Who the Hell Approved That?

“I used to like the city better, thirty forty years ago’ South Brisbane circa 1973, before the Cultural Centre, Expo 88 and proliferating apartments.

The Cheeseparer family from Victoria, fed up with the overpopulated rat race, spent the school holidays cruising the south east Queensland coast, looking for a more ambient place to live than the far-flung commuter suburbs of greater Melbourne.

Margolia and Basil Jnr are sick of Melbourne’s unpredictable weather, the traffic, the pollution, the high cost of living and the four-hour daily commutes (including dropping the kids off at school and picking them up from daycare). They also want to be closer to the Cheeseparer oldies, Basil and Sybil (previously cited in this forum), who have retired to a 77th floor apartment on the Gold Coast (which has a spacious guest room with four bunks and a sofa bed in the lounge).

So they set off on a road trip, boring the four Cheeseparer kids witless with their obsessive pursuit of a green change.

Somewhere between the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane, Dylan, 11, and a bit of a smartarse, looked out the window at a new estate. He provided the family with a pithy description: “a sea of roofs with nary a tree to be seen, tucked not so discreetly behind an acoustic fence running along the motorway”.

“Who the hell approved that?” he added.

“You can’t say hell – it’s a bad word,” said April, 6.

Margolia said: “Lots of religious people believe there is a place called Hell, so it is a place name, not a curse.

“But I was using it as a curse,” said Dylan.

“I know, let’s play a game”, Dylan continued. “First one to say something clever and cynical about any new housing estates we see gets a point. Winner gets more Face Time”.

“This is dumb,” came the voice of Max Cheeseparer, 15, banished to the Prado’s luggage compartment with Edie the Golden Retriever for saying negative things like “this is dumb”.

“Good tsunami will see that lot out,” muttered Eric, 13, not only bored but observant, as the Cheeseparer’s Prado cruised past a new coastal estate separated from the highway by a levy.

Paper bag”, Dylan retorted.

“Yep, looks like someone drained a Teatree swamp,” said Basil Jnr.

“Not fair,” said April. “Adults cannot play.”

Well actually, adults should be playing this game when house hunting in the sprawling conurbation between Noosa and Coolangatta which makes up the greater metropolis of Bris Vegas. In the proliferating new estates, so often set next to freeways, generic housing design prevails, each home dominated by a two car garage and sited on allotments as small as 400sqm , depending which local government is setting the rules. The theory behind smaller lots is that it makes housing more affordable.

Who the Hell Approved That allocates points for the inventiveness of commentary, e.g. “Nice green buffer, mate” when clearly the trees have gone to Japan to make paper. A bonus point is awarded to the first to invoke The Castle’s famous quote: “Tell them they’re dreaming”. The latter usually applies upon seeing billboards announcing “house and land packages from $659,000”.

Be assured this is a game you can play anywhere in Australia and not just in the big cities of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. One of the things you notice when following the grey nomad trail is just how few country towns have been left untouched by the cookie cutter form of new housing development built on the outskirts  Many of these houses are sold off the plan with rental guarantees; bought by out-of-town investors. In the mania of the moment, no-one looks ahead 24 months and wonders “now what?”

There is a vast difference in vision between those steeped in the concept of sustainability and protecting the environment and the State government’s mantra ‘Jobs and Growth’.

The 2017 SEQ Plan forecasts an additional two million people by 2025 (bringing the region’s population to 5.5 million). Queensland’s target annual population growth (fertility+interstate migration), hoped for 3% per annum.

The State still boasts an average 2.2% over 10 years, although in recent years the population growth numbers have fallen below 2%. Perhaps the interstate migrants, in their desire to flee the rate race, have realised it is just as ratty across the border.

Residential real estate analyst Michael Matusik commented on figures released by the government which estimate that the Gold Coast, Ipswich and Logan are expected to accommodate 73% of the new housing development across south east Queensland.  The Sunshine Coast and Brisbane City Council areas are forecast to hold an additional 10% each. The three municipalities are expected to generate an additional 298,000 dwellings.

Matusik noted that 82% of the new housing on the Gold Coast and 57% in Ipswich will be higher density (apartments), which is ‘‘much higher than current market demand’’.

The growth mantra has spoiled the character and amenity of countless suburbs in Brisbane. I lived there for 17 years, leaving for a smaller town in 2005 with no desire to return. I certainly have no capacity to buy there again, with a median price of $680,000.

The rot started with local governments deciding to relax planning rules so people with a house on a quarter acre allotment (once common), could sub-divide the block and put a second house on it (with an easement for access). This approach has degenerated into what is generically called ‘infill’, which in some inner city Brisbane suburbs mean allotments as small as 300sqm. These tiny house allotments are sought after, given that they represent a foothold in an otherwise unaffordable location (anywhere you have ‘city glimpses’).

In the 2017 report, Shaping SEQ, Deputy Premier Jackie Trad enshrines the vision that requires a population growth target.

“It is not difficult to see why the population of South East Queensland is expected to grow by almost 2 million people over the next 25 years. We have an enviable lifestyle, great schools and universities, and a strong, diverse economy expected to create almost one million jobs over the next 25 years. Our future is bright”.

This is not the only reason we moved to a country town two hours’ drive from Brisbane, but it was one of the motivators.

A reader who had been following our downsizing exercise with great interest wrote to relate her own experience in growth-mad Brisbane. Her aim was to sell the big family home in an outlying suburb and move closer to the city. But now she is spooked by falling sales volumes.

My friend also observes that prices are ‘predatory’ for inner Brisbane, with buyers made to feel ashamed if they are not up for the $750k starting point. So this empty nester, realising how little housing is designed for the over-50s downsizer market, has withdrawn from what she suspects is a static market, waiting for something to happen.

Meanwhile, the tree-changers are continuing the elusive search for a small town that has the infrastructure, ambience, affordability and the potential to commute to jobs in the city as needed. In theory, the brave new world of tele-commuting should make this lifestyle viable for people whose work revolves around consulting, writing, giving people advice and preparing documents.

A housing policy designed to facilitate and enhance this increasing desire to escape the rat race could in turn re-populate and rejuvenate small towns which might otherwise die. How about it, Anna?

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