Working paper

A 'most pressing problem': housing and the National Capital Development Commission

URP Working Paper No. 66
Housing Urban planning History Labour supply Canberra

When the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) began operations in early 1958 its responsibilities were clear: to develop Canberra as the National Capital by constructing buildings and memorials which befitted this role, and to provide the infrastructure necessary to support the planned transfer of several thousand public servants and their families. Development priorities, however, were determined by necessity rather than a set of official guidelines: ‘[w]hile building the lake was critical to the success of Canberra, the most pressing problem facing the NCDC in 1959 was housing”.

A shortage of housing and services, caused directly by a shortage of building materials and labour, had helped to hamper Canberra's growth for many years and was a contributing factor to the Commission's establishment. However, as Alastair Greig has stated: 'by the time the NCDC was established, the worst years of the national housing shortage had passed, more labour could be tapped from the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme, and the NCDC was not faced with the competition for scarce resources which had contributed to many ot the difficulties of the earlier post-war years.'

Canberra’s housing in the late 1950s was a complex web of issues: subsidised rents; scarce sources of housing finance, with individual loans limited to a ceiling sadly inadequate in a construction environment characterised by higher building costs than in the state capitals; a greater than anticipated rate of population growth; and a construction industry made cautious by a series of boom and bust scenarios. By examining these threads in this paper it is hoped to reveal how Commission operations, and the changing government attitudes and policies which directed those operations, affected the lives of the residents who were the essential components of developing the national capital.

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