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Central government distorts Sydney townplanning

By Robert Gibbons - posted Friday, 1 December 2017


City "governance" is a set of concepts that come together to create real reform or mayhem. Planning studies usually pay it lip service without moving from manta into creative reconstruction as has been covered previously. Sydney's Improvement Commission and Auckland's Royal Commission proposed the consolidation of planning and financial effort but with a strong re-engagement of local communities; similarly to the UK's Localism movement. They all wanted to rid their democracies of the dead hand of central government.

Sydney had been through five major phases before the one now confronting it, only one being based on participative democracy. That "Improvement" generation of 1900 to about 1912 – the greatest municipal body in the world in their days - produced a community willingness to invest in a real vision of their future. Theirs was a true "revitalisation" of a decrepit city, moving families out of slums and into healthy suburbs along with cheap and clean transport.

They did what is now called "needs analysis": the budgets were large but limited, the projects' purposes were primary, and the technology was secondary albeit profound (canals replaced by trains in the USA, steam trains and trams replaced by electric vehicles).

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Modern counterparts include:

  • Should the Gold Coast have a "rapid transit" tramway; an extension of the rail line from Robina; or a combination using Flexity Swifta tram/trains? A series of studies was prepared, supported by Federal Minister Albanese and the new Infrastructure Australia, but the straight Flexity tram technology issue was subsumed by pre-formatted "place design" streams, thus missing options in ways that might be regretted by future generations. (The system as built is useful and is being extended.)
  • Should Sydney's northern beaches' (and say Melbourne's Mornington Peninsula's) character be primary and the question is then how to ease congestion and affordability, or is it important to build mega-structures, hang the consequences for lifestyle but satisfy infrastructure donors? NSW Premiers are treading a worn carpet towards a mega-expensive and improbable option which has wasted $77 million on geo-tech and probably more on invisible studies and processes – fully not learning from iA and Grattan Institute attacks on political stunts
  • The CBD/Parramatta corridor needs rail augmentation and traffic calming, should professional analyses by Ron Christie and Nick Greiner et al of the potential to upgrade the existing mainline fairly cheaply and quickly be considered (even preferred), or is the objective to spread the Metro system, even though it reduces capacity, hang the consequences? and
  • There is a need to boost housing supply but the dominant model is axial densification along the Bankstown line, which does not merit expenditure otherwise. Is the change in lifestyle viable given market, heatsink and infrastructure problems, or would a more dispersed pattern be both more sustainable and more politically acceptable? The first requires massive public subsidies to cover just 1 to 4 per cent of new dwellings over just 15 years, and then what? The latter can produce the long-term transformation of liveable suburbs.

Such questions are fundamental. The Greater Sydney Commission assumed nominal responsibility for a metropolitan plan but nowhere in its suite of documents have such questions been asked and answered. This is in line with history since about 1995, a record of capricious decision-making by ideologically-driven politicians, in the manner described by PM Turnbull as "ideology and stupidity". It is characterised by taxation imposed by executive fiat, and worse, by secret contracts and sequestered taxes.

Then Coalition leader in NSW, Barry O'Farrell, called it a "planning stench" creating "metro fiascos"; and promised to return power to communities in lieu of Labor's Part 3A. Nick Greiner described the metro obsession as "being a bit arse-about" and that has been confirmed; but the NSW and Turnbull Governments are fused in a 40-year "Three Cities" vision that has no relevance to current systems and directions. It is, arguably, the most esoteric and least-justified notion in Australian history.

In 2012 then Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian abandoned iNSW's assessment discipline which quickly led to "waste" of over $30 billion (costs in excess of valid options), and an almost unbelievable $70-plus billion in unfunded promises. The planning stench is back with a vengeance.

NSW has taken State domination to new heights so that four un-elected agencies have assumed domination as State urban militia operating under unwarranted alarums. Their work is not directed to community outcomes but explicitly to political masters' ideological mantras. They even have the duty to proselytise the political message while trying to garner community understanding. That applies even to the fiduciary gatekeepers, the Treasurer and Treasury Department, almost as much to lobbies and Party HQs.

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PM Turnbull promised to reduce congestion in the cities and insist on impartial adjudication of project applications. Those promises have gone nowhere: his agencies are fused with State counterparts and affiliates to increase congestion and exclude project options. They "fix" business cases so that lapses are not mentioned and all key financial data are redacted (blacked-out). The planning system that sufficed for the reforming Wran and Greiner Governments has been hacked apart to eliminate project inquiries and genuine engagement, with Ministers and agencies refusing to listen to eminent people from those generations.

Without any electoral mandate or even Parliamentary debates, the Federal and State levels have befuddled the community, media and local government including over "congestion-busting" where $30 billion of expenditure on metros will reduce system capacity, damage the legacy Bradfield rail system and create new lines of axial congestion because of Hong Kong-inspired and –driven densification towers: all without electoral mandate. The Bradfield system cannot survive under even its current heavily-subsidised form; while Sydney's special events and disaster recovery capabilities will be crippled. A new four-point change-of-gauge problem is unbelievable and reflects entrenched ideology & stupidity.

There is now no Party or agency that the community can trust as they did Sydney's greatest urban statesman, Sir Thomas Hughes, or Wran or Greiner. The spirit of the legislative creator of Canberra, Sir Robert Menzies, is betrayed. No Federal or State politicians, from the PM and Premier down to Party officials, have responded to revelations of lies, misadventures and betrayals. That includes Infrastructure Australia (post Eddington), Infrastructure NSW (post Greiner), Transport for NSW (post Peter Cox), and the new "30 Minute" team of Prime Minister's Office, DIRD, Greater Sydney Commission and Turnbull/Berejiklian's appointments of ideological associates to CEO positions.

The people who led Sydney's real reform were highly intelligent but not dreamers - practical people, and one of them, the late Main Roads Commissioner Bruce Loder, said it best in "Poor vision for the state in the blurring of the divide" (SMH on 10 April 2008):

Unfortunately, the Roads and Traffic Authority failed in its role as guardian of the public interest probably because, in common with the rest of the public service, it no longer has the ability to do so.

The deterioration in management and skills in the public service exemplified in the Roads and Traffic Authority extends throughout the service and explains in part the problems of delivery being experienced in health, transport and public works.

It will not be easy to restore the public service to an effective provider of works and services and guardian of the public interest, but until then and until the roles of government and public service are once more clearly defined, we can expect the standard of government in NSW to continue to decline and the quality of services in NSW to continue to fall relative to other states.

Community trust requires a clean-out of planning and regulatory strata and, very possibly, the Grattan Institute's recommendation that independent bodies conduct planning and assessment roles – divorcing analyses and outcome-setting from ideological politics. The Greater Sydney Commission's acceptance of its full fusion with political factions smashes that "divide". The PM's urban promises as well as healthy communities under a strong population growth scenario depend on breaking the groupthink carapace of the "30 Minute" club.

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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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