Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: The Culture
Greater good takes a back seat in this race to road
Planning left to market forces – it’s enough to leave you gasping, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Any last shreds of doubt that planning is a seriously comic exercise must surely have been dispelled by the antic outburst from the Roads Minister, Michael Costa, in Newcastle last week. Especially in combination with the report a few days later from the Auditor-General, Bob Sendt, lamenting the Government’s abject failure to deliver on its rhetoric in the breathable-air department.
Both men are senior government figures, but while one was saying “Yah booh, planning – who needs it?”, the other, in slightly more measured tones, pointed to the link between NSW’s refusal to plan and all the airborne particulates, toxics, ozone and photochemical smog we said we’d have under control by now, and don’t.
One obvious conclusion is that Costa had help, probably from that well-known PR crew Brogden & Chikarovski Inc. It’s the kind of help you can live without, on the whole, but Costa sees himself nonetheless as a voice of the people, peddling that same old knuckle-dragging “give ’em all the roads ‘n’ sprawl they can eat” line.
It’s ironic, really, that just when we’re beginning to see the catastrophic failure of total-indulgence parenting (not here of course, no no, in America) we seem more committed than ever to total-indulgence government. And the results are precisely parallel: all crema, no coffee.
One of the most enchanting aspects of Costa’s address to Newcastle’s planning fraternity was that any planning department employee who believes in or wants to do planning should be sacked (I’m paraphrasing). It enraged the party, understandably, to say nothing of its effect on the department – and prompted calls for Costa to be pulled into line with Government policy.
And on the face of it, you’d have to say, it’s reasonable to expect the Deputy Leader of Government to align with policy. After all, he’s not speaking as plain Mr Costa. But what these ungrateful wretches do not recognise is that Costa is voicing Government policy. And it’s a first – the first time in the history of this Government that the actual thinking beneath planning practice has been aired. I’m impressed.
The simmering debate over the airport redevelopment makes an entertaining example. In 2002, after 81 years of ownership, the feds sold Sydney Airport, on a 99-year lease, to the Macquarie Bank, guised as Southern Cross Airports. Nine months later the feds swore off a second Sydney airport – an unnecessary precaution considering that, for its $5.6 billion, Southern Cross had bought the airport plus rights-of-refusal on any other within 100 kilometres.
And that’s not the only chock tilting the airport’s playing field. Since its 905 fully privatised hectares are still nominally Commonwealth-owned, they are exempt from all planning constraint and all infrastructure levies. So Southern Cross can effectively do what it likes at Mascot – which is, half-a-Parramatta’s-worth of new, non-airport-related CBD including retail, education, bulk-retail and offices. Dangerous.
So argues the City, along with other local councils. And quite rightly, since the scale of the proposal threatens not only any strategic metro-plan but also the city itself. Logically, therefore, downtown property types should also be upset, since planning is the only guarantor of property values.
And NSW? The state argued strongly, in submissions to the airport-masterplan process, that the proposal “does not reflect NSW planning, transport and environmental policies” and is therefore a Bad Bad Thing. It emphasised the enviro-health results of Commonwealth anti-planning attitudes, pointing to the trebling of car parking, despite that sad little airport ghost train, and the direct links between Sydney’s still increasing vehicle emissions and heart disease, cancer, bronchitis, asthma.
All of which would seem entirely reasonable, if the state had any planning policies to speak of. If it hadn’t allowed Green Square to happen with no additional public transport. If it weren’t announcing a new freeway project every five minutes while letting trains fall in a heap (Bob Sendt’s point). And if it weren’t itself directly competitive with the airport development proposal through its own office-park projects at Cooks Cove (lo! public park into business park), Eveleigh and, of course, Green Square.
It starts to look suspiciously like a battle between private developers, rather than defenders of anything resembling the public interest, and may be why the state, despite arguing strongly in private, refuses to say anything publicly, leaving the councils involved – City of Sydney, Rockdale, Marrickville and the rest – to fight the baddies by themselves.
Sometimes – sigh – it’s just so hard to tell pot from kettle.
And yes, before you ask, the story is similar in other capital cities. Certainly in Brisbane, where the city council resorted to strike and court action to force the Commonwealth to hand over the airport redevelopment issues – and might even have prevailed, had not the council itself turned out to have a stake in the airport corp. Embarrassing.
Similarly in Canberra, where you might have noticed the rash of little office buildings around the funny little airport. That’s Commonwealth land, as exempt from ACT Government control.
Then again, in Canberra it’s all Commonwealth land, which changes the picture somewhat. The idea, back in the early 20th century, was to avoid making Canberra into a wild-west spec-fest like Sydney or Melbourne. And to a large extent it has worked, not only preventing speculation but making planning possible – which may be why everyone wants to live in Sydney or Melbourne.
But the state-Commonwealth planning tussle takes a slightly different form in Canberra, since the Commonwealth seems to be having the war with itself. The way things stand, Canberra is Australia’s front room, it’s airless trophy cabinet of monument and metaphor. No one goes there much, except great-aunts and the like. But we needed somewhere to keep the cut crystal, the china figurines and the pointless gifts, and Canberra is it.
And that’s the problem addressed by the Commonwealth’s recent and impressive planning strategy, the Griffin Legacy. Burley Griffin’s Canberra was, we now know, a lot denser, more urban and more intensely romantic than the Canberra that was built. Griffin’s idea was more like a south-Pacific mini-Paris, full of richness and busyness and bustle as well as luxuriant growth. But it was undone by the timing of its construction, during the era of freeways and sprawl.
The Griffin Legacy proposes, at last, what Canberra has always needed: the redensification of the inner city to become just that, an inner city, rather than a collection of monuments strewn across a park. Of course the difficulty will come in implementation, when the Government attempts to realise its proposal for Constitution Avenue, for instance, to become a model project for higher density, mixed-use development.
It’s a splendid idea but, if the Commonwealth cannot contain either its own airport sprawl or the random proliferation of swollen stockbroker-belt “rural villages” proposed by the ACT Government, post-bushfire, what hope does it have of pushing the Griffin Legacy through to implementation?
Me, I’m with Costa. Forget planning. Too hard. Sack ’em. Close the department. Put the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources’ annual $5million net cost towards Sydney’s $300 million annual bill for vehicle-pollution-related health problems. And try not to breathe too deeply anywhere west of Bondi.
PHOTO: It’s for the birds, really … but at Sydney Airport planes aren’t the only thing headed skyward. Photo: Rob Homer