Skip links


Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 10-May-1993

Edition: Late

Section: News and Features


Page: 17

Wordcount: 2394


Elizabeth Farrelly and Julie Walton

EVER WONDERED what happened to all those picturesque city laneways, loathed by firemen and modernists, but essential to Sydney’s character? Rowe Street, for instance, alive with bookshops and cafes, now a dead-end service-way into the MLC Centre.

Sydney City Council is what happened to those laneways. It’s all there on the files. The council, staunch guardian of the public realm, was actively flogging off bits of it for decades – laneways, in particular. At first, in the ’50s and ’60s, this was ideologically driven, part of Modernism’s brave new plan; but for the next 20 years it was straight expedience. Laneway sales were the perfect disguise for accounting and budgetary systems which were otherwise rubbery, at best.

For Sydney’s last Civic Reform-led Council (1988-1991) the boom was a timely blessing. In 1990 alone, Raphael Place brought in $21.5 million and Margaret Lane, off Jamison Street, fetched $16 million. Take $37.5 million from that year’s $2.5 million “surplus” and see how healthy things really were, then. The current council is clover by comparison.

Abercrombie Place, off George Street (alongside George Patterson House, which was controversially removed by the Central Sydney Planning Committee last year from council’s heritage list) is the latest lane to be threatened with extinction. The Civic Reform council had resolved to sell it for $5.2 million: the current council has embargoed that sale believing the lane to be a vital pedestrian route and an important part of Sydney’s heritage in its own right. (The laneway itself is heritage-listed – a fact which has not prevented its excavation, by parties unknown, in the meantime.)

When the City Independents came to “power” – it has to be in inverted commas – in the elections of September 1991, we wanted above all to re-establish the city centre as a place people wanted to be in. It sounds so simple. We were aware, of course, that there would be the standard battles, well documented from cities the world over, between those who own the pots of gold, and those who walk between them.

We knew that any attempt to give the public realm priority would be treated as heresy by the pot-owners, who have always controlled the city. We had been courted in passing by the big end of town, and knew to expect lashings of the”if I want to build a mud hut in George Street I should damned well be able to”, attitude to civic dignity.

We expected, too, some intransigence from the council bureaucracy itself -“the organisation” as it is known. We did not anticipate, however, the sheer bloodiness of it all, nor the pincer movement in which these great inertial masses might lock together to preserve the status quo.

And we could not have prediced the vehemence with which the State Government – which has after all designed its new Local Government Bill to encourage just the sorts of changes we have set in train – would itself act to diminish the efficacy of such change.

What we found, upon election, was a lunatic system which sets a tiny cell of seven elected member (six of them part-time) astride an elphantine organisation of 1000-plus – with a 150-year tradition of promotion on the basis of seniority, not merit. The aldermen are recycled every few years, but staff were effectively tenured, since there was no practical means of sacking the incompetent.

Elected members, on the other hand, have proved eminently sackable over the years. Council-sacking is a nasty gov- ernmental habit which has cementedin a system that holds accountable those to whom it denies any real means of control. Sacking aldermen, rather than bureaucrats, has merely removed any incentive for the organisation to smarten up its act, and any hope of remedy -leaving the administrative malaise to flourish unchecked.

Further, since the local government model has always consciously distinguished the bureaucracy (management) from the elected members (policy and priorities), to dismiss aldermen for supposed managerial incompetence, real or imagined, just salts the wound. Management was never the alderman’s job.

What such a system, and such a habit, does very effectively is keep power from the elected, guaranteeing it instead to the obscure echelons of the unaccountable. Cynics may argue that this is fine – but democracy it ain’t.

What such a recipe did provide, however, was the perfect medium for the cultivation of a bureaucratic culture. The organisation we found upon election, was in fact a federation of walled fiefdoms, in which democracy was no more than an ephemeral diversion from the core business of council -looking after its employees.

Within such a culture, the last thing on anyone’s agenda is improving public services, let alone the public realm. Indeed, the danger is that employees who entertain such ideas tend rather to be progressively de-skilled and demotivated until they fit with tradition – or leave. Shape down or ship out.

And let’s face it. Aldermen themselves had long been active in this tradition. Dr Shirley Fitzgerald’s recent history, Sydney 1842-1992, details the ways in which employment practices persisting from the 19th century – such as the system which put aldermen in charge of handing out council jobs in exchange for loyalty – were designed simply to reinforce existing power structures. For decades on end, Tammany Hall ruled – OK |

The postmodern world’s answer to such traditions, of course, has been the establishment of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) – the upper case is mandatory. But the City Council’s handling of this all-important question, which eventually splashed us onto the front pages last year, itself speaks volumes. The council had employed an EEO officer, yes – but instead of recognising that dramatic change of this sort can only be effected from the top down, it had plucked a fresh university graduate and placed her with great care near the bottom of the pile where she, and “her” EEO policies, were doomed to fail. Hardly the action of a hierarchy genuinely concerned about fair play, let alone effectiveness.

And so it was that as recently as 1990 women represented only 19 per cent of the council’s workforce, with eight female staff on salaries above $40,000 compared with 76 males.

All that is changing now. Reading the signs, many of the old guard have jumped ship. We have a new general manager – female, as it happens – and two new assistant general managers, all, like their senior colleagues, on contract, and all damned good. The organisation is being restructured to eradicate the old fiefdoms, and remotivated to prevent the establishment of new ones. Creakily, but unmistakably now, the old behemoth is changing course. It is gratifying that many existing staff, too, are finding renewed vigour.

