Monday, 21 October 2013

CRACE-CANBERRA'S NEWEST SLUM OR AN URBAN PARADISE?

CRACE-CANBERRA'S NEWEST  SLUM OR 
AN URBAN PARADISE?
by Dave Wheeler


    Before discussing the new Canberra suburb of Crace I will say that Canberra has changed a lot since I first arrived at the age of 8 turning 9 in 1961. Although I am conscious of the fact that sometimes when people look back in time they think of the positive things they experienced and forget the negatives and thus give themselves a false impression of what things were really like, I can’t help believing that Canberra now delivers most people a poorer quality of life than it did in my youth. I can back up my beliefs with some relevant facts.
   Let's take housing and housing affordability. Buying a house cannot be compared to the purchase of items such as jewelry or items which have a limited use, such as electronic gadgetry. Having one’s own territory is basic to our species, be it collectively or individually, and it is something most humans have always had and something which usually improves a person's quality of life. And buying a house with a reasonably sized backyard is something which was well within the reach of most Australians up until the mid 1990’s.
  In 1981 a basic 12 square house with a backyard of around 800 square metres in an outer suburb of Canberra was easily affordable for most people, and this also applied to most of the rest of urban Australia. During this time period a person earning around $23,000.00 pa (which is what a tradesman would have earned on a 38 or 40 hour week or what an unskilled person would have earned for the same hours with penalty rates) could buy a house of the latter description in an outer Canberra suburb for around $46,000.00. Low interest government loans were also available provided your income was not too high. 
   If you don’t believe me have a look at 1981 copies of the Canberra Times where jobs and houses are advertised. I know this to be the case because I bought such a house in 1981.
   A tradesman living in Canberra today would have to be on around $220,000.00 pa for such a house to be as affordable, because the same house I bought in Chisholm in 1981(a modest 3 bedroom 12 square house without an ensuite on an 800 square metre block and still located in an outer suburb) would sell for around $440,000.00.
   Houses were even more affordable in the 60’s, and people were often able to get 100% low interest government loans to make them even easier to pay off. It was also easier to rent a government-owned house and they could usually be purchased with a 100% low interest government loan after a couple of years of renting. 
   Govies also did not have the same stigma as they do today as they were not reserved for the very poor. I know several school teachers who were living in government houses and who later purchased them with cheap government loans during the sixties and seventies. There is no way a schoolteacher would be given a government house today.
   Pig Iron Bob Menzies, not long after the war when building materials became more easily available, was determined to make the purchase of a basic house affordable for all working Australians because he was of the belief that if people owned their own houses it would stop the spread of communism. He achieved his goal, and maybe housing affordability, plus virtually 100% employment due to our having high tariffs, did make people less politically active than they would have otherwise been simply because life was easy and most people were satisfied with their lot.
  (Menzies' protectionist economic philosophy was a long way to the left of the left of today's Labor Party or today's Greens. High tariffs also reduced greenhouse gases considerably as it meant items had less distance to travel between producer and consumer.)
   Today even houses with tiny backyards, such as are found in much of the Canberra suburb of Crace, are far less affordable than a house with an 800 square metre block was in the early 80’s. Some of the blocks in Crace are as small as 250 square metres and I have not seen many larger than 550 square metres. About 450 square metres seems to be the most common size, which is tiny relative to the size of most Canberra blocks up until relatively recently. 
   (The issue of our having smaller blocks is very controversial and I can recall not long ago seeing signs advertising Crace which had been defaced by having the letters "Dis" sprayed on them before the name "Crace."
   Having said that, presumably because it has so many tiny blocks, I was not surprised to read an article in the Canberra Times on the 17/10/13 which claims that Crace is second to Charnwood as the most affordable suburb in the ACT to buy a house, with the medium price being $392,308.00. Charnwood's cheapness can be explained by the fact it is an outer suburb and a previous administration made the enormous mistake of placing a large number of government houses in close proximity to each other, thereby increasing the crime rate. I am not sure how many govies there are in Crace or how the presence or absence of govies may affect the price of Crace blocks.) 
     We are now seeing in Canberra continuing "infill” in an attempt to Gungahlinise the place and thus ensure most residents will eventually be living cheek-by-jowl like they do in much of Gungahlin. 
   Normal sized blocks anywhere in Canberra are now expensive, and as a result pensioners who own houses in the inner suburbs like Braddon and Ainslie are being forced to move out because they cannot afford to pay the hefty land rates, which have risen at a far higher pace than the CPI.
  POSSIBLE PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH LIVING IN A HOUSE WITH A SMALL BACKYARD AND CLOSE PROXIMITY TO NEIGHBOURS  
  Our local Liberal, Labor and Greens politicians think living cheek-by-jowl is great, although probably only for people other than themselves. The main reason they like it is because when a given area of land is sold to a developer and the developer divides it into small blocks it will mean more revenue per hectare for the ACT government in the form of initial stamp duty, (even if stamp duty has been reduced), but more so in ongoing rates. As previously stated, land rates have increased at a far higher pace than the CPI and they are destined to continue on that path. It also means less costs in infrastructure. 
   One would think the Lib's by being in opposition would have something to say, but they have always been in the pocket of big business and they will also grab the revenue if they ever get into power, (which is unlikely because of the way they tried to reduce the pay and conditions of ACT public servants when they were in office).
   The Lib's, Labor and Greens also rarely speak out against the destruction of the buildings I grew up with, and as a result I have seen Civic turn from a quiet and relaxed place, where one could park easily for free, to an absolute sewer. The word “vibrant” is now used to describe the place, which I see as a sickening euphemism for the words hectic, noisy and overcrowded. I do my best to avoid Civic and I think that if Walter Burley Griffin came back to life and saw how far Canberra has deviated from his plan he would vomit. 
   In regard to our loss of heritage and the matter of wastage, I’ve seen some very historic buildings in the Civic area destroyed over the previous 4 decades and I have seen on certain blocks 3 or 4 buildings erected and destroyed during that period. Think of the energy that went into making those buildings and the CO2 that was produced with every rebuild! And it continues!
   I believe most members of the ACT Heritage Council are a bunch of gutless wonders because I see their stance as blatantly pro development considering what they have knocked back for heritage listing, the Turner PCYC being an example. I have been told by what I believe is a reputable source that some Council members are on the take, but I am unable to provide any evidence to back that claim. Yet even the ACT Heritage Council had their heritage listing of St Pat’s school in Braddon overturned. I suppose the historic Northbourne Oval will be the next to go. 
   The ACT government has recently announced that they may not open the Civic Pool again because of the extreme cost of fixing a leak. This is really insulting our intelligence. How gullible would you have to be to believe that? if they want to bring in the bulldozers and sell off the land why don't they have the guts to just say it? I wonder if certain ACT politicians are having their palms greased.
   Where this is leading is to my being contacted by a person who is also concerned by the relatively recent trend in Canberra of building houses on tiny blocks, particularly in new suburbs, and with "infill." He believes the ACT government is trying to con us into believing that living like sardines will improve our quality of life (social engineering) and that we have no choice other than to accept smaller blocks for environmental reasons. 
     He sent me a link to a letter to the editor in the Canberra Times which described the new Gungahlin suburb of Crace as looking like “a new slum," presumably because it has a large number of very small blocks within it. 
   The writer was commenting on an article by Canberra Times journalist Emma Macdonald entitled "Search for World's Happiest Suburb starts in Crace, Canberra," which appeared on the 10/9/13.
   Emma was reporting that a team of University of Canberra academics is attempting through the ''The Crace Study'' to find out if the communal design of Crace will have long-term benefits for resident's health and wellbeing. Apparently homes are built around communal and recreational areas and people regularly meet in places such as the communal vegetable garden. The article said in part “The world will be watching, with the World Health Organisation a keen observer of strategies that could be replicated in future suburbs around the globe.”
    The letter-writer seems to be sceptical of the study, as was the person who sent me the clippings. The writer seems to suspect that the developer or the ACT government or some other body which may benefit financially from the project directly or indirectly may be funding the survey. 
    The letter-writer seemed to be implying that if this is the case the survey may not be done with open-minded detachment by the academics (it may be a con-job) and it may be a case of "He who pays the piper calls the tune," meaning whoever pays for the survey will get their preferred result. 
     And as I have suggested, the developer may benefit by being allowed to sell tiny blocks, but more so the ACT government by way of initial stamp duty and ongoing rates, given that the rates are increasing so dramatically and given that it would earn more per hectare in rates with tiny blocks than it would with normal sized blocks. 
   The letter also stated in part "I call upon these academics to assure us the research is not being funded by a developer, the ACT government or any other body which gains financially by selling as many blocks as possible."
   At the date this story was first posted, the 22/10/13, I was not of the opinion that the academics tried to answer the question through the Canberra Times, although I was told by one of them at a later stage that they tried to answer the letter but the Canberra Times chose to not publish it. 
  
