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Council rates system destroys urban rainforest and community in Brisbane

The Australian land tax system creates hot treeless slums. In Queensland, for instance, the Brisbane City Council charges landowners according to the assessed market value of their land. If the Council land-zoning changes to allow medium or high density housing on land previously zoned only for detached homes, then the commercial value of that land goes up as each block will then be able to hold several dwellings instead of one. Although living conditions then become cramped and the quality of life for residents of higher density declines in comparison with that of residents of detached single dwellings, the total financial value of the medium density dwellings inevitably exceeds that of a single residence on the same land.

Rich aspire now to what working class had 40 years ago

The houses and gardens in this gentrified, expensive area of Brisbane, very close to the CBD, used to belong to working class families, who grew vegetables in their back yards and whose children played in the rainforest in the valley between the houses. Those were the 'bad' old days. Nowadays, of course, ordinary people cannot hope to purchase in this area, and many will never own a home, let alone a home with a garden and a rainforest out back, 20 minutes walk from the Brisbane GPO.

Greed or necessity

But apparently even the current residents of this last green valley in inner Brisbane are going to lose the rainforest out back too, because the opportunity to make a quid by developing every square inch causes neighbours to cave in to greed, or necessity, one by one. As the land values go up, so do rates. And down come the trees...

Holding out

One man has held out now since the late sixties to the three blocks of land adjacent to a fourth with the house where he raised his children, simply because, as an architect, he can see that the forest is of more intrinsic value than the cash-value of the land. He can no longer afford to pay the rates, however, and so is faced with the option of going into debt to build on the property or going into debt to keep the property for nature.

Land-taxes and overpopulation doom nature and raise costs

Has government-engineered population growth in Brisbane made every square inch of this area too expensive to leave unpaved or is there some way out?

In June 2010, it was "reported" on that Brisbane home owners were to be slugged with a 5.04% increase in their council rates (based upon the the fact that the increase would drive up the rates on average by $80 (presumably per year)).

This hike shows how ordinary Brisbane home-owners and mortgagees are being made to pay the price of the mismanagement of our economy by governments at the Federal state and local, particularly due the encouragement of population growth by those governments.

Land-tax system creates slums

The Brisbane City Council charges landowners according to the assessed market value of their land. If the Council land-zoning changes to allow medium or high density housing on land previously zoned only for detached homes, then the commercial value of that land goes up as each block will then be able to hold several dwellings instead of one. Although living conditions then become cramped and the quality of life for residents of higher density declines in comparison with that of residents of detached single dwellings, the total financial value of the medium density dwellings inevitably exceeds that of a single residence on the same land.

People don't like what is happening

In spite of the profits that can be made, many residents choose to forego such profits and continue to live in single detached dwellings. They may do so in order to preserve the suburban lifestyle to which they have become accustomed and to avoid the disruption to their own lives entailed in selling their own residence and moving further away from the centre of the city, work and amenities in order to find a house similar to the one they have sold.

What can be lost

The google-earth map (at least five years old, judging by the current landscape features not shown) of the suburb near the centre of Brisbane (alluded to at the beginning of this article) shows what else can be lost by the rezoning of inner city suburbs. In this photo is a precious patch of suburban rainforest, a thing of utmost rarity in Brisbane, which is currently being gnawed away by subdivision. As mentioned in the introduction, in the past, much of the rainforest at the back of these homes was an effective commons in which local children played. The rainforest also continues to perform a number of valuable ecological services, and to provide shelter and food for wildlife. Without this patch of forest, and other fragments, Brisbane would be a far less pleasant place to live.

Removal of trees causes flooding

Rain, which falls on suburban rainforest, is retained in the soils, bushes and trees. Rain which which falls on rooftops, driveways, concrete footpaths, roadways and mowed lawns, is quickly driven by gravity into lower parts of the city. Towns in which vegetated land has been replaced with housing - particularly high-density housing - are more prone to flooding. A very striking example is the town of Toowoomba, 140 km to the west of Brisbane. over decades, vegetated land on the higher ground surrounding Toowoomba's centre has been cleared and covered with housing. Now all but the lightest of showers cause the centre of Toowoomba to become flooded.

Removal of trees causes climate warming

Those sought-after timber Brisbaner houses with their ornate wooden trimmings and lattice-work verandahs now stand where vast forests once stood. People often don't realise that the wood for those houses came from the forests they replaced. As more and more of Brisbane has been changed from living green into a concrete jungle, it's local climate has become hotter and less pleasant. The vegetation in the photo almost certainly keeps the locals cooler and Brisbane as a whole more healthy. Forested suburban settings are immensely desirable and raise the value of the housing nearby as well as benefiting the wider environment.

