Hands over the city: Towards an urban nightmare


By Dave Holmes

[This is an edited version of a workshop talk given on October 2, 2011, at the World at a Crossroads: Climate Change, Social Change conference in Melbourne. For more material from the conference, click HERE. It first appeared at Dave Holmes' Arguing for Socialism and is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission. See also Are livable cities just a dream? by Dave Holmes.]

I want to give an overview of the crisis of our cities as I see it. The city I focus on is Melbourne, where I live. But I doubt that the broad situation is much different in the other states.

Modern cities are "free-fire" zones for the corporations. And the situation is getting worse. We can't work out what to do without understanding this basic reality.

Everything is organised for the profit-making convenience of corporations, especially the ubiquitous "property developers". If municipal councils raise any serious objections to the plans of the developers, major projects face an override by the state government planning minister. This power is used more and more frequently.

As a result of the purely capitalist development of our cities we face a combined social and ecological crisis that is becoming ever more alarming.

The title of this talk comes from a 1963 Italian movie — Hands Over the City — by Francesco Rosi. Rod Steiger plays a ruthless developer in Naples whose crappy block of flats collapses killing several people. A lone communist on the city council fights to reveal the corrupt relationships between municipal officials and developers. The story sums up a period in Italian post-war political life.

Developers on the loose

Melbourne's development has always been shaped by the pressures of property developers and big capitalists. Michael Cannon's 1966 book The Land Boomers deals with the speculative boom in the Melbourne of the 1880s and early 1890s. Reading it today gives one the feeling that nothing fundamental has changed in well over a century. Cannon describes the development of the rail system:

Hundreds of miles of track, some of it quite useless, pushed out from the egocentric city to the rampant suburbs and the far countryside. Hardly a member of parliament whose vote could be bought went without his bribe in the form of a new railway, a spur line, or advance information on governmental plans to enable him to buy choice land in advance — the value of which was enormously enhanced when the line went through. It was a dispiriting chapter in Victorian political morality.[1]

"Developers" are really capitalist sharks preying on the fish of the public. They will always act this way and governments will always be disposed to accommodate them.

Bay dredging

One horrible recent example of the profits-first orientation of business and government is Port Phillip Bay. Big capital pushed for the dredging of the heads irrespective of all warnings of damage to the bay and its ecosystem.

Despite former Australian Labor Party Victorian premier John Brumby's blithe claims that all the doomsayers had been proven wrong, today Portsea's bayside beach is disappearing — a disintegrating sandbag wall vainly trying to hold back the water — and others have been hit hard. The widening and deepening of the heads will accelerate the impact of climate change in years to come.

A consequence of the reckless development of Melbourne's port is that inner city residents (Footscray, Yarraville, etc.) are living in a unending nightmare as heavy trucks from the docks rumble past their doors 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They bring with them intolerable levels of noise and exhaust emissions, and cause serious safety issues.

This is the Melbourne equivalent of Sydney's airport crisis. A major piece of economic infrastructure has been sited right next to where people live and its operation is dramatically worsening people's quality of life.

Building sustainable cities

Under the heading of sustainability we need to consider: how are our cities structured; how we move around; how we house ourselves; how we get our power and water; and how we get our food.

Melbourne now has just over 4 million inhabitants and is fast closing on Sydney’s 4.5 million. Since 2001 our population has increased by some 600,000 people.

Melbourne faces a projected doubling of population in the next decades. Under current conditions this means more sprawl as housing estates gobble up farmland in all directions — to Ballarat, Geelong and Warragul.

All this new development will be served by yet more roads. Many more people will face Los Angeles-style hours-long car commutes to get to work. The already grossly inadequate public transport system will face collapse under unprecedented demands.

The corporate media uses the perfectly rational fear of this horrible prospect to whip up hatred against migrants and refugees. The problem however is not people per se but the system which puts corporate profitability ahead of human need — that is the very essence of capitalism.

Green wedges and open space

We face a constant erosion of public space and now the Victorian government is reviewing the ban on development in the non-urban green belt that surrounds the city beyond the urban growth boundary — the so-called "green wedges". About one-third of the total green wedge area is public land, including national parks, other parks and reserves and protected water catchments.

Clearly, it is setting the scene for unleashing developers on an area absolutely vital to the health of the city. And with an increased likelihood of devastating bushfires due to climate change, to push further into the bush seems like complete madness.

Freeway madness versus public transport

Successive Labor Party and Liberal Party governments have promoted a policy of roads, more roads and yet more roads. Modern freeways are huge industrial installations that scar the landscape, causing severe loss of amenity, noise pollution and health problems.

In his 1973 work Energy and Equity, the social critic Ivan Illich puts the spotlight on the dubious benefits of commodified motor vehicle transport:

The model American male devotes more than 1600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly instalments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his 16 waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1600 hours to get 7500 miles: less than five miles per hour.[2]

Creating livable cities and coping with peak oil and the climate crisis all mean there must be a truly radical shift to public transport. But our Lib-Lab governments absolutely refuse to do it. Timetables are cut, trams and trains ever more crowded, purchases of rolling stock are woefully inadequate, no new lines are built and the whole system is generally starved of resources.

