Friday, February 25, 2011

Should people be allowed to live in sheds?

The following is a story from ABC news:

The long-running campaign by an independent politician to allow people to legally live in their sheds is gaining momentum in the Northern Territory.

The Member for Nelson Gerry Wood, who holds the balance of power in Parliament, says people should have the right to shelter at an affordable price in the rural area.

"I cannot see one good reason why people should not be able to live in their shed," he said.

"If there is a reason, it can be overcome."

Minister for Lands and Planning Gerry McCarthy says the building code demands a home has fire protection, cyclone coding and complies with requirements in flood prone areas.

But he says the Government will consider changes "provided there is no relaxation of the standards that would impact on health and safety provisions".

However, he says he does not want to see uncontrolled development in Darwin's rural area.

There is quite a big back text on this one.

Prior to the tightening of council regulations, it wasn't unusual for people to live in camps, in shanties or in sheds. Quite a lot of houses built in the period immediately after the Second World war, for example, were build by owner builders who actually camped on their land while they were building. Many country people lived in sheds or shanties while they were developing their blocks. During the depression, we saw camps of homeless people on crown land. New England Story - Stockton Beach includes an example of one such camp.

Standards change. As part of this, we have become a very regulated society. You can see this if you look at the NT's Minister's response. This has all sorts of side effects.

One example is the rain tanks that used to be common in Australia. Councils mounted campaigns to get rid of them on health grounds. Now we are trying to bring them back. A second example is the composting toilets. It took years of campaigning to get regulations changed to allow them. A third example is the rise of rural homelessness, something that would have been inconceivable sixty years ago.

It used to be the case in rural areas with lots of land that there was a wide range of accommodation available. People could usually find some shelter, from camp though shed to shack and beyond. That is no longer the case. Conditions may not have been very pleasant, but people had some form of shelter. That is far more difficult now.

Another problem in country areas is the absence of serviced land. Mind you, that's not just a country problem.

Council and State Government rules now make it expensive to develop a block. No longer can you just buy a block without services and live there. Blocks must have services, developers must pay for these plus various charges and levies. Block prices have to reflect this. This is a problem in Sydney, but its a bigger problem in low population areas where demand means that block prices are just too low to recover all the costs. The practical effect is that there is lots of land, but none of it can be used for housing.

As a nation, I do wonder if we have got to the point where we can no longer afford the costs. We now have housing that many can really no longer afford. We have decided that we can't afford the costs of adequate social housing. We have introduced rental subsidies, Commonwealth Rent Assistance, but the costs of this are rising quite fast and are likely to become unsustainable over the next ten years. Further, they are in effect a subsidy to landlords to persuade them to accept lower income families.

Now what I have tried to argue on this blog is that we need to move away from current approaches, including the ever growing mandating of universal rules and standards. That remains my position.

The difficulty, of course, is that as soon as I move from the general to the particular in my arguments I strike problems.

Take the Northern Territory as an example. After the damage done by Cyclone Tracy, new standards were introduced for buildings in cyclone prone areas. I think that's generally a good thing, yet it adds to the problem I am talking about.

One way of handling this is to make a clear distinction between standards and rules. At present, the terms are used almost interchangeably. You can see this in the Minister's comments. When he talks about standards, he actually means rules. You see something of the same issue generally when people talk about enforcing standards. They actually mean enforcing compliance with the standard.   

This gives rise to a semantic trap. Standards are seen as a good thing. Ensuring that they are met must therefore be prima facie good. If you use the term rules, a different set of reactions comes in, because people are suspicious about rules.

If we now consider the NT case, the first question is whether or not the all standards themselves are reasonable. That's not necessarily clear cut, because standards and standards setting is itself a confused area.

The second question is the degree to which the standards should be enforced and, if so, how. Here I am with Gerry Wood. As a general statement, I think that people should be allowed to live in a shed on their own property. If that then creates real problems, let's deal with the problems.

The difference in approach I am talking about can be summarised this way.

At present, if you want to live in a shed you face a problem because an exception has to be made to a rules or series of rules, and that's always difficult. If you start from the premise that it's okay for people to live in sheds on their own property, you turn the issue upside down. Now you have to justify why any person should be prevented from so-doing. You may still end at the same position, but the line of thought is very different.   


Winton Bates said...

I wonder whether the law allows people to live in a tent or caravan on property that they own.

I know of people pitching a tent in a shed. The shed provides greater protection from storms and the tent keeps the bugs out.

Your idea of reversing the onus of justification seems to me to be a good one.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that the law varies from place to place, Winton. My impression is that you can live in a tent or caravan because these are temporary/moveable structures. I don't think that you need approval. However, if you want to erect or modify, then that brings you within the building codes.

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