Environmentally responsible penalised

Yet landowners who try to preserve vegetation, including rainforest, on their land have been penalised, rather than being rewarded for the service their decision provide to Brisbane. The City Council forces them to pay rates on assessed land values that those environmentally sensitive landholders could only possibly gain from if they were to choose to destroy the vegetation on their land with subdivision and to profit

from medium density housing construction.

The google-earth map photo is about five years old. A considerable amount of urban rainforest has been lost in that time as a result of medium density housing construction. Vegetation known to have been lost has been indicated by red lines on the map. In addition, the rainforest has been encroached upon by extensions of housing, often to construct sub-units down the valley.

If some residents are willing to profit from the destruction of their natural environment, at least those who won't should not be penalised for doing so. Rather than hitting environmentally generous landowners with rate increases, the City Council should discount their rates (and do so retrospectively) for the environmental services they have protected on their land which have benefited the other residents of Brisbane and the native possums, flying foxes, and many beautiful birds, which depend on such fragments of rainforest.

Hobson's choice?

I know personally that the landowner with the three forested unbuilt blocks now sees little choice but to sell his land because the rates are so high. If he reluctantly goes ahead and the remnant rainforest is destroyed it will be more than a loss of natural beauty for Brisbane residents. Almost certainly the loss of the ecological services will make Brisbane a hotter and uglier. It will certainly not improve it. Those who can afford to will most likely draw on more electrical power to make their homes cool at least on the inside.

NIMBYs needed now

The poorer classes who once lived unpretentiously but well in this very suburb with far more space than people now do, will swelter in miserable high-density subdivisions and in the treeless outer suburbs. Many will certainly not be able to afford the option of air-conditioning because, as human population has increased and the trees have been destroyed, the heat has increased and so has the cost of housing and of power.

This kind of thing is happening all over Australia.

Brisbane and Australia need more NIMBYs.

Appendix: the decline of amphibians in urban Australia

(This brief appendix has been extracted from nimby's comment Frogs on the decline too of 6 Jan 11.)

Dr Andrew Hamer, based at the University of Melbourne, stressing that reptile and frog habitats need be conserved in residential areas by keeping them as natural as possible, even if they are only small areas. "Our research suggests that many reptile and frog species have been negatively affected by urbanization,” says Dr Hamer. With

higher density living


, more concrete drains rather than rivers and creeks, and less back yards and green wedges, our amphibians and reptile have little chance of being protected.


Fruit and vegetable sellers say shoppers should prepare for a nasty surprise at the checkout after floods devastated three of Queensland's food bowls. Raw sewerage is running into the rivers. The farmers federation said crops could be sourced from other parts of Australia but industry groups said growers in southern states had been dealing with bad growing conditions. However, many "other parts" of Australia's horticultural areas are under threat from urban sprawl.

By expanding suburban areas to the north, west and south-east of Melbourne, the government hopes to secure over 50,000 hectares of land for the building of 284,000 houses.

Between 1968 and 1971, Melbourne metropolitan planning process officially established nine green wedges as non-urban zones for open space or parkland between Melbourne’s main transport corridors.

These green spaces were set aside for flora and fauna conservation, farming, landscape protection, recreation and resource utilization.

However, our food bowls are being swallowed up. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says while peri-urban areas occupy less than 3 per cent of agricultural land they account for more than 25 per cent of the gross value of agriculture production. In Victoria that figure is even higher.

Horticulture farmers are being driven from their properties by zoning changes and the soaring value of land. Vegetables Victoria president Luis Gazzola said Victoria would lose its vegetable industry unless there was some sort of rational support for its future.

RMIT University associate professor Dr Michael Buxton said more research was needed on the planning and "right to farm" issues that were adversely affecting growers. "Everyone agrees we want, and will need, more food, but government agriculture and planning departments are do-ing nothing about it. The production of peri-urban agriculture is without paral-lel, and nowhere near as season vulnerable as broadacre farming, so it must be planned for and protected."

To make things worse, changes in society encourage and celebrate conspicuous and excessive consumption, and growth. We humans like to think of ourselves as civilized and rational thinkers, but we are dominated by an impulse which now finds expression in the idea that inexorable economic growth is the answer to everything, and, given time, will redress all the world's existing inequalities. "Technology" will improve, and "market forces" will create barriers to growth just before the we eat away at our survival!

Federal governments are responsible for population growth, yet the States are forced, and willing, to accommodate. While revalued land is considered a "windfall" for the owners, ultimately our limited fertile soils are being concreted over by urban sprawl, and it means food must travel further, be under threat from extremes of weather that will hit more with climate change, and peak oil will assure us that prices continue to rise.

