Land Speculation has a history in Melbourne

Landing at Melbourne – watercolor by W. Liardet (1840)

Contributed by Glen Davis

Many of us are familiar with Michael Cannons’ wonderful work The Land Boomers, which looked at speculation in late nineteenth century Victoria, speculation that subsequently coincided with a depression.

From the early days of European settlement, in what we now call Melbourne, there was speculation in land. Let’s cast our minds back to a period not long after John Batman ‘purchased’ the land from the local Wurundjeri elders.

Despite the blatantly exploitative native of this ’treaty,’ a treaty, declared void by the Governor of New South Wales, it remains the only attempt by a European(s) to buy/obtain land of Australia’s native people, rather than just taking the land.

This basic settlement of early Melbourne, with huts established along Flinders Street, rapidly expanded as brick and timber structures sprung up in the nearby expanses. A city was developing.

In the 1840’s, the decade prior to the 1851 Gold discovery, Melbourne had its first experience of the ugliness of land speculation. As people moved out of Melbourne to populate the areas beyond, a falling population coincided with increased land sales.

The colonial government sold half-acres and lots at bargain prices. They were quickly snapped up.

Entrepreneurial types brought up big. They sub-divided the land for further sale, making enormous profits. The economy boomed.

But as we know there’s no boom without a bust.

In the early 1840’s the ability to develop the land peaked. Further development dwindled. Subsequently, land prices fell. Though there were still buildings built, the workers weren’t being paid, and a depression struck the new Colony of Port Philip.

Surveyor Robert Hoddle’s town plane for Melbourne in 1838 (Document held in Public Record Office, Victoria)

Over a period during the early-mid 1840’s, the economy of Port Phillip slowly recovered and land sales resumed.

Correspondingly, employment and rural produce saw a growth. Then of course, Melbourne/Victoria experienced the beginning of the Golden Age, coinciding with Victoria separating as a colony from New South Wales.

Even in recent years, land speculation on Melbourne’ s rural borders have been a major factor for driving up prices.

Speculators have been buying up what was once farming land, hoping the state government rezones these areas for urban development use. Land value have increased exponentially.This practice Is called ‘land banking’.

Surely, it’s time to move beyond this predatory behaviour. Can’t land be used for more socially useful purposes than purely speculation, designed to increase its monetary wealth for a few wealthy individuals?

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