Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
The power of the long lunch as discretion chews up regulation
BATTLE FOR NSW
Elizabeth Farrelly looks at how politics has polluted the planning environment.
THE big planning issues in the election are reassuringly elemental. It’s all about land, water and air – how wisely we use them and how much of them we are prepared to dirty, degrade, and waste. Corrupting and complicating it all, though, are those old issues of power.
On the land front, the focus is housing: its affordability, quality and sprawl. Recent Bureau of Statistics data show that in Sydney the centrifugal “white flight” syndrome has at last begun to reverse, for the first time in a century, with young first-home buyers in particular heading inward to city-centre apartments rather than out to ever more distant burbs. Exploiting both inner-city cool and last year’s 3 per cent drop in median apartment prices – compared with the 1 per cent rise in median house prices – this Manhattanisation throws a sceptical light on Sydney’s so-called affordability and rent crises, as talked up by the development and real estate industries. Nevertheless, in bringing cultural as well as environmental city health, it is a phenomenon to be welcomed.
Market forces are good, if they happen to do the right thing. But government is still essential and, in government backbone is crucial. It’s hard – not intellectually, but politically. As last year’s State of the Environment Report notes, Australian state governments, although eager to reap the efficiencies of denser cities, generally show a marked “reluctance to require compliance with clear compact-city policies”. The Iemma Government is a case in point, talking density then buckling in the heat, as in last year’s much publicised about-face to allow land releases in the north-western and south-western strawberry, cherry tomato and bok choy fields.
The boom in apartment living also spotlights two issues that are underconsidered, though hardly unforeseen. The first relates to existing strata-title legislation, which, in requiring owner unanimity for demolition, in effect preserves buildings well past their use-by date. The second, and potentially more explosive, issue is the self-certification system whereby new buildings, instead of being stamped “built as drawn” by council staff, are approved by private certifiers paid by the developer. This system, instituted by the Carr government in 1998 and adopted, for obvious reasons, by most councils, is a recipe for shonky process and shonky product.
The Iemma Government has legislated in the hope of preserving standards, but it’s that old user-pays problem. Who pays the piper, calls the tune.
With water, there are two main issues. There’s the desalinate-or-recycle debate. And the big, bleeping WHY.
The first is a no-brainer. Desalination pollutes so much seawater and guzzles so much electricity that it should be strictly a last resort, not a poll-driven stopgap.
And the second, the bleeper? It’s this. We’ve watched this drought for a while now – measured it, analysed it, prayed about it. So why – dear god, why? – haven’t we prepared our city with every rainwater-harvesting device we can think of? Especially those in the blindingly obvious camp, like mandatory rainwater tanks, on every house, now, and underground water cisterns.
Finally, there’s air. Air is linked to both land use and water by the CO2 graph and the rude, relentless way it just keeps climbing, and climbing and climbing. We know the answer. We know we need to drive less, use less electricity and buy less crap. This is also in the blindingly obvious basket.
But the Government would prefer us to self-discipline, rather than have to discipline us, since it knows, or fears, that we’ll punish it on polling day. But self-discipline isn’t going to happen. What’s the point of not driving, or not squandering, when everyone else is on business-as-usual? There are times, it seems, when governments should be punished for not governing, rather than for governing.
This brings us to the question of power. Politicians have two basic arrows in their power-quiver: regulatory power and discretionary power. Power to make rules, and power to bend them. Traditionally, planning is done mostly by regulation. But postmodern governments don’t like to regulate; it puts them on the spot, makes them unpopular and even, arguably, liable. In a litigious age, governments like to govern (yes, yes, all care) without responsibility. As in the controversial, not to say incendiary, Part 3A.
Part 3A of the Planning Act, as passed by both sides and both houses of Parliament in 2005, then expanded last year, is a statewide planning loophole that gives the minister discretion over pretty much everything. Many people think discretion like this is good. Think “flexibility”, niceness, sophistication. As if government were some kind of yoga. The effect, though, is to destroy any hope of or even real pretence at impartiality; to institute a system of who-lunches-longest-laughs-last. Part 3A is trust-me legislation of the most dangerous sort.
It might be OK were it used to favour the environment. But when the sole beneficiaries are the political mates and the big end of town, you can only hope that we, the electorate, find the courage to vote not from the hip-pocket but for something a little more elemental.
PHOTO: Manhattan Down Under … for the first time in a century first-home buyers in Sydney are heading inward to city-centre apartments, such as these in Kirribilli, rather than out to the suburban fringe. Photo: Peter Morris