In 2007 we downsized from our house in Warrandyte to a flat in Port Melbourne and our house at the Cape has become a place of escape from city and suburban life.
One of the attractions for us was that here was somewhere with safe, quiet roads for our grandchildren to roam.
All that may be about to change with Bass Coast Shire engineers having designed a special charge scheme to asphalt unsealed roads at the heart of Cape Paterson, and install concrete kerbing and channeling.
The Cape scheme is the latest in a program of similar schemes costing millions of dollars being rolled out across the shire. All residents and ratepayers should be aware of what this program will cost them both individually and in future rate hikes. (Details of future schemes can be found at Preserve the Cape.)
A local unsealed road in the heart of Cape Paterson, safe for slow traffic and children.
Cape residents and holiday home owners will be charged an average of about $14,000 per property to pay for their scheme. Yet the main objection is not the cost but the destruction of the very ambience that draws residents and holidaymakers to Cape. Homeowners are happy with their unsealed roads, which are typical of a coastal village streetscape and which remain in good condition despite heavy rain over the past year.
The engineers want to impose an expensive and unnecessary “one size fits all” standard without the benefit of knowledge of actual conditions in the area. They lack:
- Traffic counts. The engineers have estimated eight vehicle movements a day throughout the year for each of the 469 properties in the scheme, much too high given that 67 per cent of the properties are holiday houses. The roads at present have very low (and slow) traffic flows, no more than two vehicle movements per day on average during the year, according to my more careful estimate. It is clear to residents that cars drive slower on the unsealed roads.
- Knowledge of both neighbourhood character and environmental effects.
- The actual annual cost of maintaining the Cape’s unsealed roads averaged over the last 10 years.
- Understanding of the socio-economic composition of the area. The national census data shows 25 per cent of residents are aged over 65, 27 per cent have a household income of less than $31,000 a year and 33 per cent of resident couples are retirees.
The shire engineers are trying to persuade councillors that all urban roads should be asphalt-sealed with concrete kerbing to underground drainage and that bringing roads in a particular area up to this standard is a benefit to the properties. If properties benefit from a road and drainage upgrade, the argument goes, property owners should foot the bill for a large proportion of the total cost through a special charge scheme.
This argument may seem logical, but it is not. For urban roads that attract high traffic flows a standard of asphalt and concrete kerb and channel may be appropriate. This standard is not appropriate for local roads in rural villages with small traffic flows where unsealed roads do the job more safely and inexpensively. Even if some form of sealing is desirable it need not be to the high-traffic asphalt, kerb and channel standard.
Properties consist of land and buildings. Saying properties benefit is like saying the sound of a bell is orange, or a block of flats feels sad. Ultimately, “benefit” accrues only to people: owners and future owners. The word applies to an increment of “happiness” or, in economists’ jargon, “utility” of those owners. Anything else is nonsense on stilts.
It can be logically argued that sealing roads adds to the market value of properties and thus to the benefit (as properly defined) of owners or future owners. But many aspects of a property affect its market value. Estate agents often say market value is about three things: location, location and location. At present there is no proof that asphalt and concrete on abutting roads enhances market values of properties. In some places asphalt roads may detract from market value.
The argument that it is unfair for ratepayers to foot the bill for upgrades cannot be found in the Local Government Act or in the Ministerial Guidelines, and therefore cannot be used in support of a scheme. The only criterion in the Act and Guidelines is benefit to the property owners. The unfairness argument is a specious cover for the fact that councils simply cannot afford to bring all roads up to the engineers’ blanket standard.
Finally the special charge scheme program is not really an engineering program but a town planning program. This is obvious as soon as one sees that the program is going to have major environmental and social effects on residential areas. But it is a town planning program without the benefit of evidence and data. It is blind planning.
Socially, aesthetically and environmentally blind engineering-planning endangers precious and diverse local neighbourhoods. Back in the late 1960s, we saw how authoritarian town planning programs, based on presumed housing and engineering standards, endangered the whole inner region of metropolitan Melbourne. The Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, the Housing Commission and the Country Roads Board put together a vast program of clearance of the “slums” of Carlton, Fitzroy, Collingwood, Richmond, St Kilda and Port Melbourne (the 1971 Melbourne metropolitan planning scheme). High-rise blocks of flats were to replace the little houses. Freeways were to rip though inner urban areas. The places which today are most highly valued (in market price) in inner Melbourne would have been destroyed.
Happily the public, local councils and eventually the state government put a stop to this planning madness.
At present the wisdom of elected councillors stands between resident anger and engineering hubris. At this point homeowners are willing to co-operate with council to find solutions to real problems in the area of the scheme.
If councillors decide to back their engineers at Cape Paterson and the council gives notice of its intention to declare the scheme, that option will disappear. With such a threat hanging over them the only rational option for homeowners is to mobilise objection. For the council this would be a lost opportunity to implement the declared intent of our mayor, Clare Le Serve, to “strengthen the way the council engages with the community”.
Nicholas Low is professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Melbourne. In the 1970s he was a principal strategic planner at the London Borough of Hillingdon.
In July, councillors voting to defer a decision to declare a special charge scheme for Cape Paterson to allow time to develop other more natural options. They are expected to decide at this month’s meeting whether to declare the scheme. It will not proceed if a majority of owners oppose it.