   Above is a photo of Crace's spacious housing, showing residents hugging each other and displaying a sense of community. How far would kids have to walk to kick a footy? I am sceptical about virtually anywhere in the Western world today being able to promote a real sense of community having experienced an early childhood without TV and then having seen how its introduction had such an adverse effect on Canberra's sense of community. This was brought home to me when I spent 3 months in Tonga and 4 months in the Cook Islands in 1975 prior to those places having TV or videos. People were far more likely to visit and talk to each other instead of vegetating in front of a box. Things have got progressively worse in the Western world in regard to the destruction of any sense of community with the introduction of multi-TV channels, mobile phones, the device I am using at the moment and other forms of electronic entertainment. These are the "bread and circuses" which stupefy people and allow them to continue to be shat on without them even realising it.
   In relation to the Crace study, as well as asking some pertinent questions I will present what I see as some possible "confounding variables" which could arise when the results of the survey are known. I called upon the academics at the University of Canberra who are conducting the survey to email me by way of the above contact button and explain why the points I have raised may not be an issue. I assured them when this post was first published that I would publish what they have to say in full as soon as it came to my attention. I did receive responses to the concerns I raised, although they were not all answered
The concerns I outlined were as follows:
1/Who is funding the survey? I contacted Professor Helen Berry, who I believe is heading the study or is the head of the university's "Healthy and Sustainable Communities Research Program," and therefore possibly overseeing the study, about this matter. She assured me the study is not funded or undertaken on behalf of the developer, even though the developer provided a very small degree of in-kind support such as advertising the study on its website and printing information leaflets about the study for residents. She also explained that they have a written agreement with the developer asserting and assuring the independence of their research and that it was prepared with the active support of the developer. 
   She did not however, tell me who is funding the project, so I wrote back to her assuming it was not being funded by any body which may benefit directly or indirectly from the outcome of the survey, but she did not write back to me assuring me I was correct. And even if the developer is not providing a direct injection of funds to the survey is the assistance he/she/it is providing saving the university a lot of money?
    Why I asked this was because I received from a mate an invitation he received to participate in the study. I am presuming it was sent by the developer and it offers those eligible to participate in the survey a chance to enter a draw for prizes if they participate. 
    What I was asking was that if we accept that the developer is not funding the study directly, if the developer was not promoting the study how would the University of Canberra have got anyone to participate? Would it have meant the academics had to knock on doors to get people to participate or pay others to knock on doors? Surely the developer's assistance would have saved them a lot of time and therefore a lot of money in the form of wages in this respect? 
 
