By Lim Mah Hui
A building project is not merely about keeping below a certain number of units per acre. It is also about airflow, green spaces, traffic congestion and public transport. Development is too serious an issue to be left solely to developers.
I would like to touch on the issue of the type of development towards which Penang, in particular Penang Island, is headed.
Let me begin with an anecdote. Recently, I had dinner with Ramesh Chander who was chief statistician in the Department of Statistics of Malaysia in the 1970s before he went to work for the World Bank and became an advisor to many countries in setting up their statistics departments. He was here on a visit from Washington DC to advise SERI, now Penang Institute, on improving its data collection. He said that the last time he came to Penang was about three to four years ago, and the thing that struck him most this time was the enormous number of high-rise buildings all over Penang Island. He is not the only one to have said this. Many other visitors have observed the same thing. And he continued that he fears we are heading towards a housing and construction bubble.
The present state government is right to say that it wants George Town to be an international liveable city and to be a magnet for talent. But in its rush to achieve this goal, it has opened the floodgates to developers to build as much and as fast as possible: more houses, more high-rise apartments, more shopping malls, more commercial offices, etc.
If this is not properly planned and controlled we could end up destroying the unique charm of Penang Island. One reason why George Town was awarded World Heritage City status is that Penang has the largest stock of pre-war houses in South-East Asia. Indiscriminately allowing high-rise buildings to sprout anywhere and everywhere, particularly in areas where the surrounding buildings are low-rise and historic (not necessarily heritage) will kill the goose that lays the golden egg. International tourists come to Penang not to see more tall buildings; that they can find in Hong Kong, New York and Singapore. They come to experience the historic heritage of not only the heritage zone but the whole city.
The intention of the recent state government policy of increasing the plot ratio from 1:1 to 2.8:1 or the density to 87 units per acre is to increase the supply of more affordable housing. This intention is good. However, it is unclear whether that objective can be achieved under this policy without some fine-tuning.
I have often been told that we need more housing because there are not enough houses in Penang, and by increasing the density ratio we can supply enough houses to bring down the prices to affordable levels. How true is this argument? Is it based on facts? The 2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia showed that there are 385,658 households and 468,278 housing units in Penang state, an excess of 82,620 housing units. In plain language, there are 21% more housing units than there are households.
The problem of affordable housing is very complex and I cannot offer a full explanation here. It is good that the state has asked the Penang Institute to undertake a detailed and proper study. Good policies must be based on proper and thorough studies; they cannot be rushed into.
But briefly we can say the housing problem is not that there are not enough housing units in Penang. The problem is too many of these housing units are built to cater to a small group of rich local and international investors and speculators who view Penang property prices as still cheap by international standards and whose demand is pushing up prices beyond the reach of the average income earner in Penang. Many own multiple units. The state has to come up with a better policy to address this issue.
With increased permissible density, land suddenly becomes even more valuable and landowners can demand higher land prices. Developers, sensing there is more money to make, rush to purchase land with the expectation of making higher profits. Of course, they would then want to build up to the maximum limit and maximise their profits. That is the nature of their business.
It is, however, the responsibility of the state – the politicians, the councillors, the civilians, the policymakers – to provide the checks and balances, to protect public interest, to come up with sensible policies to ensure we have sustainable development. The increased density ratio is a blunt policy instrument for a good objective. Policy planners and implementers must implement it judiciously and not indiscriminately.
Indiscriminate approval for developers to build to the maximum of 87 units per acre without due consideration of ample green spaces, adequate sunlight and airflow, fields and trees, public amenities, traffic congestion, availability of good transport network, etc. will destroy our liveable environment. Development in a liveable city has to enhance rather than degrade the natural environment.
We recently read in the papers about plans to build 30 to 40-storey high-rise buildings at Cantonment Road, Burma Road and Jelutong Road with little regard for the traffic impact in these already overloaded areas. If we continue to indiscriminately approve such projects and developers continue to buy up every piece of available property to build to the maximum density ratio, we will end up like Hong Kong city with high-density development and overcrowding, except that we will not have the public infrastructure to support it.
I am not against development. The important question we need to ask is, what type of development? Is it rampant and unbalanced development or is it sustainable and balanced development? The adjective is more important than the noun.
I am afraid our concept of development is simply too property-centric. Can we learn any lessons from the overdevelopment of property in Dubai that has collapsed? Do we have enough public parks, green spaces and recreational facilities as well as a good public transport system to sustain a liveable city? Too much emphasis has been placed on property development and not enough is given to these other aspects of development.
Town planning must take into account the use of land space, the natural and cultural environment, the community needs, the amount of walkways and streets, the fields and trees, the movement of people, the types of buildings; do they blend or clash with the environment? It cannot be just about putting up more bricks and mortar.
Let me quote a definition of town planning as the “ordering of building and land use according to a visually pleasing but practical scheme for the economy, and achieving convenience and beauty by ensuring accessibility and managing resource use while avoiding land use conflict.”
Finally I would like to put forward a proposal for consideration. We know that traffic impact studies for big construction projects have not been effective. One reason is because consultants are hired by developers. I suggest that developers pay to a pool to be managed by the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) to hire its own independent consultants. This will reduce any element of conflict of interests. It will also enable a more integrated approach to traffic impact studies beyond single projects.
This article is an extract of a speech made to the full council meeting of MPPP on August 26, 2011.
Lim Mah Hui is an MPPP city councillor representing many of Penang’s NGOs. He was previously an international banker and academician, and the author of Nowhere to Hide: The Great Financial Crisis and Challenges for Asia.