UN Plan Puts Housing Back on the National Agenda

Following his impassioned rallying cry with ‘No National Report, No National Plan’ in the March edition of HousingWORKS, Greg Budworth from Compass reports back from the United Nations Habitat III conference, held in Ecuador in October, with a far more positive outcome than expected.

For almost a decade, successive Commonwealth governments have paid little attention to housing policy, preferring instead to devolve responsibility to the states where it has become increasingly politicised.

During this period, Commonwealth involvement has been limited to the provision of Rent Assistance and the funding of homelessness services. While these contributions are extremely valuable, what has been missing is national leadership in the form of an overarching strategy that sets a cohesive and bipartisan set of national, state and local goals that will ensure future generations are not locked out of the housing market and into a permanent state of rental stress.

A long-term national strategy will hold each party in power accountable for achieving that proportion of the plan applicable to the political cycles of their administration rather the tendency to promote election-winning policy.

Despite our enviable position as a prosperous and advanced economy, Australia is not immune from population and sustainability related challenges. Ten years ago, a United Nations special rapporteur visited Australia and reported we had failed to provide adequate housing for our population, primarily due to their being no national plan. There is still no national plan and, sadly, very little has changed over the past decade.

In our major cities, population growth is placing significant pressure on housing affordability, transport infrastructure and human services and – beyond some politically contentious tinkering with the tax system – proposed solutions are thin on the ground. However, it seems all of that might be about to change, and the catalyst has come from an unexpected quarter: the United Nations Human Settlements Program.

In October this year, a delegation from Compass Housing Services – with many others from universities, local government, state agencies and civil society organisations – attended the United Nations Habitat III conference in Ecuador where we were privileged to work alongside the Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, Dr Gillian Bird.

The Habitat program is the major vehicle of the UN Human Settlements Program. Conferences are held every 20 years, and result in national members adopting 20-year housing and human settlement plans. The outcome of the October 2016 conference was to seek the member-nations endorsement of the New Urban Agenda (NUA). The NUA aims to set global standards for sustainable urban development by placing adequate and affordable housing front and centre, and having the overarching vision of:

“… seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements to foster prosperity and quality of life for all.” (Clause 11)

Over the course of the four-day event, some 30,000 people from 167 countries took part in almost 1,000 events including eight plenary sessions, six high-level roundtable discussions, 157 exhibition booths, and over 460 networking and training events.

In what was a momentous event for our organisation, Compass was granted the opportunity to make a presentation to the final plenary session where I took the opportunity to share Compass’ vision for a world in which all people have access to adequate and affordable housing, and are engaged in their communities. I also congratulated the Australian Government for their full and public endorsement of the NUA.

Most importantly, however, Habitat III concluded with the New Urban Agenda being officially endorsed by all member-states, including Australia, with it being sent to the UN General Assembly for adoption. It was a historic moment for housing policy development in this country and a welcome sign that housing is back on the national agenda.

So what does this mean for us as housing professionals? What exactly has the government agreed to adopt? To give you an idea, take this excerpt from the NUA, which commits Australia to the delivery of a coherent national approach to housing policy:

“We will foster the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living. We will develop and implement housing policies at all levels, incorporating participatory planning, and applying the principle of subsidiarity, as appropriate, in order to ensure coherence among national, subnational and local development strategies, land policies and housing supply.” (Clause 105)

Or this one, which equates to a full endorsement of policies that recognise the links between housing and other social outcomes, and the importance of a housing-first approach to combating homelessness:

“We will support the development of housing policies that foster local integrated housing approaches by addressing the strong links between education, employment, housing and health… Furthermore, we commit ourselves to combating homelessness… through dedicated policies and targeted active inclusion strategies, such as comprehensive, inclusive and sustainable housing-first programmes.” (Clause 108).

These are just two of more than a hundred such commitments contained within the NUA. It’s heady stuff. Endorsing so bold a vision is something for which the Australian Government deserves to be congratulated.

It’s now the role of the social housing sector, and civil society more broadly, to ensure the commitments Australia has made by endorsing the NUA do not become the victims of changing political fortunes – or become the playthings of special interests – but remain at the forefront of the national agenda.

Access to adequate and affordable housing is a fundamental human right. While the challenges for Australia are not as acute as in the developing world, we are still a long way from delivering that basic human right to all members of our society. The endorsement of the New Urban Agenda, however, is an enormous step in the right direction and there is now cause for optimism that this issue will finally get the attention it deserves.

For more information on this matter, contact Greg Budworth on 02 4920 2600 or email reception@compasshousing.org

Greg Budworth has been the Group Managing Director of Compass Housing Services since 2004. He is currently the Chair of the External Relations Committee of the International Housing Partnership and Co-Chair of the United Nations Partner Constituent Group for Civil Society. He has served in various governance roles for PowerHousing Australia, NSW Federation of Housing Associations and Australasian Housing Institute, as well as other homelessness and human service organisations.
Greg has a Masters in Business from Newcastle University and other tertiary qualifications in business management, project management, workplace safety and workplace training. He is completing a Doctorate in Business Administration.