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A case study in 'broken democracy': the Blue Mountains, NSW

By Robert Gibbons - posted Thursday, 26 March 2015


Localism legislation in the UK is showing meaningful achievements with a realistic expectation that averages and outcomes in local administrations will improve. This was after controversy over a study in 2008 by Policy Exchange about northern English cities being economically and socially unviable. The "academic" prognostications were shown to be nonsense when Experian recently reported the opposite – Manchester being Number 1 in the national "city vibrancy" list with 4 non-London centres in the top 10 – add Canterbury, Leeds and Lancaster. It seems that localism trumps cynicism.

Vibrancy is needed in NSW where the State Government has a target of creating 150,000 new jobs and where regional tourism is important in spreading any growth but is slipping backwards according to official statistics.

The decrepit 19th Century British local government legislation we inherited then is the culture that is still dominant, with balkanisation of governance, controversy in many large and small councils and polycentric control of political and budgetary matters. The application of UK "best value" techniques has shown the costs in the case of the world-famous Blue Mountains.

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The hypothesis is, in such challenged localities, as in communities facing social dislocation such as Newcastle in NSW and Detroit and Baltimore, the shock of change needs to be directed into constructive localism.

A century ago Sydney's business leaders applied their British educations to Sydney's chronic problems and leveraged-up the onset of bubonic plague in 1900 to create an Improvement Council (1900 to 1912). Sydney was briefly the Social Laboratory of the world. That shock allowed civic leaders to pull a complacent society out of the doldrums.

On Sydney's fringe, the Blue Mountains succeeded in its most immediate challenges but then retreated into an intense borough-based eco-conservatism. The consequences came to be akin to a cancer: falling macro trends in tourism, jobs and employing companies; and rising municipal rates without benefits, with politics as superficial as newspaper front pages, all without constructive community engagement.

This tale of a "bush capital mentality" shows the risks of "regression" outlined in ResPublica's "Civic Limits" (Wilson and Leach). The Mountains communities have no endogenous agents of change – the culture repels reformers with venom; imposes unnecessary inter-generational risks and costs; and endures municipal malevolence which manipulates flows of information to and from the community. The costs include taxes on families being higher by tens of millions of dollars a year while land supply for essential housing was not provided.

Planning myopia means politicians cannot see past the present, they see what they can see today but not into the future. Spatial blindness means they think as far as they see, not what lies beyond the innercity boundaries to the great expanses of Sydney's suburbs and industries. Local politicians in entrenched local stasis are as susceptible as any.

An enveloping crypto-political truth came from Professor George Williams, Professor of Law at the University of NSW:

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A lack of enforceable rules and an absence of other accountability measures means that political parties are prone to develop into individual fiefdoms. Key figures have been able to distribute power through patronage networks in return for favours.

As "Civic Limits" put it about regressing:

When organisations and individuals are faced with pressures, they have two basic choices: i) to transcend the difficulty and explore new possibilities, or ii) to regress to a previous level of concern with a smaller horizon…. Unfortunately, as we feel pressured, we end up tending to look after 'us and ours' … there is a very real danger that if we simply accelerate civic involvement …we will create an army of people who will use involvement simply as a means of blocking change.

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About the Author

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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