    In summarising the point I was making, it may well be that the Uni of Canberra's survey is not being funded by vested interests, but if this is the case we need to be assured this is the case, because any study which is being funded directly or indirectly by a body which may benefit from a preferred result is not worth two bob. I say this because many people, including me, believe in the adage, "He who pays the piper calls the tune." 
  (I have since discovered Professor Berry was overseas when I first wrote to her, hence the delay in a response, and after having made contact with the UC their response to the matter of funding is shown at the base of this post).
2/ I would have thought the survey would have been confined to those who have lived in Crace for more than a year in order for such folk to have been able to give a true opinion on the matter, but I am led to believe this is not the case and that even people just intending to purchase in Crace are allowed to participate. If I am correct how could such people know what it was like to live in Crace if they have never lived there?
  (Professor Berry bought in Crace, which should disqualify her from carrying out the study considering her property may rise in value if the study suggests the residents have an increased quality of life. I strongly suspect that would be her preferred result, and if so there would be a real conflict of interest).
3/ Those who live in Crace would be mainly those who have moved there by choice, as opposed to someone like me who would not choose to live in Crace. Therefore, it would be more than likely they will not speak as negatively about the place as someone like me who would not go there by choice. If this is the case the usefulness of the survey may be limited to the extent that it would not necessarily mean a broad cross section of Australia's population would enjoy living in a suburb designed like Crace even if the results indicated that Crace residents enjoyed living there.
4/ If people have put their life savings towards a house in Crace are they going to admit to themselves let alone those conducting the survey that their neighbourhood does not deliver them a high quality of life?
5/ Is the survey going to find the mean level of contentment of the varying categories of people who live in Crace, ie single people, married people, married people with and without children, people with and without pets, migrants from a variety of countries, retirees, all of the former who are either renters or house owners, etc, or is it going to gauge the level of contentment for each of a myriad of groups?
  I say this because one person's hell can be another's paradise, and I can see for instance that someone raised in high-density London, Shanghai, Hong Kong or Calcutta would be more likely to find living cheek-by-jowl in Crace acceptable, whereas someone raised in Australia in a house with a normal sized backyard may be far less likely.
6/ Is the same survey being conducted in older suburbs in Canberra with normal sized backyards where residents are able to keep dogs, throw parties, have their kids run around while they are being watched, plant fruit trees, etc, to compare the quality of life experienced between the suburbs? If not why not?
7/ If I had just bought in Crace I would be aware that if the survey revealed that the residents of Crace were happier than anywhere else in Australia it may improve dramatically the value of my property. For that reason I would be tempted to tell the survey I loved the suburb even if it made me feel as miserable as a bandicoot. Has this question been addressed?
8/ Given that so many Australians own dogs or would like to own a dog if they could, living in one of the tiny blocks found in Crace would ensure a moral person did not purchase a dog because in doing so it would be cruel to the dog and a pain for neighbours who would be in close proximity to its faeces and possibly its barking. This is not so much of a problem in suburbs which contain blocks of a normal size. With tiny blocks a dog owner would have to be waiting with a spade for his dog to defecate so he could pick up the faeces immediately after it was laid to ensure its smell was not inhaled by a neighbour.
   I emailed Professor Helen Berry about this issue and asked her if they had consulted the RSPCA as well as the health authorities in regard to the keeping of dogs in Crace. She told me the survey was not focusing on pet ownership and they had not been in discussions with the RSPCA but she did not say why. This issue needs to be addressed because pet ownership is part of the Australian way of life, and when dogs are kept in small blocks the issues of hygiene and animal welfare are real.
9/ Many Australians do not like to live near government housing. It is not my intention to discuss whether this is because of blatant unwarranted prejudice and snobbery or whether it is because many Australians rightly or wrongly believe that government housing tenants are more likely to have social problems and are as such more likely to be unpleasant to live near.
    Australia's prejudices on this matter seems to be proven by the fact that privately-owned property adjoining or near government housing is worth considerably less than identical privately-owned property with little or no nearby government housing. For this reason it would seem that people living near government housing would be more likely to be dissatisfied with where they live than people who are not, and as such may be more likely to record a lower level of wellbeing. 
   In relation to Crace, I do not know what percentage of the houses are government-owned or how the government housing may be distributed. For all I know Crace may have no government housing at all. 
    Therefore, if the Crace survey is going to compare the level of wellbeing of Crace residents with the level of wellbeing of residents from other Canberra suburbs, it will need to establish how much government housing each suburb has on a percentage basis and how it is distributed. After doing so the survey would need to explain how the suburb's differences in government housing percentages and distribution and their differences in design were taken into account when comparing the levels of wellbeing of residents from each suburb. 
    In regard to the government housing tenants themselves, if they have a lower sense of wellbeing than other Australians because of them being on the lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder, it presents yet another reason for the survey having to take into account the percentage of government housing tenants in Crace compared to the percentage of government housing tenants in other Canberra suburbs. 
  I do not know if the Crace survey is addressing this issue or how it could be done.
IS THERE A CHOICE? 
  Okay, let's forget about the question of whether the Crace project has any worth or whether it is a con job and instead ask ourselves if we have a choice other than to live on small blocks. It is claimed that living cheek-by-jowl encourages energy efficiency and will help us save the planet from the effects of CO2, but does it?
  To answer that I will first say that there is good argument to suggest that the old suburban ideal of a quarter acre can already be very energy efficient if we can disconnect from the power grid, water and sewerage services and grow our own veggies, which some people have already done. 
   We already have the technology to do so, and if batteries which do not wear out are ever invented there will be a rush to disconnect. Those who live cheek-by-jowl in Crace may not have the capacity to fully benefit from disconnecting from all services should this technology become available. 
   
