Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Clean up this mess: put planning on a pedestal
There’s a joke going around Sydney that the McGurk murder couldn’t have been a government job, because it happened. Admittedly, not being across the contractual detail, we can’t say for sure whether it was delivered on time or on budget. (Perhaps it was ordered for 48 hours earlier, when, who knows, it might have saved Della). But it did happen. This alone suggests planning acuity on a scale not achieved by government in this state for a decade.
True, as government theory, incompetence generally beats conspiracy. Sadly, however, the two are not mutually exclusive. Planning in NSW increasingly seems to involve both; a conspiracy of incompetents.
Take Justice David Lloyd’s resounding rejection of Frank Sartor’s Catherine Hill Bay mega-approval, a rare triumph for intelligence and fair play over seemingly insuperable government venality. A hallelujah moment.
Sartor may rear to his full height. He may pretend NSW’s basket-case status was caused by too little development surviving the planning net, though god knows he stretched the mesh. He may insist “the Lower Hunter Regional Strategy is good policy”. But he faces a credibility chasm.
Even the draft strategy, notes Justice Lloyd, stated “‘legally enforceable agreements are being entered into’ to transfer privately owned land to the Minister for the Environment ‘in exchange for appropriate development rights’.” From the start, that is, the “plan” was never more than a deal.
Before Rosecorp’s Catho proposal was even lodged, the minister had promised to “use reasonable endeavours” to facilitate rezoning from 10 houses to 600 and support “any concept plan submitted under part 3A … and any other means that achieves or encourages the more intensive use.” Given he’d already removed most statutory limits on his ministerial discretion, what’s that if not a yes? This alone, found Lloyd, justified “a reasonable apprehension of bias”, rendering both concept and project approval invalid.
Two years ago, having written that Sartor was both betraying us by rezoning protected coastal land for intensive development and, in signing these memos, illegally fettering his discretion, I was hauled in to be ticked off like a school kid by Bob Rose, Catho’s would-be developer. Rose, as Rosecorp, had given $110,000 to the ALP in 2006-07 alone, with as much again since, but he was upset I’d impugned developers’ honour. He was especially indignant on behalf of the Urban Task Force, a lobby group of which he is chairman.
But he missed the point. I wasn’t gunning for developers. Why would we worry, just because the McGurk spirit suddenly seems to pervade NSW development? Just because the task force’s deputy chairman is billionaire Bob Ell, for whom McGurk went debt-collector? Because fellow board members include Currawong developer Allen Linz, whose $15 million bid for the site mysteriously beat McGurk’s $30 million offer, and David Tanevski, who McGurk delighted in sledging and who (as co-owner with Linz of a separate company, KWC) “assessed” the Currawong bids for Unions NSW?
No, we expect a certain amount of snuggly old whatever-it-takes in our developers. We’d be disappointed – right? – if they were paragons of decency. But what we do not and must not expect is ministers and bureaucrats who see themselves as players on the same muddy field. This is the worry, the seamless connect with government. The task force brochure offering members “regular meetings [with] … state and federal government ministers and senior bureaucrats”. Tanevski’s failed bid for ALP preselection; Unions NSW strings on Costa and Robertson; KWC’s funding Michael Costa’s attempt to flog discounted computers to the unions; KWC’s $45,000 ALP donation; Bob Ell’s $50,000; the task force’s CEO Aaron Gadiel, brother-in-law of ALP MP Tania Gadiel and former chief-of-staff to Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid. Ad infinitum. This is the worry.
There’s a long tradition of using rezoning to deliver either apparent favours, as at Currawong, Catho or Pitt Town (see Keith Johnson’s $438,000 to the ALP) or apparent revenge (as in Knowles’s indefensible refusal of Chris Corrigan’s Minto rail interchange or ALP trashing of Barry O’Farrell’s Ku-ring-gai electorate).
Part 3A didn’t start the rot. But, planted by Knowles (who denies even knowing McGurk), nurtured by Sartor and cultivated by Keneally-Tripodi, it kept things nice and fecund: allowing ministers to pluck out a site (a Caritas, or a CUB) for special treatment, to rezone without constraints (remember Anvil Hill?) and to pass it off as public interest.
That’s all legal. Shouldn’t be, but is. What isn’t legal is for the minister to pre-commit his favours for what Lloyd calls a “land bribe.” The approval-for-land swap has become government habit; underpinning the “bio-banking” system and buttering the tin for the Emirates’ helicopter-friendly “eco-resort,” smack dab in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.
Months back, when Keneally cleansed her department of all remaining vertebrates, there was wailing in the woodwork. The death of planning, they cried. But, in truth, they’ve been un-planning NSW for years. You could abolish the entire department and little would change – except the minister’s ability to deliver favours. The answer is not a new planning act. The answer is to elevate planning above roads, transport, housing and infrastructure; to make a long-term plan that only Parliament can change, and to apply it fairly and honestly. (There is no suggestion the Urban Task Force was involved in McGurk’s death).