Freeze 87 units/acre guideline pending public consultation, proper planning

The government of Penang wants Penang to be an international, intelligent and liveable city. The hallmarks of such a city are proper planning, a good public transport system, and strict building guidelines and codes. These are essentially lacking.

Two years ago, the state government tripled the density in residential areas from 30 units per acre to 87 units per acre. One purpose of this big increase in density was purportedly to make housing more affordable to its population. Several housing projects have since received approval to build to 87 units per acre. There is not a shred of evidence that increased density has curbed house prices. House prices are driven by more fundamental forces such as international and domestic financial liquidity, low and negative interest rates, and speculative mania. Furthermore, there are 20 per cent more housing units than households in Penang. Increasing density, not only does not solve housing affordability; it has resulted in other problems like increased traffic congestions and pressure on existing infrastructure such as roads, electricity and water, drainage systems that are inadequate – all reducing rather than increasing the quality of life and the livability of our city.

Penang Forum is not against higher density per se. It must be relevant and applicable according to local conditions and must be PRECEDED by proper planning and adequate infrastructure. The original idea of allowing for increased density to 87 units per acre in the draft Local Plan was LIMITED TO TRANSIT NODES, i.e., where there rail or tram stations could be put in place. It is common sense that given the narrow roads in Penang, increased density can only be allowed if there is a good public transport system to support it.

The Penang government recently stated that the present high density guideline is being fine-tuned to include traffic impact assessments (TIA). The reality is that the requirement for TIAs is already in place and is being practised but has failed because it is not possible to solve the problem of traffic congestion by doing TIAs on an individual project basis. It can be solved only on a holistic basis, i.e., a proper public transport system and other infrastructures must be planned and put in place first and then higher density can be only allowed where these exist. This is part of the recommendation of Penang’s new Transport Master Plan (currently being finalised). If we implement this, i.e., proper holistic planning, then individual TIAs are superfluous.

Instead we now practise a haphazard and free-for-all approach of allowing 87 units per acre to be built in any residential area where the existing density is 30 units per acre except in the upscale neighbourhoods of Jesselton, Ayer Rajah and Brown Road. This approach has been defended by government officials on the grounds that developers have bought the land in anticipation of higher density and hence must be allowed to build to maximum density despite inadequate infrastructure. We must reject this developer-led model of development and bring back the planning-led model of development with stronger participation from ordinary people.

Many Penang residents are very concerned that decisions on higher density and guidelines on a new phenomenon – SOHO (small office/home office) – that will have tremendous impact on our quality of life are being made without consultation and engagement with the public.

Finally, we reiterate our call for the public display of the draft Local Plan, approved by MPPP in 2008 but held back for reasons unknown, and to seriously engage Penang residents to contribute to the shaping of the Local Plan for a truly liveable city.

Penang Forum Steering Committee

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