Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
There’s more than one side to the developer story – or so we hope
Elizabeth Farrelly; Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, planning and aesthetic issues for the Herald.
Developers have feelings, too. Or so they’d have us think, judging by the number of hurt, defensive and downright threatening responses to recent comments in this column. Words like besmirch, attack and denigrate figure strongly. Also image, reputation and descency (sic), indicating the kind and degree of emotion involved. Then there are those looks of genuine disbelief. You’re seriously describing this profession as shady? You’re saying developers lie? So perhaps it’s time we took a look from the big-chair side of the developer’s desk.
Someone, after all, has to build the place. Or, as one developer put it in a surprise echo of the feminist Camille Paglia, “we’d still be living in mud huts”. Someone has to borrow the money, battle the council, screw – sorry, manage – the subbies and generally shoulder the risk. And make no mistake, there is risk. Developers lose their shirts all the time, and while we, the public, might think it couldn’t happen to a nicer set of blokes, they’re not always the ones you’d thank for going topless. Then again, the reason developers stand to make those vast windfall gains (you know – from the spot rezoning, the mass tree-poisoning, the sudden catastrophic fire) is risk. Developer profit is really risk money.
What risk? Well, there’s no shortage. A council could get feral and decide to stick to its planning code. That’s a risk. Not a big one, but it’s there and could land you in court, paying some fat barrister to peer down his pince-nez at you for a thousand bucks an hour and still not being quite sure he’s with you. You could spend 12 months locked in argy-bargy with council planners, amending your proposal past recognition only to find the council, when you finally get there, would have preferred plan A.
You could pay some tame consultant 20 grand to make a case for your particular ambit claim to be deemed state- significant, and the same again to take the minister seven-star trout fishing, only to find it’s the wrong minister, or you need federal approval as well, or Crown approval as landowner. Or there’s some endangered pink-toed skink under a tea-cosy somewhere, and the whole thing reverts to mush.
So you breathe deeply and start over, expanding the payroll to suckle all those out-to-pasture premiers-turned-lobbyists for whom global business-class twice a year isn’t peccadillo enough. They don’t come cheap. Then there are the party donations, the bashings and intimidations and black-tie dinners at five grand a head – and still no guarantee you’ll even be on the top table. You could have to follow the minister to the boys’ room to get a quiet word, and then what might the press make of it? Oh yes, it’s a risky business all right.
Plus there’s the public. Developers have to deal with us, the great unwashed. And what a hypocritical lot we are, actually. Wanting traffic calming, then when it gets calm, whingeing about congestion. Obsessing over property prices then, when they rise, whingeing about affordability and whether the children can buy in next door. Demanding consultation, then voting for whoever promises to cut red tape and get the job done. Wanting pristine wilderness, beaches and strawberry fields, and also wanting to build there. Just for our retirement, of course. So as not to burden the state.
All this has forced developers to lobby against decades of environmental and heritage legislation; to push for bulk approvals – more, bigger, higher – at 11pm on Christmas Eve. Just to get something built. Anything, really. Just to pre-empt a mass development fraternity exodus from Sydney to Surfers. Or Subiaco. Or Launceston. Crikey, be reasonable. Think of the jobs. Think of the private schools. Think of the property values.
And that’s it, really. Developers, like the rest of us, have kids. They worry about the future, about climate change, about the rare pink-toed skink, just as you do. They know there’s no time to waste. They know that while consultation might feel good, the practical difference it makes is finally zero. That, with the environment, there are times when just do it is required. And that’s the only reason they’re pro-density. It’s not about yield. Heavens no. Nothing could be further from their thoughts. If profit and eco-friendliness happen to coincide, well, that’s just lucky.
But do you have any idea what stress all this can induce in a developer? How much time it takes? As one Bankstown developer noted recently, “I haven’t got time to say hello to anyone. I haven’t got time to have lunch with my wife. How much time have I got for something that isn’t even worth one cent?” How much, indeed.
As developers like to say, anti-development people are just envious. If they knew how hard developers try, and at what personal cost, they might be more understanding. So be nice to developers. After all, they’re human beings, too. And they know where you live. They built it.