Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Tyranny of the top job
Created as the State Government’s whipping boy, the Sydney City Council will need, as its new Lord Mayor, an autocrat with democratic ideals, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
IT’S A shame, but on the whole, democracy and urban loveliness are not best bedfellows. Good cities grow from bad politics, and vice versa: behind every Paris or St Petersburg there’s a king, tsar or despot, while friend democracy just can’t seem to stop sicking up a familiar mess of billboards and freeways, skyscrapers, street signs and sprawl.
Perhaps we should give thanks, then, that democracy in the City of Sydney is such a loose approximation of the real thing.
Anyway, it’s no reason to quit trying. If Sydney’s about anything, after all, it’s our concerted, all-out attempt to have cake and eat it at the same time. Multi-tasking, Sydney style.
Which means the big question facing the mayoral pretenders in this month’s city elections is this: how, if at all, will Sydney’s next lord mayor balance the up-close will of the people with the big-picture quality of the built product? Because, Lord knows, they are not first-blush compatible.
Clover Moore, the punters’ favourite, is streets maybe whole city precincts ahead in this regard. And not only because she has former city planner John McInerney running second on her ticket.
Moore has a record of tireless lobbying for residents’ rights in the planning and development arena, and she cut her teeth, after all, on the city council. That was before the previous sacking. But it’s a little different, even so, from occupying the mayoral throne, which makes a double demand, requiring a similar juggling act in terms of Pleasing the populace, plus a much more purposeful stance when making policy, and making it stick. So, what exactly will Moore do, as mayor, if and when?
It’s not as though the city has a lot in the way of actual planning powers. Invented by the state in 1842, the city council was designed to be despicable, laughable, sackable. Designed as whipping boy. It was the “roads, rates and rubbish” model of local government, and ads were placed for aldermen who were not habitually drunk before lunchtime.
Even now, with its newly gerrymandered girth, the city council is too small, poor and powerless for anything really strategic in the way of planning.
But it is at least capable of intelligent action, so how might lord mayor Moore direct it? Her reply is faultless. Where we have no direct powers, we’ll take a leadership role. We’ll lobby for public transport. Produce a strategic plan, even. On development, we’ll make simple rules and stick to them. Everyone will know where they stand. We’ll give developers and residents certainty. We’ll make decisions transparently and publicly, in the council chamber.
It’s a simple vision, but radical. As Moore points out, “we do have a system it’s called democracy”. But it’s virtually unheard of in Sydney City, where the pressure is huge to make closed-door deals look like open democracy. Huge for two reasons: (a) because genuinely public decision-making amounts to caucusing in enemy presence and (b) because of the flexibility furphy.
Pressure on councillors is directly proportional to the degree of flexibility, or discretion, they allow themselves in applying the rules. More discretion, greater pressure; the bigger the chink, the more developers try to push through it. It’s a system that developers, on the whole, love not minding that it pits them against one another, not caring that it makes certainty impossible and recognising that where one swims, others can probably follow.
Architects, too, love discretion, mistaking freedom of quantity for freedom of expression. But its real effects are more sinister, since discretion breathes eternal life into black-box decision making.
This is a decades-old phenomenon, and well documented in cities such as New York. Obvious, too. Yet an amazing number of local, and state, governments still act as though flexibility were some kind of grail, some favour to the populace. All it really does is exhaust the pollies and reward the loudest developers.
On this issue Moore is clear: “We’re not going to be flexible. We’ve got rules, and we’ll defend them in court, if necessary.” And to anti-development accusations, her response is equally simple. “If they play by the rules they have nothing to fear.”
Seems sane to me. And her actions back her up. Take, for example, the St Margaret’s hospital redevelopment in Bourke Street. In South Sydney, where the flexibility god has ruled for years, even such basic controls as building heights and densities were drafted with “bend me, break me, trash me” stamped large across their foreheads.
Moore objected to this in the planning stages, which permitted seven storeys in a three-storey area. And again repeatedly throughout the project’s slippery denouement, which gave us the 17-storey tower now under construction. Next, following precedent, came more of the same across the road. And suddenly it’s well, well, there goes the neighbourhood. Which is especially egregious in this case since, after they sterilise the Cross, Surry Hills will be the last bastion of inner-city bohemia.
On the bigger, strategic issues, where the council has no direct power, Moore is equally sound, arguing the Government’s stuff-up of public transport leaves us still with no plausible long-term blueprint. Here, she says, her council would take a leadership role, funding the studies itself if necessary, to bring some brainpower and commitment to the debate. Same for the working harbour.
By contrast, Peter Collins’s vision for a design competition to turn the “human wasteland” of Kings Cross into a “better class of entertainment precinct”, and Michael Lee’s fiats as minister to allow the disappearance of the post offices and the
proliferation of overhead telecom wires (with rampant tree-loppings) seem lame.
But visions are one thing. The hard bit, as ever, is making them happen. And although it sounds simple enough to establish fair and open government with equity and certainty for all, the reality is complex.
Most of the factors affecting city planning are not within the city’s control, and it’s a fair bet the Government will apply a similar whatever-it-takes attitude to tripping up the city, and making it look self-inflicted.
And there’ll be no shortage of opportunity to do this, through both the ineffectual wallowings of the state Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources, and the hands-on services of the Central Sydney Planning Committee (CSPC).
The seven-person CSPC is legally charged with all major city planning decisions (covering policy and development), which it makes in the council’s name and under the lord mayor’s chairmanship, but in line with a carefully maintained state-appointed majority.
What happens, hypothetically, when a major party-funding developer fronts up with his inflated proposal? Council gets rolled, in the name of the council, and forever wears the shame of voting to breach its policies. You can hear the cries now. Sack them, the ratbags!
It’s a cynical system, set up to prove what everyone already expects, that local government is schmuckland. Just surviving four years in the mayoral seat would test any person of principle, let alone a woman genuinely committed to participation and party independence. For Moore not just to survive but to do the right thing by the city, she may need to dig deep, and find her inner tyrant. Can she do it?
ILLUS: Lighting the way .
a fast-paced city that some feel needs plans for strategic development.
Photo: Quentin Jones