17/10/2006 - 22:00

Property rights trampled on

17/10/2006 - 22:00


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This week, State Scene brings bad news to those believing Western Australia is justly governed.

This week, State Scene brings bad news to those believing Western Australia is justly governed.

Increasing numbers of property owners are having their rights wantonly disregarded by government departments, agencies and quangos, and in an ongoing manner with no relief or end in sight.

Whether we realise it or not, a crucial foundation upon which our longstanding prosperity rests is the institution of private property – most especially house and land.

But according to a research paper released by the Melbourne-based Institute of Public Affairs, the news from WA in this regard is increasingly bleak.

The paper, ‘Property Rights in Western Australia: Time for a Changed Direction’, was compiled by Victorian regulatory expert, Louise Staley.

“The old adage that ‘your home is your castle’ is no longer true for many Western Australians,” Ms Staley begins.

“As community attitudes to heritage conservation and environmental management have changed, government has imposed more and more controls on what can be done with privately-owned property in many cases without consultation or compensation for long-term owners.”

Ms Staley’s argument is that the state government, via its voluminous departments, agencies and quangos, is increasingly encroaching on people’s property rights, and it is time this ceased.

Issues highlighted include:

• the number and scale of regulations have meant quite junior bureaucrats now have powers over interpreting land usage;

•heritage listings restrict what people can do with their properties;

•building developments can be denied or permitted “apparently at whim”;

•bureaucrats take an inordinate time to process applications to do what owners at the time they bought property had the right to do; and

•bureaucrats change the basis of refusal, even during negotiations.

Although the paper accepts that private property rights can at times be rightfully limited by the state, this shouldn’t mean an ongoing and wilful disregard of those rights.

Moreover, many such rulings and impositions on property owners often fail to attain their stated aims.

“Attempts to protect heritage and rare species are sometimes having the opposite effect,” Ms Staley says.

“All too often we see heritage listed buildings being left to fall into disrepair or hear of farmers who do not report what they suspect are rare and endangered fauna and flora from fear of losing use of their land.”

Although backing preservation and enhancement of our physical environment, Ms Staley says we must confront head-on the pivotal question of cost and who should bear it, “rather than the current approach of pretending no costs are incurred”.

“If there is a public benefit [in heritage and environmental preservation and enhancement] then it should come at public not individual private cost,” she continues.

“At the very least, existing property owners deserve compensation when new controls reduce the value of the homes or land in which they have put their savings.”

State Scene knows of a case involving a state government quango – I won’t name it – that impinged upon a couple’s property rights, without their knowledge, an act that led to nearly three years of bureaucratic stonewalling by those within that quango who were responsible.

Readers should note that embarking on a path of challenging such bureaucratic intrusions is costly indeed – lawyers charge around $250 an hour – whereas quangos and government departments have well-paid in-house lawyers.

Hardly an even playing field.

Since learning of this incident, State Scene has attended several meetings at which other victims disclosed similar ordeals; and to say many of these were horrific is an understatement. Forget any cliches about Aussies believing in fair go, mate.

When crunch time comes there are too many bureaucrats treading roughshod over people’s property rights, and whenever they’re sprung they do all in their power to block remedying their actions.

After each of those meetings it was difficult not to conclude some WA bureaucrats admire Soviet and Chinese-style Bolshevism.

The Staley paper canvasses issues such as heritage, housing and land, and farmland vegetation.

On building heritage Ms Staley contends that this is threatened because property owners are without incentives to maintain and preserve it.

Currently, when properties are placed on WA’s heritage register, no appeal or compensation for loss of value exists, she says.

The result is that buildings are allowed to deteriorate in the hope of condemnation, with some owners having risked fines by bringing in bulldozers after midnight. And there’s been at least one case of a precinct catching fire.

“The mental anguish suffered by people trying to comply is impossible to quantify, but the cost incurred from having to hire lawyers to interpret the legislation can be valued and is yet another measure of the reduction of property rights,” Ms Staley says.

Her most damning revelations are for young married couples battling to cope is that government intervention in zoning has created shortages in land. Ms Staley says this is a “major factor that has priced many Western Australians out of the housing market”.

Her calculations show that, since 1973, the average price of a new home has doubled after adjusting for inflation despite building costs having remained constant, “while the land on which they stand has increased over eightfold”.

Nor is there room for optimism across WA’s farmlands. WA farming country is presently being assessed for its environmental and amenity value.

“Once assessed, any patches of native vegetation or wetlands are in effect ceded to the state since no development can then occur on them,” Ms Staley writes. “There are examples of virtually entire farms being assessed as having conservation value, often when their owner has voluntarily chosen to fence off wetlands, plant native species, retain old trees for habitat and keep stock out of waterways. Yet having done all this, the farmer effectively loses control of his ability to farm his land.”

Ms Staley concludes by listing several reform proposals.

Firstly, WA’s constitution should be amended to match the federal constitution to require state governments to pay just compensation whenever property is snatched from owners.

“Often regulation reduces the value of property without changing title so the law needs to go further,” she says. “An appropriate protection for property owners would be legislation with constitutional effect which requires the state to compensate land owners when land use restrictions reduce the value of their property by excision of existing rights.

“Such a measure would have the added blessing of providing a financial incentive to the government that it does not now have to prioritise its heritage, environmental and water use goals, concentrating on the more important.”

Creation of a private property tribunal is also recommended. This would “rule on the reasonableness of compensation paid by governments to private property owners when their property is expropriated or devalued due to restriction.”

“All government agencies, including statutory authorities, must be required to contribute to a central database, operated by the Valuer-General, of any covenants, heritage listings, environmental restrictions or other listings which place restrictions on individual properties,” Ms Staley says.

“Landowners and potential purchasers must, at minimum, be able to easily and at low cost, discover what they can and cannot do to their own property.”

State Scene certainly backs such reformist recommendations. However, don’t hold your breath.

WA’s Labor, Liberal, National and Greens parties  won’t  be in a hurry to institute such reforms since their politicians want those bureaucratic powers for when they’re in government.

There’s only one way the property rights of Western Australians will be retrieved and forever preserved and that is to institute the Swiss-style systems of citizen-initiated referendums.

In other words, by ensuring the people have the ultimate power in making and proposing laws by calling binding statewide referendums.

But again, all WA’s parties would be aghast at the suggestion that they back such truly democratic reforms. Clearly, the Liberal, National and Labor parties have failed us, with the best proof of that being the fact Ms Staley’s damning paper needed writing.

State Scene urges all to read her paper at: http://www.ipa.org.au


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