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.

 
 
 
 

A new wave of remote workers could bring lasting change to pricey rental markets

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus. (Valery Hache/AFP via Getty Images)

When the coronavirus spread around the world this spring, government-issued stay-at-home orders essentially forced a global social experiment on remote work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who are able to work from home generally like doing so. A recent survey from iOmetrics and Global Workplace Analytics on the work-from-home experience found that 68% of the 2,865 responses said they were “very successful working from home”, 76% want to continue working from home at least one day a week, and 16% don’t want to return to the office at all.

It’s not just employees who’ve gained this appreciation for remote work – several companies are acknowledging benefits from it as well. On 11 June, the workplace chat company Slack joined the growing number of companies that will allow employees to work from home even after the pandemic. “Most employees will have the option to work remotely on a permanent basis if they choose,” Slack said in a public statement, “and we will begin to increasingly hire employees who are permanently remote.”

This type of declaration has been echoing through workspaces since Twitter made its announcement on 12 May, particularly in the tech sector. Since then, companies including Coinbase, Square, Shopify, and Upwork have taken the same steps.


Remote work is much more accessible to white and higher-wage workers in tech, finance, and business services sectors, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the concentration of these jobs in some major cities has contributed to ballooning housing costs in those markets. Much of the workforce that can work remotely is also more able to afford moving than those on lower incomes working in the hospitality or retail sectors. If they choose not to report back to HQ in San Francisco or New York City, for example, that could potentially have an effect on the white-hot rental and real estate markets in those and other cities.

Data from Zumper, an online apartment rental platform, suggests that some of the priciest rental markets in the US have already started to soften. In June, rent prices for San Francisco’s one- and two-bedroom apartments dropped more than 9% compared to one year before, according to the company’s monthly rent report. The figures were similar in nearby Silicon Valley hotspots of San Jose, Mountain View, Palo Alto.

Six of the 10 highest-rent cities in the US posted year-over-year declines, including New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle. At the same time, rents increased in some cheaper cities that aren’t far from expensive ones: “In our top markets, while Boston and San Francisco rents were on the decline, Providence and Sacramento prices were both up around 5% last month,” Zumper reports.

In San Francisco, some property owners have begun offering a month or more of free rent to attract new tenants, KQED reports, and an April survey from the San Francisco Apartment Association showed 16% of rental housing providers had residents break a lease or unexpectedly give a 30-day notice to vacate.

It’s still too early to say how much of this movement can be attributed to remote work, layoffs or pay cuts, but some who see this time as an opportunity to move are taking it.

Jay Streets, who owns a two-unit house in San Francisco, says he recently had tenants give notice and move to Kentucky this spring.

“He worked for Google, she worked for another tech company,” Streets says. “When Covid happened, they were on vacation in Palm Springs and they didn’t come back.”

The couple kept the lease on their $4,500 two-bedroom apartment until Google announced its employees would be working from home for the rest of the year, at which point they officially moved out. “They couldn’t justify paying rent on an apartment they didn’t need,” Streets says.

When he re-listed the apartment in May for the same price, the requests poured in. “Overwhelmingly, everyone that came to look at it were all in the situation where they were now working from home,” he says. “They were all in one-bedrooms and they all wanted an extra bedroom because they were all working from home.”

In early June, Yessika Patapoff and her husband moved from San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighbourhood to Tiburon, a charming town north of the city. Patapoff is an attorney who’s been unemployed since before Covid-19 hit, and her husband is working from home. She says her husband’s employer has been flexible about working from home, but it is not currently a permanent situation. While they’re paying a similar price for housing, they now have more space, and no plans to move back.

“My husband and I were already growing tired of the city before Covid,” Patapoff says.

Similar stories emerged in the UK, where real estate markets almost completely stopped for 50 days during lockdown, causing a rush of demand when it reopened. “Enquiry activity has been extraordinary,” Damian Gray, head of Knight Frank’s Oxford office told World Property Journal. “I've never been contacted by so many people that want to live outside London."

Several estate agencies in London have reported a rush for properties since the market opened back up, particularly for more spacious properties with outdoor space. However, Mansion Global noted this is likely due to pent up demand from 50 days of almost complete real estate shutdown, so it’s hard to tell whether that trend will continue.

There’s a wide world of speculation about the long-lasting changes to real estate caused by the coronavirus, but many industry experts say there will indeed be change.

In May, The New York Times reported that three of New York City’s largest commercial tenants — Barclays, JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley — have hinted that many of their employees likely won’t be returning to the office at the level they were pre-Covid.

Until workers are able to safely return to offices, it’s impossible to tell exactly how much office space will stay vacant post-pandemic. On one hand, businesses could require more space to account for physical distancing; on the other hand, they could embrace remote working permanently, or find some middle ground that brings fewer people into the office on a daily basis.

“It’s tough to say anything to the office market because most people are not back working in their office yet,” says Robert Knakal, chairman of JLL Capital Markets. “There will be changes in the office market and there will likely be changes in the residential market as well in terms of how buildings are maintained, constructed, [and] designed.”

Those who do return to the office may find a reversal of recent design trends that favoured open, airy layouts with desks clustered tightly together. “The space per employee likely to go up would counterbalance the folks who are no longer coming into the office,” Knakal says.

There has been some discussion of using newly vacant office space for residential needs, and while that’s appealing to housing advocates in cities that sorely need more housing, Bill Rudin, CEO of Rudin Management Company, recently told Spectrum News that the conversion process may be too difficult to be practical.

"I don’t know the amount of buildings out there that could be adapted," he said. "It’s very complicated and expensive.

While there’s been tumult in San Francisco’s rental scene, housing developers appear to still be moving forward with their plans, says Dan Sider, director of executive programs at the SF Planning Department.

“Despite the doom and gloom that we all read about daily, our office continues to see interest from the development community – particularly larger, more established developers – in both moving ahead with existing applications and in submitting new applications for large projects,” he says.

How demand for those projects might change and what it might do to improve affordable housing is still unknown, though “demand will recover,” Sider predicts.

Johanna Flashman is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.