Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Don’t tarry, Barry, you need a plan
Typically, in this country, we expect Labor governments to have “visions” (some might say hallucinations) and to impose rules in order to achieve them, inviting charges of utopianism, nanny-statism and ideology. We expect Liberal governments, by contrast, to be free from such scruples, socially conservative but, in economic and planning terms, driven by a single motive – profit.
It’s an urban policy my mother, being extravagantly gifted in the technical language department, would have called Rip, Shit or Bust. But when for 16 years Labor has frenetically pursued every deregulatory, exploitative, special-favours, pro-development, anti-heritage, open-cut, scorched-earth policy imaginable with a greedy gold-toothed grin and still the economy is a basket case, we’re forced to ask questions.
Not only, what can the Libs do that’s any worse, actually, than Labor has already done? But is there a better, and in truth a more conservative, way?
For this is the irony. A truly conservative government would be just that. It would conserve forests, fields, climate and heritage for the long-term, aristocratic view it is presumed to have.
So even if the Libs insist on pursuing that fast-buck new-money constituency towards which a B-grade actor and a grocer’s daughter turned world conservatism, we should be able to rely on the country members – the Nats and Shooters’n’Fishers, between them – to hold the Liberals true, if only for self-interest’s sake.
How can you shoot, after all, if there is no bush left uncleared? And fish, if all the rivers are silted, filthied and drained for irrigation? How can you grow fine wool or even genetically engineered cotton if the last grains of overtilled topsoil have been washed or blown out to sea due to exploitative farming practice?
True conservatism takes a dynastic view, husbanding the land, intensifying the city, and keeping the two clearly distinct. Sadly, this is not the sort of conservatism we get.
Still, you can’t say O’Farrell has let grass grow. Already, in his first few days, he has forsworn Part 3A, pledged to rewrite the entire Planning Act from scratch, and personally adopted an embarrassment of government departments – planning, infrastructure, environment and local government.
These could all be good signs. Planning should always have been dealt with at premier’s and cabinet level, with the other strategic stuff (like roads, transport, water, environment, agriculture and housing) sitting beneath, rather than competing like warring siblings. Even when grassroots-inspired, planning can only work top-down.
Then again, O’Farrell could be hugging planning simply to have more control over the lolly bags, recouping the juicy discretions he’ll lose with Part 3A. He could be disbanding the environment department to the same end. Bad bad bad, but hardly unprecedented in the land of the Rum Corps.
O’Farrell has said he won’t do sprawl, but seems besotted with the massive Landcom-Australand housing development that is The Ponds, Kellyville, repeatedly promising more land release there so “people can have a house with a backyard” .
The Ponds is low density even by Sydney standards. Until five minutes ago it was dairy farm, putting long soft grass into the mouths of jersey cows and milk into the mouths of babes. Now it just grows McMansions.
O’Farrell says The Ponds enjoys “existing infrastructure”, but that’s only if by infrastructure you mean roads. He says it is “seven minutes from Rouse Hill”, but only if you mean seven minutes’ drive. For in fact The Ponds is miles from a rail line and requires at least two car spaces per house. Even if O’Farrell comes good with his Rouse Hill train promise – and let’s face it, train promises are two a penny, this century – the low-densities entrench car-based culture into the never-never.
What is that, if not sprawl? And why has a public utility like Landcom not provided some genuine, visionary leadership? The Australands of this world need no help catering to McMansionist markets. Where they need help, and where governments should focus, is in shifting those markets sideways. Educating, even.
Still, by their deeds shall ye know them – so what should O’Farrell do, now that he is personally planning the state? Well, planning is pretty simple. It needs two things. It needs a vision (hereafter known as the Plan) and a way of getting there, a process (hereafter known as the Act).
The Plan needs to start with the environment, of which the economy is necessarily a subset. It needs to allocate and protect uses in a way that matches a thriving city’s cultural needs to environmental capacities.
The Act needs to start with fairness, enshrining simplicity, impartiality, inflexibility, openness, consultation, and transparency.
Planning in NSW normally goes pear-shaped when ideas of fairness start to drive the Plan. Then, land-uses are allocated according to neither nature nor culture but a desire to be “fair” to landowners whose only concern is that their office tower, or coalmine, or piggery should be bigger than the next guy’s. The result is a bland, shapeless puddle of a city, lacking intensity, romance or form.
So, seven things O’Farrell should do. One, make a clear and durable plan that is above ministerial whim and rests soundly on environmental principles. Two, rewrite the act simply and concisely, minimising flexibility and discretion, protecting heritage and consultation and establishing as-of-right development quotas that preclude aesthetic interference. Three, re-cultivate an impartial and unafraid professionalism within the Department of Planning; good advice, not toadying.
Four, understand that for taste as much as sustainability, sprawl must be stopped, agriculture protected, heritage listed and development concentrated around railway stations. Five, encourage high-quality urbanism that threads density with amenity, including retail, urban agriculture, cycle paths and light rail. Six, understand that the cure for congestion is not more roads, but more enchanting density. Seven, recognise that high-rise, high-density developments like Barangaroo, or such as should be built over Central Station, can play a crucial part in reducing pressure on sensitive heritage fabric.
Barry O’Farrell, leftie visionary. Works for me.