   The idea of local communal reservoirs which collect rain water could also be a solution as could be the case for local power production such as by way of wind turbines or solar technology. 
     Since writing this post I have been told there was an article in the Canberra Times which maintained that the temperature in the older leafier suburbs of Canberra is around 7 degrees lower than the newer sardine-like suburbs during heat waves due to there being more vegetation around the older houses. If so imagine the amount of power the residents of Crace will use on their air conditioning compared to those who live in the older suburbs during the summer months.
   The other alternative of course is for us to not increase Australia's population, because in doing so Canberra will grow far more slowly or not at all, and tiny blocks will not be necessary. 
  This however, would involve economists and federal politicians discarding their growth mantra in regard to the economy and population. (The Stable Population Party is the only political party which has done so, although no representative holds office). It would involve them accepting that nothing in the universe can grow forever, but unfortunately most politicians (other than the lone Labor voice of Kelvin Thomson) are too egotistical, bent or stupid to accept such a reality.
    To explain how we could jump off the growth train and alter our economic system to ensure we had full employment and were ecologically sustainable in the process would require a book, although Ernst Schumacher goes part of the way in explaining how it can be done in his literature.  
   Of course Canberra could go it alone and and send a strong message to our federal politicians by simply not releasing anymore land, thus leaving it to the Queanbeyan Council to either take up the local overflow from our ridiculously high level of immigration or to go the same way as Canberra. 
   Our local Labor, Liberal and Green politicians, who are puppets to big business, would not be in it, although there is a possibility the Greens could eventually be pressured into taking such a stance, because in the eyes of true conservationists their "big Australia" stance makes them look like absolute hypocrites who care little or nothing about future generations of Australians. I know several ex Green members who have resigned because of the Green's gutlessness on this issue and many current members who are trying to change things from within.

