ON LINE  opinion  - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

Reversing Sydney's backward momentum

By Robert Gibbons
Posted Thursday, 19 January 2012

The NSW Government came to office in March 2011 with promises to reform a cowed and unprofessional public service, and to provide certainty and professionalism in planning and development approval processes; and the like.

At the time, NSW was going backwards in many respects and a kick in the reverse direction was anticipated. Sydney lacks infrastructure funding and related systems, is losing population and industry to other states, has rapidly escalating congestion and related costs, has a "toxic" climate in its local planning systems, and is afflicted by a fractured system of 62 municipal authorities. Cynicism and apathy are known to be widespread. Waste and mismanagement are rife in state and local systems. Reform interests don't work together in a practicable direction and several rely on dogma-driven publications.

Many countries are progressing their city governance reforms in recognition that community invigoration is at stake – the remedy to apathy and funding crises - as well as responses to the preceding challenges. They do this through community engagement processes which are still missing here. "Localism" is cross-political, non-dogma and universal in logic, and well-enough defined through the UK's and this author's work. (Effectively the government had an holistic reform package in the form of a draft Green Paper, subsequently endorsed by the Premier, from April 2011.)

The putative premier Barry O'Farrell before the election had promised two inquiries, into planning and into local government, separately. He promised to send major "Part 3A" projects to "local government" (as opposed to "local councils"). He also took planning, local government and environment into his own portfolio; and then appointed a Director-General who had Victorian and South Australian experience (seen to be superior-performing states). O'Farrell emphasised the need for localism in several key speeches. Prospects looked good.

At the time, '''The current Environmental Planning and Assessment Act is in desperate need of an overhaul,'' says president of the Local Government Association Keith Rhoades. ''It is a complex system of multilayered plans and policies with numerous development-approval pathways and consent bodies.'''

Enough time has passed to allow some extrapolative assessment of what are critical performance areas for any government – primarily localism. Restructuring of those layers is intrinsic to localism but impossible to achieve in an inertia-based state and local apparatus.

Typical was The Daily Telegraph's editorial on 30 December on planning and electricity privatisation: "Rather than making the changes that NSW needs, (the Premier) is making plans to make the changes that NSW needs. It would be a statewide tragedy if the chance to make those changes was lost due to a belief that there was no rush. There certainly is a rush, and the Premier ought to get moving".

John Mant recently pointed to the failure of the NSW Dyer/Moore inquiry into planning matters in its "issues paper" to come to terms with electronic processes in land use planning, property transactions (including statutory provisions applying to each plot or lot), and land and project development. He referred to "the mind numbing detail of the current shambles" regarding their 238 "questions", see below - and wonder.

The situation is more complicated than that: the coincidental review of local government legislation has emerged from its caucusing and quietly published on its "draft action plan" which is apparently drawn from the bureaucratese of Yes Minister: inquiry here-and-there, working party to …., issue to be defined ….; and so on. While there are 43 proposed LG "functions" (really "ideas"), making a total of almost 300 between the two streams, many of the massive problems revealed by inquiries and the like disappeared and there is a lack of focus on "critical outcomes" including localism.

Indeed, neither process's output was founded on evidence-based analysis which is de rigeur under professional standards. Neither is looking at the "fouled nest" of state and local agencies. Looking at each's website and reports, the public could be excused for thinking there is no real problem. Earlier admonitions were ignored and it would now be foolish to hope that "everything will end up alright" unless there is a strong push for better results.

Planning, architectural, economic and like professions, and community-minded citizens, are also frustrated for their own reasons – with Left and Right coming together in common cause as shown in ResPublica's "Different Politics, Same Planet" (December 2011).

Many of the submissions to Dyer/Moore were cogent, focussed and meaningful. Many of the inquiry's 238 "questions" were not of a minor nature and included, incredibly (in an adventitious spirit perhaps), many matters that had been addressed in detail in submissions and which are profound in significance, such as (less than 6% of the questions):

A6 Should new planning legislation provide a framework for regional strategic planning processes? If so, how should appropriate regions be determined for strategic planning?

A10 How should levies to pay for local and state community infrastructure be set?

A11 What alternatives to – or additional funding sources for – such infrastructure should be considered?

A20 If there is to be a right of appeal or review of a council zoning decision, who should decide that appeal or review?

A21 What are appropriate measures that might be implemented in a new planning system to create public confidence in the integrity of environmental impact statements (and their supporting studies) for major development projects?

B5 Should the objectives address the operation of the new planning legislation?

B14 Should the information available about land on a central portal be able to be legally relied upon, if there is the ability for it to be certified for accuracy?

B17 What should be the role of the Minister in a new planning system?

C1 Should there be an independent State Planning Commission to undertake strategic planning? Or should there be an independent Planning Advisory Board?

C2 Should regional organisations of councils be recognised in new planning legislation?

C3 Should new legislation prescribe a process of community participation prior to the drafting of a plan?

C8 How can new planning legislation co-ordinate with council planning under the Local Government Act?

C14 Should new planning legislation provide a statutory framework for strategic planning?

C17 To which geographical regions should strategic plans apply – catchments or local government areas?

C21 Should there be a review process to deal with issues arising between the Department and councils that relate to the preparation of local environmental plans?

Such questions must produce incredulity in intelligent readers and indicate pre-choices, further reducing the consultative and policy value of the process. Mant referred to the popularly-rejected "templates", and other submissions to the "gateway" rezoning process, which the Minister and officers said at the outset were to stay. (C1 in particular is ignorant of the principles of localism. A6, C1, C2, C8 and C17 and others disregard the logic of the localism packages.)

Meanwhile the myth of amalgamations as a solution is still driving private sector commentators. The Development and Environmental Professionals' Association and the Committee for Sydney in its "Benchmarking" report of 2010 did not assess the increasingly obvious alternative. (The "unificationist" cause was abandoned here in the 1910s. London took until 1965 to achieve a restricted version which failed in 1986 and has been revived in very limited form – the real history is not well understood here.)

The government's inquiries had the challenge before them. Community consultations are heading in "uninformed" directions and restricted scope, and quiescence by professional institutes in particular implies acceptance. The consequences of unsuccessful statutory change in "local governance" are frightening. A century ago Thomas Hughes, John Daniel Fitzgerald, John Garlick and the like pushed Sydney to the forefront of world thinking. The current generation looks weak by comparison.

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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