By Michael Mobbs

29 November 2011 – Question: I want to lobby for a food garden along with my neighbours but the council staff don’t want it. How can I persuade the council to approve a food garden in our park if the staff oppose it?

Answer: Let me tell you a story.

Where I live, in Chippendale, Sydney, for the last 200 years the city has spread 50 kilometres beyond Chippendale. When the little town was first formed Chippendale was a rich valley and that was where the white settlers made their first farm.

For two centuries the cycle from trees and bush to farm to suburb that created Chippendale was repeated hundreds of times.

In 1985 we – the community and the council – blocked off a central street, Myrtle street, and turned one block of it into a park, Peace Park. It’s become a much-loved heart for the suburb. Office workers lunch there, dogs and their owners pause there, and it hosts picnics and kids playing, occasional fairs and public events.

The decision to block the road off and make the park was hard-fought and, like many such attempts by a local community to get what it wants, was forced on the council staff who opposed it. But the councillors and community decided they wanted it and there it is, despite staff of the day recommending against it.

It may be handy for you to hear how we overcame council staff opposition. The politics of food directly involve local, state and federal politicians and staff in government agencies, most of whom are responsible for designing, approving and maintaining cities, supermarkets, food systems and rules which favour the current, polluting, unsustainable city frameworks. In summary:

  • In the 1980s there’d been an outbreak of democracy at the local government level in Sydney city, and citizens were voting for independents as they’d never done before (I was one of the independents)
  • In a city which had been run by major parties for the last 60 years the independent councillors outnumbered each of the political parties
  • To retain control of the council the political parties made a secret agreement to vote as a block and so combine their numbers and parties to outvote the independents – they met before council meetings to work out how to vote together at the meeting on particular items
  • The staff put a recommendation to the council to turn vacant land in Myrtle Street owned by council – which then was a can and condom scattered moonscape – into a child care centre and did this without telling the community or asking us
  • The community had been using the vacant land as a park and wanted it to be made permanent;
  • Chippendale then and now is surrounded by four of Australia’s busiest roads, rivers of steel, and this would be our first park, one that we could get to on foot in safety and with enjoyment on the way
  • But if independents, including me, were to oppose the staff’s recommendations and seek a park then, simply to assert their power, and to keep staff loyal to them, the major parties were certain to accept the staff recommendation
  • We were looking at losing our park and we did not have political or staff support
  • So a few independent councillors who were friends with some councillors in the parties quietly lobbied them to get them to reject the staff proposal and create a park
  • The argument in the secret party meeting was won, apparently, by a selfish political argument and not by arguments about amenity, the benefits of parks, the alternative sites for the child care centre
  • The winning argument was that child care centres were mostly used by people who voted for independents and independents were the main users of child care centres so the staff were really only creating a facility for independents (particularly those who worked at the nearby universities) and the independents would look better politically if the staff proposal was accepted
  • This argument was put in a secret meeting by one of the councillors in the major parties who was sympathetic to the idea of a park; he constructed it to persuade councillors who had no interest in parks to go against the staff’s recommendations for a child care centre and to choose a park
  • So, to spite the independents and to secure what they anticipated to be a political advantage, the major party councillors chose a park and they claimed public credit for their actions.

And, ironically, the council named it “Peace Park”.

Parks and food – anything, really – can be all about politics, not about sustaining our environment or other rational things.

Remember this story if you’re wanting to get political support for your sustainable food project.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of both the staff and the politicians. Don’t be romantic. Ask, “What’s in this for the staff? What’s in this for the councillors?”

Expect that you, the community, will usually be at a disadvantage because many politicians depend on staff for ideas and answers and so tend to support them and their agenda not the community’s.

And expect staff almost always to oppose community ideas because, to the staff, a city is best managed by them, not the community.

Many government staff think with their eyes looking in the rear view mirror; they think the past works, that what was done yesterday should be done tomorrow, that that’s the safe way to “govern” or “think”. They fear change.

They particularly oppose change which sees them losing power, working with a smaller budget, having less control. Being in control is always their priority – not sustaining water, energy, land and the foundations of our culture.

Think of them as thinking like supermarkets; just the one model works – they rule, not the community. The idea of empowering the community to take responsibility for parks, roads, trees, food, transport will almost always be rejected when the staff are afraid their budgets, control and powers will be reduced.

(Of course, there are wonderful exceptions in both staff and elected officers but they’re rare and even rarer are those who can put natural resources first and prevail.)

Test this assertion by looking around you: every road, building, park, tree and thing has been carefully chosen, designed, built and is being maintained by rules councils and governments make.

And it’s those decisions which have made cities and environments so polluting, water-wasting, energy-wasting and which generate rivers of daily waste all of which are causing major damage to Earth’s atmosphere, your local community and our rivers, groundwaters, oceans, farms and much of what we see.

Back yourself. Trust your gut instincts over governments. They’ll continue to cause so much damage until we persuade them to behave differently.

“We are the 99 per cent”.

Go for it.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach and author (of Sustainable House now in its second edition) who advises, teaches and speaks on sustainability issues. He works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy.