Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
A little bare-faced cheek from the right people works wonders
The luckless former member of Parliament Milton Orkopoulos may have disappeared from the parliamentary website but in his old Swansea electorate the oily business of government barrels on. The to-do over Catherine Hill Bay, a soon-to-be-tiny-no-longer ex-mining hamlet on the Wallarah peninsula, for one, is a microcosm of the planning angst now churning across much of the state.
Pity the Planning Minister, Frank Sartor. He wants, rightly, to increase densities. Not because of population growth which, despite official dogma, is conspicuously not happening. Rather because, as luck and indulgence would have it, our household size is shrinking even as our personal expectations swell; more houses are needed and they must go somewhere. (Somewhere other than Ku-ring-gai, which has divine exemption from the exigencies of climate change.)
So far so defensible. Density saves forests, cleans air and germinates culture. But the means. Ee, lad, the means.
Density, in promoting the greater good at the risk of local upset, needs genuine planning leadership. And the proper, time-honoured way for governments to show such leadership is through land-use zoning. Zoning may be council-proposed but, contrary to popular opinion, has ministerial approval and statutory force. So it’s the right tool for setting strategic settlement patterns.
Twenty years of postmodernism, however, has brought three strong winds to bear against zoning: relativism, monetarism and spin. Relativism made authority look like tyranny and pattern-setting look like totalitarianism. Monetarism convinced us that markets are wise (so that governments needn’t be). And spin let administrations be seen to govern, even while sitting back under a tree.
Maybe we’re fine with this. Who needs government anyway? But for places like Catherine Hill Bay – which the fourth and weakest postmodern wind, the heritage wind, would undoubtedly have us save – relativism, monetarism and spin are winds of death.
Proposals to redevelop Catherine Hill Bay have been around for years. Opposed not only by locals but by the National Trust and the Government’s own departments of planning and of the environment, they’ve also been refused by both Wyong and Lake Macquarie councils, whose boundary the site spans, and rejected by the courts, including the Court of Appeal.
At such a pass, most developers might abandon hope. Not Rosecorp, which in 2002 bought 374 hectares at Catherine Hill Bay from Coal & Allied (aka Rio Tinto). Rosecorp makes “pride in a job well done” its fundamental philosophy. Bob Rose believes “that if a project is to meet [his] high standards … he has to be on top of every detail”.
Details like the Urban Taskforce, which Rose chairs. It is a developer-body created in 1999 as a sunny face for an often shady business. It offers members intimacy with “ministers and senior bureaucrats” and boasts Nick Greiner and Neville Wran as co-patrons. Rose, as the chairman, helped embroider the state-wide statutory loophole that is Part 3A of the Planning Act. And then there was the mysterious amendments to last year’s Lower Hunter Regional Strategy that saw Catherine Hill Bay suddenly nominated, from nowhere, as an obvious development opportunity.
Handy moves, both. In November, with the courts proving so unkind, Rosecorp was able to invoke Part 3A in requesting the minister’s help. The plea, the developer’s new statewide refrain, was that the minister pluck its Catherine Hill Bay bid from the turbid morass of public opinion and shine upon it the clear light of ministerial love. And lo, the minister did pluck.
Zoned mainly Environmental (Protection), Rosecorp’s 370 hectares could take 10 houses, max. Its proposal, ably drawn by EJE architects, makes this 600 houses – in a 100-house village. And it’s not just a proposal. In a memorandum of understanding signed in October by ministers Sartor and Bob Debus (Environment) – three weeks before Rosecorp’s official ministerial request and well before lodgment – Sartor promises to “use reasonable endeavours” to facilitate “rezoning the land … and approval of any concept plan submitted under part 3A … and any other means that achieves or encourages the more intensive use of the land”, explicitly the 600 dwellings on 60 hectares. Rosecorp, in return, undertakes to dedicate its remaining 310 hectares as a conservation reserve.
Makes a good press release, this, except that such altruism has the major upside for Rosecorp of shifting the remediation and maintenance burden to the Crown.
More significant, though, is the deal’s flipside. It is a fundamental principle of law that ministers may not fetter their statutory discretion. And while the memorandum of understanding carefully denies such fettering, how else can this whatever-it-takes clause be interpreted, except that the rezoning is a shoo-in?
A copycat agreement with Coal & Allied, signed the very next day, supports a further 300 houses at Catherine Hill Bay, making a total of 900 new dwellings; a 900 per cent increase in this tiny 100-house hamlet, notwithstanding the Planning Department’s firm advice to cabinet that “no development [should] occur at Catherine Hill Bay”.
And only then, with the deal safely signed, did the public exhibition period begin, submissions to be assessed by an “independent” panel comprising a former department head Gabrielle Kibble, the Heritage Council chief, Mike Collins, and the architect Andrew Andersons. The Urban Taskforce likes to argue for “transparent” planning, and here we see it. Transparent, as in bare-faced.