UPDATE-26/10/13 
   I emailed our pseudo Green, Shane Rattenbury, who amongst other things is our minister for housing, on the 26/10/13. I asked his office if the ACT government is partly or wholly funding the Crace study. I was told the Crace study was not being funded by the ACT government either partly or wholly.


FURTHER UPDATE-5/11/13-
  I had further communication with a person from the University of Canberra regarding the Crace Study who I will not name as I am paraphrasing what I have been told and I may get some information wrong. 
    I will now paraphrase what was communicated to me to the best of my ability.
    I was informed by a person involved in the Crace study that the University of Canberra is preparing a "summary explainer" regarding sources of research funding and how they approach their possible influence on their practice. I was told the explainer will be made available on their website when it is ready and that their website is 
     In regard to general points I made in this post I was told that the UC takes the issues I have raised seriously as does the person I communicated with, and that the UC has numerous sources of advice and regulation to assist researchers, as well as being subject to national regulations around research and ethics and financial accounting, and that they are all publicly available. In addition to this I was told that general information about their research centre and projects can be found at the previously shown link to their website.  
    I was told that in addition to working with colleagues at the UC and other universities sometimes non-academic partners are involved when it is possible and appropriate. I was told this may include representatives of government, industry, the non-profit sector and other representative groups. 
   The view expressed to me was that research is better designed, conducted, interpreted and shared if undertaken with suitable partners. 
   In regard to the continual job the researchers have of sourcing funding for research when it is required, I was led to believe that until a fairy godmother appears all they can do is seek funding from a wide variety of sources, including research funding bodies, and that, as previously stated, the conduct of such relationships is governed by numerous regulations and guidelines and that the partners are usually governed by similar regulations of their own. 
    I was told the personal practice of the person in charge of the Crace study is to make the source of funding procedure overt and that that person conducts bonafide research and applies scientific principles at all times in order to design and conduct the research. I was also told the interpretation and publication of research findings is not negotiable and made clear.
    In relation to the Crace Study, I was told that it has received no direct financial support at all from any source.

FURTHER UPDATE 4/10/16. If the questions I have raised were answered on the previously shown link to the Crace study website, as I was told they would be, I could not find where they were answered. Actually it took me to a Canberra Uni log in. I presume the site no longer exists. If I am wrong and the study and site still exist I am happy to publish the details of any update should someone in the know care to contact me. I strongly doubt I will be contacted.

FURTHER UPDATE 31/3/17
   On the ABC TV program on the 31/3/17, “ The Link”, Professor Helen Berry was interviewed about the Crace Study by Stan Grant. 
  I think Stan did an appalling job as a journo in regard to the questions he asked. He had no hesitation in getting stuck into Dick Smith last week regarding Dick wanting to stabilise our population, why did he not at least play the Devil’s advocate with Professor Berry? 
   As Professor Berry owns property in Crace why did he not ask her why she did not disqualify herself from the study and instead study somewhere else, given that her property value is likely to rise if the research indicates the people in Crace are happier than elsewhere?  Surely there is a conflict of interest there? If someone studied the health benefits of avocados and he had a large avocado farm is he likely to be objective? Studies like that are not worth two bob.
   Why did Grant not question the idea of Crace being designed to improve people’s wellbeing, as is the claim? It seems obvious to me Crace was designed to get as many blocks as possible into a given area of land to maximise the developer’s profit and to increase government revenue through stamp duty. 
  I also noticed professor Berry has an English accent. Most English live in built-up high density areas. If this was how Professor Berry lived when she was in England she may enjoy living like a sardine and it may be why she chose to live in Crace, but that does not mean Australians who were raised on their quarter acre also block feel that way.
   I look forward to reading the results of the Crace study and seeing if any of the points I have raised have been addressed.

 
Above are cheek by jowl dog boxes that are being made in Molonglo (September 2016), probably from a lot of prefab Chinese material. What an existence! Who wants to live like a battery hen?
Below is a photo of Hong Kong. The lowlife that governs the ACT (Labor, Canberra Liberals and Greens) would love to see us live like they do in Hong Kong. It would be really "vibrant."




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