean? Are we a city? OR are we the bush? What does being the bush actually mean? This silly term should be seen for what it is; a relic of national discourse at the start of the 20th century around the location of the future capital, rather than some modern aspiration or ethos for the city.

Michael Cuddihy10:29 am 10 Mar 23

We are a city that likes trees, open space, community facilites and infrastructure.

It is possible to do more and better medium density in the limited greenfields in Inner North and Inner South to complement the large amount of existing medium and high density development thoughout the city that has already occured over many decades.

I dont think painting yellow zones on RZ1 areas in maps (Future Investigation Areas), changing zoning rules and then standing back will retain what the existing community values, or deliver the affordable and diverse housing that lobbyists claim will magically appear. I think the past actions of developers is a pretty good guide to their future behaviour.

Michael Cuddihy6:40 pm 10 Mar 23

Some of the missing middle narrative in Australia is borrowed from the US lobby groups and activists. I kinda understand the context there.

But I am not sure of the relevance of “the racial connotations of ‘white flight’ to the American suburbs in the 20th century” to Canberra town planning discussions at the moment.

As I said, leave the racial connotations aside. Nonetheless, borrowing emotive and racially loaded terminology is not useful in a discussion about Canberra planning. Typically the type of NIMBY alarmism that stifles much progress and worthwhile development.

Michael Cuddihy1:53 pm 11 Mar 23

We can agree that borrowing emotive racially loaded language from US does not help anyone here.

Whilst I agree with most of the sentiment here, I think the emotive language in parts just isn’t helpful. Leaving aside the racial connotations which reflect the anxieties of ‘white flight’ to the suburbs in the USA, to fear an ‘urban jungle’ in our city is almost laughable.

Currently, our density is ~440 per km if you only include built up areas, or ~151 per km for the whole of the ACT. To put that into perspective, greater London has ~5000 per km while the whole of England has 371 per km, countryside included!

And as for the Bush Capital? What exactly does that mean? Are we the bush? Are we a city? A whole other argument I’d say, but ultimately this silly term should be seen for what it is: a relic of the early days of the national discussion around the capital’s location, rather than some aspiration or ethos.

I agree 100% with your sentiments Alex.
Canberran’s generally complain about our rates yet continue to sprout the idea that urban infill is not sustainable for our city.
I would challenge all the complainers to research the term Transit Oriented Development (TOD).

Stephen Saunders8:15 am 10 Mar 23

What drives all this is the push to 784,000 Canberrans by 2033. Barr and Albanese require it. Voters don’t want it.

Why politicise this? The city will grow and as such will need proper management of its finite land resources, regardless which side of politics you subscribe to.

Clever Interrobang9:39 am 10 Mar 23

Really? That much in just 10 years?

Looking at statistics from the past that amount of growth is basically impossible no matter how many levers the government were to pull.

I think he meant 2060…

Michael Cuddihy10:33 am 10 Mar 23

Pretty sure that was either a typo or misunderstanding. Either way, no doubt that population growth is coming, and that housing affordability is terrible, so we need to plan and do things differently.

So Stephen which parents are you intending to mandate that they cant have children or only one child?
And, how many children do you have and how many your parents ?

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