Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Once-bullied Sartor grows up and becomes a bully
Elizabeth Farrelly; Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architecture issues for the Herald.
IT’S that dumb-and-dumber feeling you get when someone grabs your hand and makes you slap yourself, hard, in the face. It’s how the City of Sydney council must be feeling right now.
Last Wednesday, after 18 months of haggling with Foster’s over a “voluntary planning agreement” on the Carlton and United Breweries site on Broadway, and moments from a joint announcement, the council found itself formally asking the planning minister to step in and take over. Uh, please, sir, kick me.
Say what? Why would it do that? Threats? Coercion? Ventriloquism? Well yes, actually.
The story starts here. Since 1991, all serious council planning decisions have been made not by the council but by the Central Sydney Planning Committee.
Four of the committee’s seven members – a carefully appointed majority – take marching orders directly from the state but its decisions are still, legally, those of the council. This is a lie, but it’s a legally stipulated lie, designed for market consumption.
What market? Us. Most of us regard most development with something between shock and horror. At the same time, and especially if we don’t have to look, we want construction, jobs and economic growth.
The committee is designed to schmooze this electoral paradox, ensuring that the council wears the blame (who in God’s name approved that?!) while the state gets both control and credit for growth, such as it is.
It’s smart, but it’s not honest. An honest system – or planning minister – would have said, two years ago when the CUB process was rebooted after the mayoral elections, “this site is way too lucrative for you local government pissants, so the state will annexe it to Redfern-Waterloo, though it is patently not Redfern-Waterloo, so we can exact developer levies under the ever-flexible Redfern-Waterloo Authority Act. To placate the developer, a major party contributor, we must of course raise heights and densities well past what is reasonable, while loosening energy-saving targets for those same, high-energy developments. You understand. It’s simple dollar arithmetic.”
But that isn’t what the minister, Frank Sartor, said. Instead, he told Parliament: “The second untruth I need to correct is the notion that [the Redfern-Waterloo Act] is a cash-grab by the Government. As if we would try to redevelop Eveleigh or Waterloo as a cash grab!”
As if. Now, the Government proposes 18 storeys for Eveleigh-Waterloo and more than 33 for the CUB site, while in the same breath halving Basix requirements for residential towers. Cash grabbing, back scratching and bullying in a single, practised move.
Bullying? It’s that old playground graduation from bullied to bully. Like when, in 2000, Bob Carr invited the then lord mayor Sartor to adopt the cash-starved Museum of Contemporary Art. He waited until the council had spent 18 months and $100,000-odd on a proposal before deciding, at the last moment, to resume MCA funding after all.
Now it’s Minister Sartor who waits, while the council lavishes energy on CUB, before pulling the rug at the last moment. As an exercise in humiliation it works, every time.
The council – surprise – couldn’t win. Eighteen months ago, when Clover Moore’s administration was new, CUB’s then preferred developer, Australand, walked out citing “delay and uncertainty”.
Now Foster’s, as the site owner, pleads likewise. But look closely and you’ll see who’s been playing funny buggers.
The delay, as a process run by the Central Sydney Planning Committee, has actually been in government control all along. Uncertainty, under the minister, can only increase, since the move takes the CUB site from known and agreed limits (a 100-metre height limit and 4:1 ratio between built area and site area) to a situation that is wholly up for grabs.
As for the assertion by Foster’s that “it’s been a very difficult process” dealing with the council, consider this sequence of events.
Last July, the council wrote to the Planning Department requesting clarification on developer contributions for the CUB site. No response.
In January, the council sent the minister its draft plan and, in February, answered his queries on it. No response.
Negotiations on the voluntary planning agreement commenced, and by May 16 there was in-principle agreement. Emails from Geoff Donahue, communications director for Foster’s, to the council, dated May 26 and May 30, confirm that Foster’s was happy with the agreement and ready for a public announcement “on Monday”.
Meanwhile, however, on May 25, Sartor faxed a letter to Moore. “I am advised,” it said, “that a draft VPA has not been agreed on to-date despite lengthy negotiations.” The letter threatened to declare the CUB site state significant, wresting it from planning committee control.
This forced Moore to call a special meeting of the planning committee. There, on June 7, the four Government members revolted without warning, using their majority to request ministerial intervention. It was, in the words of one councillor, Shayne Mallard, sheer “political bastardry”.
The irony is that the product may be fine. Certainly it’s the right site. If there’s any block in the state positively begging for high-rise, high-density residential development, it’s this one: southern CBD, huge site, major arterial, nearby UTS tower, public transport centre of the universe.
It’s the process that sucks. Whether the main push is anti-local government, anti-Clover, ancient Frank-versus-Clover rivalry or the old ALP anti-women-in-politics-other-than-nodding-dogs, hardly matters.
From the public interest viewpoint, the test will be how high the towers, how much car parking (despite proximity to Central Station) and how many dollars flow from here to the otherwise unfunded Redfern-Waterloo Authority. By then, though, it’ll be too late to cry foul.