Age cartoonist Tandberg’s view is spot on! (See slide 10 above.)

Housing in crisis

Today's housing crisis has a number of aspects.

There is a crisis of housing affordability as speculators push prices beyond reach of ordinary people. Of those who actually buy a house, a growing number are suffering "mortgage stress" as their ability to meet their commitments falters (job loss, casualised low-paid work, etc.).

There is a rental crisis as too many people chase too few properties. Many cannot afford to buy and the rental stock is grossly inadequate. Vacant properties exist but are not made available due to "banking" by developers.

There is a crisis of public housing. Very little is being built and the existing stock is under savage attack. Under the cover of creating "social housing", hundreds of units have been privatised and thousands more are slated to suffer the same fate. Precious space on public housing estates is being handed over to private developers for a song.

Instead of building public housing governments would rather give welfare recipients an inadequate subsidy to pay to their private landlord. Some 1.1 million renters now receive Commonwealth rent assistance amounting to A$3 billion a year — a big indirect handout to landlord "investors".[3] How much better it would be if these funds were used to build quality public housing so low income people could permanently escape from the clutches of landlord vultures.

Not surprisingly homelessness is a problem now suffered by tens of thousands in Melbourne. This could be solved very quickly — if there was the political will. Build tens of thousands of decent public housing units, take over vacant buildings and convert them to residential use, peg rents to a fixed percentage of income, and so on.

Sustainable housing is restricted to new developments, with the requirements watered down to suit the greedy developers. A massive government financed program to retrofit all existing stock never gets a look in.

Power bill nightmare

Privatisation by Labor and Coalition governments in the 1990s means power bills are now soaring to pay for big infrastructure upgrades. The only reason we have to pay for these is because the power companies are now in private hands and exist to make a profit. Otherwise the cost could be borne by higher taxes on the big end of town and government infrastructure loans.

And now we are confronted by a rollout of expensive "smart meters". This is absolutely the wrong way to go. While electronic smart meters may not be inherently bad, as presently configured and used with new tariffs they are designed to help the power companies, not ordinary people.

If you switch your power consumption to the middle of the night you'll get some concession but if you don't, life will become impossible for many ordinary people. A lot of low income people may well end up eating cans of dog food in the dark.

And making the big switch to renewables or promoting real energy conservation? Don’t hold your breath.

Water security

A Labor Victorian government set up the Wonthaggi desalination plant. Despite some theatre on the issue, the incoming Liberal government never intended to cancel the contract.

Of course, there is plenty of water in the storages right now but the clear projection under global warming is for severe shortages. However, instead of pushing ahead with the Wonthaggi monstrosity the government should be aggressively rolling out rainwater tanks and other conservation measures across the city. Instead, it is doing absolutely nothing.

Food supply

Our food supply is in the grip of giant corporations, especially the two supermarket colossi — Coles and Woolworths. While supermarkets offer an undoubted convenience, as constituted they are unsustainable energywise, and gouge customers and small suppliers alike.

As climate change starts to bite really hard it will be intolerable that our food is in the hands of the corporate profiteers. Coles and Woolworths should be nationalised. This would bring prices down and small farmers and other suppliers could be guaranteed fair prices for their produce.[4]

'Private-public partnerships'

Both Labor and Liberal governments favour "private-public partnerships" for major projects. This guarantees their corporate friends much higher profits and the state bears all the risk if problems develop. The redevelopment of Spencer Street (now Southern Cross station), the East Link tollway, and the projected new rail tunnels across Melbourne are all PPPs.

Kenneth Davidson's hard-hitting columns in theMelbourne Age have lifted the lid on the PPP scandal. The makeover of Southern Cross railway station cost hundreds of millions of dollars more that would have been the case had the government done it alone.

And what did we actually get at Southern Cross for all our money? Despite the much vaunted innovative roof design, there is no rainwater collection; there is no exhaust system and the buildup of fumes makes staff sick; and a section of the wondrous roof collapsed in heavy rain!

What should we aim for?

When everything around us is the result of rampant capitalism it can get hard to envisage anything fundamentally different. But we have to contemplate radically different arrangements — and fight for them. There is no solution whatsoever under the regime of private "developers" and their government facilitators.

Along with all the fights that are taking place over immediate issues we have to campaign for a sharp change of direction — for a completely different sort of society. Creating green, livable cities will require a massive fight for people power.

We have to put the corporate "property developers" out of business. A public housing corporation should be the main player here.

A radically expanded public sector must play the key role in promoting transport, housing, services and jobs.

Only in this way will we be able to develop an emergency program to fight climate change and prepare for what's coming.


  1. Michael Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melbourne University Press: Melbourne, 1966), p. 39.
  2. See http://www.ecotopia.com/webpress/energyEquity/node2.html.
  3. Simon Johanson in the Age, September 26, 2011.
  4. Interestingly this is also the position of the Lyndon LaRouche-inspired, far-right Citizens Electoral Council.