Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
How do you cook Kellyville max?
SOMETHING virtually impossible to get in Sydney, apart from a decent loaf of bread, is a proper map. This is part of the plot; if we don’t see the big picture in any detail, we can’t dissent to any effect. If, though, you could see the soil patterns of the Sydney basin, and if you could overlay that map with a detailed picture of rainfall, such as it is, and again with a contour-map showing low-lying flood plains, then add yet a fourth layer showing urban density, the diagram that would emerge with astonishing clarity is this: the two designated “growth centres” in the recently finalised Metropolitan Strategy are also our best food-growing lands, by far.
The north-west growth centre runs from Mulgrave to Bidwill, with a major urban centre at Rouse Hill; the south-west growth centre runs from Kemps Creek to Harrington Park, centred on Leppington. Between them, they will receive 160,000 new dwellings and 180,000 new jobs. Fair enough, you might think. Sydney is expecting maybe a million blow-ins over coming decades (though figures are revised downwards all the time) and they have to live somewhere. But here? In Sydney’s vegie basket?
Sydney agriculture generates $1 billion annually; one-eighth of the state’s vegies from just one-hundredth of the land area. This food production provides much needed jobs in rural fringe areas, often sustaining sizeable immigrant populations and, perhaps more importantly, fresh coriander and strawberries for our delectation. And yet government and council policies, across the Hawkesbury-Nepean basin, will plough hundreds of farms under brick and asphalt.
Right across the basin, therefore, land-use battles are brewing. In a market situation, it is widely known, farming can never compete with residential development. Nevertheless, in May this year, the Government killed a right to farm bill that would ensure downshifters were notified of adjacent rural uses (thereby limiting their rights to complain).
Then, in August, the Hawkesbury council amended its local environmental plan to remove rural protection, and with ministerial approval, effectively approve subdivision of 225 hectares of historic farmland outside Pitt Town into 600-odd suburban lots. Never mind that the Pitt Town land belongs to Johnson Property, a big ALP donor that had bought up farmland and had allowed the land to degrade. This issue outweighs common or garden sleaze. What’s at stake here is food.
They’re not big farms. Not the great conglomerate, land-clearing, soul-flattening jobs that so dominate our agriculture and destroy our landscape. The Hawkesbury-Nepean farms, through a combination of tradition, soil fertility and immigration, are generally family-type operations, two-hectare lots often run by Italian, Chinese, Maltese, Yugoslav, Cambodian or Vietnamese farmers.
The small scale has several effects. Prettiness, for one; an embroidered patchwork of fields that shows what Australia might have become, if we’d been less boneheaded about it. Smallness also makes for organic friendliness, especially in the wake of the natural pest-management programs begun after the inadequately labelled pesticide scandal of a few years back. But smallness – and foreignness – also make proprietors easy to intimidate.
A recent rally at Leppington Public School was attended not by immigrant farmers worried about losing their farms but by landholders worried about losing their development rights. “We’ve been conned,” said the Leppington Land and Assets Protection Group representative, Patricia Thirup. “We’re like a load of brumbies. We’ve been corralled and now they’re gonna pick us off. But remember, when they’re putting us in the truck to take us to the meatworks, you gotta be orderly, you gotta be good. You gotta go up that ramp one by one.”
She was talking about land threatened with cut-price compulsory acquisition for town centres, green belts and the like. “Large developers,” she says, “seem to be able to avoid compulsory acquisition; five-acre people don’t. So they buy our land up cheap and make a killing.”
These people, many of whom were at yesterday’s march in the city to protest at the State Government’s sell-out to developers, are not anti-development; they just want to sell for the right price.
So the pro-development push comes from four compass points: the Government, which wants to trade land releases for votes; local councils, which see boom ‘burbs as a windfall source of rates revenue; landowners, for whom these blocks are superannuation; and developers, who do what developers do.
Then, as if that weren’t enough, there is the precedent effect, which is spreading Pitt Town-type approvals west of the river; the monoculture effect, whereby downshifters move to rural “lifestyle blocks” then object strenuously to every noise or smell, every cock crow and mushroom pong that constitutes “rural” in the first place; and the intimidation and disenfranchisement of immigrant farmers who have limited English, no grasp of the system and an acquired fatalism about the workings of power.
But might isn’t necessarily right. It isn’t necessarily bright, either. As Phil Dunesky, of the Pitt Town Residents Group, says, “Without agriculture, there’d be no rural in rural living.” Plus there’s the sheer ugliness, moral and visual, of turning the Hawkesbury into one big housing estate. Not only will the new estates be unavoidably car-based. If we exile our market gardens to the rain shadow beyond the mountains, we’ll have to truck back anything that grows there, or fly it in from south-east Queensland, while those pretty embroidered fields blossom grotesquely with Kellyville max.
Pretty soon it won’t be just maps you can’t buy in Sydney, but anything fresh or green. Still, what the hell. Give ’em hot chips in the computer room. That’s lifestyle.
PHOTO: People power … yesterday’s protest against the sell-out to developers. Photo: Lisa Wiltse