Australias's airport privatisations have put profit before public safety and good planning

Essendon Airport, Melbourne. Image: Getty.

February's plane crash at Essendon Airport, in Melbourne, shows the folly of allowing runways to co-exist with commercial development. Tullamarine Airport opened in 1970 partly because of the risk to housing from aircraft at Essendon. Why, then, have authorities allowed extensive new development within Essendon Airport’s boundaries between housing and runways? The Conversation

Between 1997 and 2003, Australia's federal government provided 99-year airport leases to private consortia, raising A$8.5 billion. This process illustrates how privatisation can lead to unaccountable incremental actions and impacts that public authorities didn’t anticipate.

Since then, in effect, lessees have enjoyed the privileged position in Australian planning law of being able to decide their own futures. The exclusion of such large areas as airports from broader metropolitan planning threatens orderly planning on a grand scale.

Planning academics Robert Freestone and Douglas Baker have argued:

The prospect of market opportunities from property development and commercial initiatives was a key factor in the high prices secured for airport leases.

This process was compromised if higher prices than those justified by leases were reciprocated by commercial approvals. Any future development assessment would be predetermined towards approval. This would prevent fair consideration of objections, resulting in a lack of proper scrutiny in the public interest.

Airport business is booming

Commercial development is now integrated with traditional airport operations across Australia. But aside from possible reciprocal financial expectations, privatisation has provided extraordinary bargains to lessees through large capital and operational returns.

Linfox Group and Beck Corporation, for example, made a reported payment in 2001 of $22mn for a lease on 305 hectares of prime inner-urban land at Essendon Airport. They have turned this into a projected $1bn enterprise over the next decade. One-quarter of the airport is leased to commercial tenants.

Essendon is now the largest corporate jet base in Australia. Image: Alec Wilson/flickr/creative commons.

Business zones adjoin or wrap around runways. The plane crashed into a large retail DFO complex. An eight-storey 150-bed hotel, conference centre, a five-storey office block, private hospital, supermarket, auto centre and much else have also been built or are planned. Projected employment in the precinct is 18,000.

Air traffic has expanded significantly too. Essendon is home to executive air, charter, freight, media and regional air services, air ambulance, police and private aircraft. Essendon is Australia’s largest corporate jet base.

All this activity reinforces the public danger from the incompatibility of air and commercial land uses under privatised governance arrangements.


Operators bypass state planning rules

Under the Airports Act, Essendon Airports Pty Ltd must prepare a management plan outlining airport development for 20 years. The privatised management of airports inherited the Commonwealth’s constitutional overriding of state and territory land-use planning provisions. Master plans must only address “consistency” with state and local planning schemes.

However, airport lessees are not required to act on submissions. Essendon Airport Pty Ltd gave “due regard to all written comments”, then forwarded submissions and its master plan to the federal government. The Commonwealth approved the plan in 2014 regardless of broader urban planning considerations.

Victorian government planning policy has attempted to concentrate commercial development in mixed-use centres well served by public transport. Essendon Airport is a classic road-based, out-of-centre location. It was not identified as an activity centre in Melbourne metropolitan planning. But, for 30 years, no Victorian government has shown an appetite for curbing out-of-centre development.

The 2014 metropolitan plan, Plan Melbourne, proposed to “investigate opportunities for... increased development and employment” at Essendon. Airport management submitted a case to the revised metropolitan strategy process for recognition as an activity centre.

State and local authorities originally expressed concern at the proposal to construct the DFO at Essendon Airport. However, more recently, local and state attitudes have changed.

In 2014, the Liberal planning minister, Matthew Guy, announced a new airport employment precinct and a partnership between the developers, Metropolitan Planning Authority and state and local governments. The airport was identified as both a key transport gateway and important commercial area.

Labor Niddrie MP Ben Carroll also welcomed the expansion of commercial activities. Moonee Valley Council expressed concerns but did not oppose the major proposed land uses. Councillors expressed the view that Essendon Fields is “an important economic hub” and a “vibrant business precinct”.

The then federal infrastructure minister, Warren Truss, said in 2015 that:

Airports are now business destinations in their own right and provide a powerful economic engine for their home region and local communities.

In similar language, Essendon Airport chief executive Chris Cowan said that:

Essendon Airport [provides] a unique opportunity to reinforce its activity centre function by realising non-aviation development potential.

Everybody is now speaking from the same script. State and local policy has increasingly become aligned with the Commonwealth helping to further the private interests of airport operators at increasing risk to the public.

Instead, airport governance should redefine Commonwealth responsibilities to its citizens and be integrated with broader metropolitan planning. This ultimately may mean closing down airport operations at Essendon.

Michael Buxton is professor of environment & planning at RMIT University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).