Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: The Culture
Madness rules the metropolis
The future of Sydney’s ports and freight plans is in a state of flux, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
I do try, now and then, to write on something other than the pageant of NSW planning. But what a fabulous pageant it is. Carl Hiaasen once likened the Miami development scene that is his daily bread to those Keystone Cops movies, where your heroes tumble one by one from the back of the paddy wagon and spend the rest of the film trying to get their arms and legs moving in a forward direction.
The NSW planning scene, it seems to me, is less Keystone Cops, more Hieronymous Bosch, with its endless parade of innocents, carousers, fornicators and delighters in all forms and refinements of perdition. In that order.
In NSW planning, as in Bosch, you can be as the driven snow and still end up crucified on a harp or devoured by some bird-headed monster – which makes the whole scene much more fun to watch than to play in. And as with Bosch, any little detail, once focused on, seems easily to expand into an entire cosmos of follies and excruciations. In the past few months alone we’ve had Orange Grove, Redfern, the Metro Plan and the Working Harbour flickering across our screens of consciousness, each one replete with its own tangled comedia of mirror-tricks, mind-games and mayhem.
Take the Working Harbour. At first glance the issues might seem simple. Should Sydney, which has metamorphosed from tent-village to mega-city in a couple of short centuries, now banish its port facilities to Botany, Newcastle and Port Kembla? Yes or no – simple.
A moment’s thought, however, shows that it is no simple question and that a cogent answer demands nothing less than the entire Metro Plan, which has kept the Carr Government so terrorised for so long. Why? Because to make that decision cogently we need to know the following: what is the most efficient (and least polluting) freight-distribution pattern for the megalopolis? Is the central city ready, its residential population having quadrupled in a decade, for yet more downtown dwellers? Are there better sites, such as Green Square for instance? Can Botany Bay, clearly looming as Sydney’s next environmental catastrophe (after Homebush), sustain a doubling of port reclamation area? Can the roads cope given that, rhetoric notwithstanding, the Government is clearly in no hurry to build rail?
It’s 18 months since Bob Carr announced the so-called Sydney Ports Growth Plan. Not that there is such a plan. Oh dear me no. Don’t get that idea.
All there is, all there ever was, is the announcement of such a plan; an announcement of the Government’s intention to take Port Jackson out of Sydney Harbour and pork-barrel it around the provinces (60 promised jobs to the Illawarra, 300-odd to Newcastle).
And being an announcement, not a plan, the PGP didn’t need any supporting research or scholarship. Just as well, under the circumstances. Nevertheless, this announcement, lashed together by a sticky web of votes and dollars, became the flotation device for an entire raft of ad hoc and often incompatible decisions.
Such as the two-line “strategy” to redevelop the vast East Darling Harbour site (reserving Millers Point for iconic purposes) before we know for sure whether Port Botany can or should be expanded. Such as the vow to double Sydney’s proportion of rail-freight (rather than road-freight) by 2011 – all of six years away – just as we kill White Bay, the only dock in Port Jackson with direct rail access. Such as the promise of huge port action to the regions, when the shipping lines themselves look just as likely, once expelled, to adopt Brisbane or Melbourne instead.
Then, three weeks after announcing its Ports Growth Plan, in October 2003, the Government established an upper house inquiry into the issue. Not a proper inquiry, you understand. One of those ALP-chaired-and-dominated jobs, whose only recommendation so far has been a carefully worded injunction to do absolutely nothing. (I paraphrase, but only slightly.) Four weeks on again, before the committee had a chance even to meet, the Government closed White Bay to shipping. Done.
Then a second inquiry was set up, a proper inquiry this time, with a proper commissioner, Kevin Cleland – but briefed only to scrutinise the subsidiary issue of how to expand Port Botany. Not whether, how. The Government told that inquiry, in submission, that it could produce neither a freight plan nor an overall Metro Plan until it had the inquiry’s recommendation in hand.
Nor, it says, can it make any decisions (except small ones like killing Sydney’s working harbour) until it knows “where and by what means freight will be entering the state”. How will it know that? Easy. It has already decided to rearrange the ports and to stymie any proposals for road-rail transfer stations that might enhance its own policy to increase rail. They did it to the Ports Corporation’s proposal to build such a station at Enfield, and to Patrick Corporation’s proposal for Ingleburn, although the court battle rages over their right not to make a decision on that one.
All this despite a previous commission of inquiry’s finding that such intermodal stations are fundamental to any sustainable NSW freight picture, and the more the merrier – especially when provided by the private sector.
Then there’s East Darling Harbour. This, the Government argues, makes unsustainable wharfage because all goods must be trucked out through the city. No sooner had the redevelopment proposal been announced, however, than suddenly, magically, a new railway proposal appeared – poof! – right beside the site. Not just a new station, either, an entire line, running under the CBD’s western edge along the “metro-west” underground stratum that has been reserved for years for that purpose.
Question: if a rail line can carry humans, then why can’t it carry freight now? Why not keep Port Jackson working, and build a new, underground rail line to service it, simultaneously relieving pressure on the Town Hall line?
Answer: it’s all in the numbers. Number of dollars, number of votes. Try reclaiming 63 hectares of Port Botany for residential development and see how you get on. Not quite up there, is it, in the $izzle department. Then again, when it comes to sizzle, ask Hieronymous. He’s the expert.
A public forum on Sydney’s working harbour will be held tomorrow at the Town Hall at 5.45pm.
PHOTO: Terminal traffic … there is still no clear strategy for Sydney’s harbour shipping. Photo: Fiona-Lee Quimby