Green Wedges

I'm in the process of writing a quite long post which will hopefully be up later this week, but in the meantime I'll complain about something I heard on the radio this morning. I wasn't taking notes and my memory is not exact, but I'm fairly confident that the speaker was Mary West from the Green Wedges Coalition.

To briefly recap, the "green wedges" are the areas locked down by Rupert Hamer in the plan formulated for the growth of Melbourne during his time as Premier. They are supposed to unavailable for developers to access, so as to preserve rural and environmental features. Ms West talked a lot about the concreting over of farmland and forest. She, and her Coalition, are opposed to this and are objecting to the current state government's decision to make some of those original green wedge areas available for development.

It was a pretty irritating interview. The starting point of Ms West's approach was to talk in a way that made the issue seem like it was simply a matter of pitting developers against the common people. Appealing though the Big Corporation narrative is (and it may be true in a lot of places), the fact is that developers don't necessarily have an interest in expanding the amount of land available for development. Green wedges create scarcity of land, which makes developments rarer and more expensive. Obviously it can also be in the interests of property developers to have more land available for them to work on, but those two factors will play against eachother, so the tale that this is just being done at the behest of property development companies doesn't really fit.

The other side of the 'development vs. people' equation doesn't work either: people obviously do have an interest in new houses being built! Even if we ignore the basic economics that says these developments happen because there is a market for them, it is patently clear that more and more people want places to live. So in what sense are the people losing out here? There are some people losing in some sense - diminished access to forests and so forth is a loss of a public good. But there are also people who want somewhere to live who are gaining. This also goes to the quoted statistics that some vast majority of surveyed people are in favour of retaining the green wedges: of course, when asked in a survey whether they would prefer forests or apartments, people will say forests. If they actually needed somewhere to live, their view might be different, but the survey is unlikely to be constructed to reflect that.

The alternative proposals were these: more people should live in regional centres, and population should be kept at a "sustainable level".  The first idea is a pretty blatant and horrible case of NIMBYism: people who work and have all their friends and family in Melbourne shouldn't have to move to Bendigo for the sake of Ms West's ability to enjoy forests. She can go out towards regional centres if she wants to enjoy those things, and that will be a significantly less life-changing act for her than forcing people to live somewhere else. The second is not much more than clever question-begging: look at a chart of population densities, or population sizes, and you will not find anything to indicate that Melbourne's population is not sustainable, or is becoming unsustainable. It only might be if we assume that growth should be severely restricted by a central plan! But even if the population wasn't growing, housing in Melbourne (in Australia, in fact) is still expensive, so new development would still be on the agenda.

I don't know enough about urban planning or the details here to come down firmly for or against the removal of some green wedge status. The arguments I heard this morning, though, were woeful. Some people win when wedges are given over to development, and they are not all - or even mostly - developers. By all means have a Green Wedges Coalition, but at least argue the point that really matters: is the gain, to the people who now have a new home, less significant than the loss? Until you acknowledge that there is a real and important gain, you can't answer that question and you can't make anything like a convincing case.

UPDATE: This is a better article, largely because it accepts that population growth and city growth are unavoidable and necessary and talks about the best way to manage them, instead of aimlessly railing against them in the way the Green Wedges Coalition was doing yesterday.