Lobbyists move in as stakes go up

Lobbying plays a critical role in our representative democracy. The range of issues that Councils deal with every day means that hearing from affected parties can help to improve decision-making.

However, lobbying also presents dangers. There is potential for local government to be captured by special interests, and for powerful voices to dominate and skew good city planning.

In Australia, the Property Council and its state branches employ well-funded, full-time lobbyists who represent large property owners, developers and real estate interests. 

Their job is to lobby for more generous regulatory settings that will deliver higher profits for their 2200 member companies across the country.

The Hobart City Council is of particular interest to the Property Council’s Tasmanian branch, because their members have more significant investments in the central Hobart area than in other locations around the state.

In recent months, Hobart City Council has been discussing the need for firmer height limits to provide certainty and protect our much-loved and economically valuable heritage character.

During that time, the Property Council of Tasmania has been our constant companion.

It seems that every meeting of the Hobart Council is worthy of detailed commentary by the Property Council. Every approval or non-approval of a building based on our planning rules attracts jibes from the sidelines.

What we are experiencing is not unique. Every Australian city where the property market is strong and there is money to be made, the property sector will be more active with its lobbying. 

As Hobart property becomes a bigger prize, the voices of this lobby and their interests will become louder. 

In some states property lobbyists have become so entwined in Council business that the state governments have stepped in to ban developer donations and sack Councils compromised by the influence of these interests.

Despite lobbyist spin to the contrary, the Hobart City Council is approving a steady stream of development – more than 3000 hotel and apartment units have been approved in recent years. 

90 per cent of all developments are approved without debate. Building permits issued in 2018 were to a value of $521 million.

But you wouldn’t know this if you only listen to the constant drumbeat from the property industry lobbyists.

Elected members should resist simplistic and convenient suggestions by industry voices that relaxing planning rules is the way to tackle housing affordability. 

The Property Council has not been a friend of regulation to solve Australia’s affordability crisis, with their campaigns to preserve negative gearing, despite evidence that it’s our biggest barrier to housing affordability.

Height limits may curb the profits of some of their members and so unsurprisingly this lobby group will find every reason to stall action on this reform. 

While they are very welcome to add their voice to this public debate, alarmist rhetoric and sniping about meeting procedure is designed to create division and make elected representatives feel uncertain about a way forward.

Most recently the Property Council expressed outrage that elected members should question the value of a $50,000 study into the impact of height rules on social, economic and environmental conditions in Hobart.

I attended the recent Planning Committee meeting that the Property Council’s CEO complained about. The conversation I observed was respectful, and concluded that asking one consultant to correlate broad-brush impacts with relatively small height rule differentials may not be a particularly useful exercise.

The Planning Committee decided instead to return to the original staff recommendations for height limits and to put these out for public exhibition. This process will allow the public, the Property Council and any other interested parties to present their views about the proposed amendments to our planning rule book.

After this exhibition period we will then review the evidence provided by a broad range of parties and the Council can modify its proposed amendments based on this ‘real world’ feedback.

Under the Tasmanian planning system, the final decision-maker for scheme amendments is not the Council but the Tasmanian Planning Commission. It also has a rigorous process for submissions and public hearings that will follow before any height limit is finalised. Their process is designed to pick up and correct any detrimental economic or social impacts that may arise from any proposed scheme amendments.

While lobbyists can provide useful policy information, serving up shallow and inflammatory commentary doesn’t help. It is important that democratically elected decision makers are given respect and space to carry out their difficult role of balancing competing interests and designing policy reform.