Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Questions for Sydney’s future

The wombats have been flat out with stuff, nonsense and politics for the past couple of weeks, making it hard to keep up to date with the 1000 and 1 things that appear to be happening around us (sometimes, frustratingly, to no particular purpose). Consequently, we've been looking for bits and bobs that might be worth replicating. This is one such, from The Guardian, paper of the rapidly ageing Communist Party of Oz. While we do, of course, agree with their last point, we tend to think that this might be a better option than the CPA.


Peter Mac

Just before the NSW ALP Conference last weekend the popularity rating of current premier Morris Iemma had fallen to just 28 percent, reminiscent of Prime Minister Howard’s last popularity rating before his recent electoral annihilation.

But it’s not all bad news. For example, the NSW government and the Sydney Council have agreed to erect 700 new inner-city flats for workers on low and medium pay.

That’s welcome news. Sydney’s workers now travel from as far as Newcastle, Nowra and Blue Mountains. However, the proposal will certainly not meet Sydney’s inner city housing demand, especially given its current appalling rate of mortgage defaults and evictions.

The government has admitted that the housing proposal is crucial because Sydney needs bus drivers, nurses, police officers and cleaners, but it seems to have overlooked the idea that working people have a right to live in affordable housing in the inner city, a principle which underwrote many of Sydney’s great post-war public housing programs.

The government is also seeking to associate itself with the far more popular Sydney City Council, currently headed by Clover Moore. That’s pretty ironic, given that numerous Liberal and ALP governments spent enormous time and money over many years attempting to prevent the progressive Ms Moore from gaining the mayor’s position.

Ms Moore recently announced a number of highly imaginative, if in some cases extremely expensive ideas for improving the human qualities of the city. In comparison the stench of corruption clings to the Iemma government relentlessly. That’s nowhere more evident than in the changes to planning regulations.

Odious developments

New planning laws in NSW will in effect grant Frank Sartor, the NSW Minister for Planning, near-dictatorial powers. Sartor has recently announced his intention to appoint a new temporary External Advisory Panel, to make recommendations on major development proposals.

Sartor is at liberty to ignore their recommendations. The Panel will expire in three months, after the government’s highly controversial new planning laws create the new Planning Assessment Commission.

The legislation will also enable development proposals which are now dealt with by councils to be handled by "independent" authorities, i.e. private certifiers, arbitrators, joint regional panels and the Planning Assessment Commission, all of which would be appointed by the government.

Planning experts and legal authorities now claim that the new laws will slow down the development application process, and make it extremely contentious and expensive.

They also claim that the new alternative planning authorities will be in legal competition with the Land and Environment Court, because the development applicant will be able to apply to the alternative authority if that promises them a more satisfactory outcome.

A good example of the implications of the new planning powers is the Aboriginal housing complex known as "The Block", in central Redfern.

In 2004, after the government created the Redfern Waterloo Authority, Ken Morrison from the Property Council of Australia declared with great enthusiasm: "If Redfern Station is to become the hub of a new commercial zone, then the Block will just have to go." The Authority can override local councils and heritage laws, and under the existing planning laws Sartor can compulsorily acquire property and sell it off to developers.

Greens MP Sylvia Hale commented: "How better to fulfil two of the minister’s long-term ambitions — to move Aborigines out of Redfern while simultaneously assisting those generous donors to the ALP, the development lobby."

How to get there

The Iemma government has failed to address the crying need for better, cheaper and more extensive public transport in Sydney.

That need is nowhere more painfully felt than in Sydney’s western suburbs. Sixty percent of western Sydney residents travel to work alone by car, compared with 53.7 percent for the whole of Sydney. In one western council area the average house has 2.1 vehicles, compared with the city average of 1.5. Only 13.6 percent of western suburbs residents catch a train or bus to work, whereas the average for the city as a whole is 17.7 percent. In some western areas buses come only once per hour, or not at all.

Water at a cost

Big rises in the cost of Australia’s water are to be expected, because of long-term diminishing rainfall, which will force the government to invest in extra water supply infrastructure.

However, the situation in Sydney has been exacerbated by the State government’s assumption that critical new situations demand big, visually impressive new projects, which of course involve huge commissions for the private sector. The government has virtually ignored proposals from the Greens and many environmental groups for extra rainwater collection and the recycling of waste water.

Construction work is now proceeding for the controversial Sydney desalination plant. The first results were the spillage of construction spoil into the waters of Botany Bay, followed by structural damage to nearby houses.

That hasn’t helped to the Iemma government’s plummeting popularity.

Planning’s about the future

A refusal to focus on issues which will become of crucial importance in the next twenty to thirty years is evident in government planning in NSW and elsewhere in Australia.

Climate change and the dwindling supply of petroleum will force enormous change on the way we live, on the economy and on our systems of government. The current incentives for energy and water conservation and renewable energy production are praiseworthy, but are entirely inadequate.

Australian governments have failed to implement good policies with regard to these crucial issues. And that’s the message. If we really want to tackle crucial planning policy issues, we have to look to parties other than those which currently rule Australia’s political domain.

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