Humans now occupy, or have altered and exploited, two-thirds to nine-tenths (estimates vary) of the planet's land surface. It seems only a matter of time before they take over all the remaining "empty" spaces.

Had the Victorian State government in 2010 not extended the urban growth boundary the limits as set would have been a signal of the limits to growth. Now population growth and market forces are determining what happens to Melbourne's food growing areas, and natural habitat for wildlife. In passing this legislation the former State Government with the help of the Opposition waved the white flag of "we give in in to endless population growth".

In the article above I understand that the council rates are levied on the market value of the land- not the capital improved value. If it were the latter then the rates would be lower for blocks making up an area of rain forest in the suburbs than for blocks with a set of town houses since the rent on the latter could be calculated and the buildings have a value anyway. What is the value of a rain forest to the bean counters?
In Henry George circles they advocate a straight land tax, the one that would mitigate against being able to keep a rain forest in a suburb where population pressures are enormous. They also say "tax bads , not goods" In the case described, the "bad"aspect of keeping a rain forest is that vacant land is not affording accommodation or any other easily measureable service to the community such as a laundromat or restaurant. As the author points out, however, the presence of this rain forest provides a valuable service to the community especially if it is treated as common land. The benefit to the community is in fact an "externality" just as gardens in any suburb offer benefits to neighbours who play no part in any financial transaction involved in retaining or maintaining them. In a system where land value rather than capital improved value is taxed, retaining empty blocks is discouraged (a "bad") but having a generous garden issuing forth with the perfume of old roses or providing a riot of indigenous plants to delight the native birds , and provide habitat for native micro bats or indeed a veritable rain forest are also discouraged!! How do these obvious "goods" get to be valued so that they can be retained? Of course the council could levy the rates on the capital improved value of the land but with huge population pressure even this measure would only delay the inevitable loss of these assets in our cities. If population growth continues, the pressure will continue to be on Australia's capital cities and their surrounds. This is a choice made by government and it is most definitely not in the interests of the majority of present population. Governments need to focus on the fundamentals (within their anthropocentric capabilities) like the need for food growing areas and areas that mitigate against warming on the local level. This would act as their own legitimate and easily justifiable signal to slow population growth.

ACF consumption map has shown that high density living increases per capita ghg emissions, despite less use of cars. Despite the lower environmental impacts associated with less car use, inner city households outstrip the rest of Australia in every other category of consumption.

Even in the area of housing, the opportunities for relatively efficient, compact living appear to be overwhelmed by the energy and water demands of modern urban living, such as air conditioning, spa baths, down lighting and luxury electronics and appliances, as well as by a higher proportion of individuals living alone or in small households.

In each state and territory, the centre of the capital city is the area with the highest environmental impacts, followed by the inner suburban areas. Rural and regional areas tend to have noticeably lower levels of consumption. Cities are getting hotter due to concrete and loss of vegetation.

High density housing denies people of vege patches, compost, rain water collection and solar panels. Larger households are more efficient than single households, but high density means less natural shade and gardens.
Glare and reflected heat from pale surfaces is reduced by shading from eaves, verandahs and from vegetation. Box-like high rises inherently require energy-consuming air conditioning. The city heat island magnifies this demand peak, because more energy is used for indoor cooling. During heat-waves, the city’s warmer nights cause extra thermal stress, resulting in increased urban death rates.

Australian cities are among the dirtiest in the world and our ecological impact per head of population is disgraceful.

Trees not only provide shade, they are Nature’s own evaporative coolers - perfect for the dry atmosphere. City-wide plantings lessen the urban heat island, greatly improving summer comfort.

The word "sustainable" is often thrown around in government circulars, but their policies are totally contradictory.

Editorial comment: Thanks, Matilda, for demolishing so well and so succinctly many of the arguments so often given to justify the construction of vast volumes of cramped, expensive inner-city high-rise accommodation. I have emphasized passages I think are particularly good. I trust that that is OK. Is there any chance you could obtain a copy of that ACH consumption map you referred to?
CONSUMING AUSTRALIA - the main findings:

There is a section on urbanisation and city hot-spots.

It says too that nearly half of an average household’s eco-footprint is attributable to food production. Cattle grazing in particular is very land-intensive in Australia.

Without the Hormone Growth Promotants, industry experts say another two million head of cattle would be needed to make up a shortfall in meat, creating environmental problems.

HGP have been banned in the EU because of health reasons since 1988.

And CSIRO livestock industry chief Alan Bell said HGPs were "very safe and backed by science". The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet book sparked arguments in Australia between dietitians over its promotion of a high-protein diet at the expense of carbohydrates.

The fact that the book was funded by the meat and livestock industry added to the controversy.