There is the rankling unfairness of often substantial payouts to people who may not universally deserve this sweetening of the medicine. But there can be no doubt that this shedding of excess weight is an absolute prerequisite to achieving an organisational body capable even of responding to the policy decisions made by its head.

Meanwhile in Macquarie Street, nothing has changed. It cannot be said that the Government, historically, has shown any real interest in helping the City Council become an intelligent or effective organisation; from the earliest days its concern was to keep the council barefoot and pregnant.

Even the parliamentarians who established the City Council in 1842 – their interests, says Dr Fitzgerald, being “primarily in rural industries and trade”- saw Sydney’s city government as little more than “a nuisance”. The council was established to do the jobs that no-one else wanted (water, sewerage, traffic and markets), and from the beginning its funding resources were inadequate to the performance of its functions. Since then its powers, as well as its territory and its sources of revenue, have been whittled away by successive qangos, gerrymanders, and sackings.

THIS HAS BEEN easy because, unlike Europe where local gov ernment (having predated other forms) maintained considerable autonomy, local government in NSW has always been seen by the State as its creation and therefore its toy. The Hon. Frederick Flowers, MLC, VicePresident of the Executive Council, made no bones about this when, proposing in 1912 to remove from the council its power to control building heights, he told Parliament that it owed no apology to the council, since the council’s powers had been given by Parliament, and”the power that gives can always take away”.

One justification given then for Government’s council-bashing was that the council had spent public money to build the Queen Victoria Building, ridiculed, wrongly, as a white elephant.

The State first sacked the City Council in 1853, only 11 years after its incorporation. Since then the sackings have been rhythmic – four in all, over 150 years, a fact of which neither party should feel proud.

After the latest sacking, in 1987, the council was re-formed as the shrunken half of a pair of unequal Siamese twins, joined at the hip pocket to the South Sydney City Council by the still-weeping “cross-servicing”relationship, and hemmed in on all sides by myriad governmental democracy-taming devices, new and old: the Rocks Authority, the Darling Harbour Authority, the Central Sydney Planning Committee, and latterly, the City West Development Corporation (in charge of Pyrmont/Ultimo).

As things stand in the city, that is, the Government already has the particular powers that sackings were always designed to acquire, namely the council’s planning powers. The Central Sydney Planning Committee was formed in 1988. It is dominated by Government appointees (who unlike elected members are paid by the council for their time) – and empowered not only as consent authority on all major and public developments in the city, but also to prepare all planning and development control instruments.

This much, perhaps, is explicable. A truly curious thing is the way in which the council itself seemed over the years to collude in the application of such hobbling devices to itself by zealously preserving its own standards of incompetence. This seems altogether perverse until it is recognised, as it must be recognised, that repeated governmental bashings are virtually guaranteed to perpetuate, if not engender, a gangrenous culture within the bashee organisation.

Not surprisingly, it is the finances of the council which succumbed most dramatically and most publicly to this malaise. No-one would pretend that the City Council’s financial situation is rosy, nor its traditional accounting systems defensible. The point is, though, that new systems and structures are now in place. The direction has changed, the culture is changing slowly, and we believe, irreversibly. It defies justice to attack a council precisely when, and even because, it has for the first time been open about the financial facts – and precisely when it has established the mechanisms for change.

To quote the Auditor-General’s report on the city’s accounts, dated April 8, 1993, “The council is to be commended for undertaking a program of improvement to the financial accounting systems and associated reporting functions. The long-standing problems caused by those systems have, we suggest, adversely affected (the) council’s ability to manage as effectively as it would wish.” Already we have a better-than-budget performance for the first quarter of 1993. But good news doesn’t make headlines.

You don’t maul a council just when it has started to do the right thing -unless, of course, you have other motives for doing so.

IN ANY CASE it is clear that the council has only three ways of making ends meet: cut services, cut staff, or sell assets.

The first two options have been implemented, if not exactly relished. We have closed Ultimo Library – while we go on having to subsidise libraries in South Sydney. We have drastically reduced donations, entertainment programs, and capital works. Sunday street-sweeping is off, for most of the city. Already, during the last 18 months, the council’s permanent staff has fallen from 1,327 to 1,146, with a forecast drop of 144 over the next five years. This will amount to a 24 per cent reduction – substantial by any standards. It has to happen; this is living within our means, but it is not pleasant – made only more painful by the years of procrastination.

That leaves option three. Traditionally, that has meant selling laneways. The current council, however, believes that selling the city’s laneways just to balance books is wrong. We will make ends meet – even by selling other assets, if we have to.

But living off laneways is wrong. A single Raphael-Place-worth sale would wipe our deficit, as it happens. But it is still wrong – on two counts. First, you don’t use capital to buy Weetbix. Second, you don’t alienate the public realm to prop up dodgy accounting systems. Or private developments.

Ever since Wentworth and Macarthur contrived to send Governor Macquarie packing for daring to spend money on public interests instead of private, the temptation has been to see this city as a honey-pot for the “exclusives”.

That is what laneway sales are all about. It’s real private wealth, public squalor stuff – except that it will destroy the city’s commercial viability too, in the end. Tourists leave first, then shoppers, then workers – and, in the end, even moguls won’t work in streets stripped of urbanity.


Drawing: By Michael Mucci


Join the Discussion