Colonial Sydney

28 February 2013  Comment: While the Victorian Government rolls out a detailed plan for community engagement in its new Metropolitan Strategy, in NSW similar plans, if they exist, are under lock and key.

According to Liam McKay director community and stakeholder engagement with the NSW Planning Department, he’s restricted on what he can say about how the community will be able to engage in the controversial new planning regime for the state, because of the imminent release of the white paper on planning changes.

It’s a Cabinet matter, he told The Fifth Estate on Tuesday.

Besides it would be “arrogant” to tell the community what mechanisms it might prefer for its engagement in the consultation process.

However, though he could not discuss specific plans, he could provide a framework of the thinking in play.

The planning reforms have angered community groups and ignited a furore in commentary in articles published on The Fifth Estate over the past two weeks.


The biggest target of the anger is plans to engage consultation at the strategic level, but to lock out debate at the project specific level.

Under the changes, zoning will be liberalised and major industrial, retail and new housing projects could be assumed to be “code compliant” giving developers right of way.

It’s a victory for a decade-long lobbying campaign initiated by the Institute of Public Affairs to deregulate zoning, supported by regular visits from Wendell Cox, US advocate of free-market principles housing and zoning and avid lobbyist for freeways and against public transport, and The NSW Urban Task Force.

The Urban Task Force and other developers have also been fiercely contesting the lock-down attitude against development that, in some areas, has prevented higher density even on railway stations and transit corridors, a form that planners say is most sustainable.

This is an outcome that makes genuine greenies cringe: the kind of line that says the solution is to shove growth “somewhere else”.

So developers are training their sights on tougher inner city targets and calling them “selfish”.

But that’s not right either.

There more to this story than selfish residents.

Planners and strategic-thinking people will tell you about structural issues such as huge overheads in big companies that bump up the cost of development.  Another is the persistent refusal to innovate in an industry that is still reinventing the wheel with each project.

A NSW Urban Task Force breakfast forum on Wednesday morning identified another systemic failure: the lack of meaningful engagement with the community.

Task Force chief executive Chris Johnson kept bringing discussion back to the speed of development approvals.

Mayors, such as Ben Keneally of Botany Bay, said more time invested in engaging with local residents could result in better quality development that will be embraced by all stakeholders.

See our recent report

Corinne Fisher, founder and convenor of the Better Planning Network, a fast growing coalition of currently 260 community groups, asked the department. And drew a blank.

It could well be a timing issue, as Liam McKay said, but it’s certainly a contrast to the detailed planning and funding offered by the Victorian Coalition Government.

Plans for community engagement in the Discussion Paper for the new Melbourne Metropolitan Strategy includes.

  • a “conversation toolkit”
  • a “conversation workbook”
  • access to facilitators
  • venue hire, or “reimbursement for reasonable costs associated with hosting an event
  • online forums
  • surveys
  • a YouTube channel
  • Twitter feeds.

Victorian Planning minister Matthew Guy said: “Every individual or group that engages in the consultation process could drive a further 10, 20 or more people to be involved.

“Dramatically expanding community consultation will result in the

development of long-term plans with community support and secure Melbourne as one of the world’s most liveable cities for generations to come.”

Can Sydney residents hope to be similarly well resourced?

According to McKay, though he could not discuss specific plans he could provide a framework of the thinking in play.

The concept, he said, was to ask the community how it would like to engage, not to lay out the rules and processes

“What we’re trying to look for, rather than the shrill noise…is greater collaboration and constructive comments. Logical debate.”

“Social media is one way, but it’s not a silver bullet.”

“It’s arrogant to dictate a way.

What would not happen was the “old way” which was to “stick an ad in the deadwood newspapers…and no-one wrote to us… let’s face it, the demographic is over 50.

“So we’ve got to be really honest. Is it that they really don’t care or because we haven’t done a good job to involve the community to understand? That’s the challenge.”

Sydney has some great examples of excellent community consultation: the City of Sydney, Canada Bay with its citizen’s jury and Mosman with its junction redevelopment, says McKay.

“We do want to do it collaboratively. Be more transparent. How easy is it to find information?”

If you make the planning system easier to understand, it will have much larger numbers of people involved, McKay says.

He pointed to Queensland’s successful south-east Queensland growth plans, which accommodated an influx of 1700 people a week, using community engagement focused primarily on strategic planning.

Was this a fair comparison?

SE Queensland integrated a strong transport plan into the strategy. Its culture was set firmly on growth, with open arms.

Sydney culture could be a polar opposite: Australia’s oldest city, with the highest density, cramped roads and settlements that evolved from colonial goat tracks, a bruising history of bad development and a political record of pure fantasy when it came to delivery of promised transport projects.

(Remember the clever little cartoon/map of Sydney’s “transport strategy”?  A series of straight lines randomly distributed, not one connected.)

McKay agreed there were significant differences.

He said the new planning system did “not mean there would not be land use conflict, but at least some understanding of the guiding principles”.

The government wants the community to engage at the strategic level, work out which areas will have the high density, which areas will be served by public transport and which will be intensified in other ways and which preserved, he says.

Already he says, the green paper had delivered a good track record of community engagement.

It had included more than 2000 people meeting in 50 regional areas, with more than half the participants involving the community and the balance the development industry and local authorities.

“We got extremely encouraging feedback.”

“The overwhelming message from the meetings was that people feel disconnected to the planning system. That the system was confusing and process driven.”

The call was for a new system that was in “plain English” and could get things right, up front.

Among the changes will be “overhauling our website within the budgetary limits imposed”

Transparency was key.

“It’s important is that the government can be held to account.”

What there won’t be room for is “selfish cynicism” from people “lucky enough to get here a certain time” and who don’t want to embrace any more growth. The “certain percentage of people in certain areas who should not hold an economy to ransom”.

There was a need to “put transport in context of urban planning.” To not perform the “three card trick”.

Infrastructure needs to be planned for. Yes, but also paid for. Where is the certainty that the plans for trains and infrastructure will be funded and resourcing not dropped in favour of the next political expediency?

McKay says no funding could be guaranteed beyond a few years.  Former statutory bodies such as the former Cumberland County Council in Sydney and in Melbourne, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, which managed infrastructure, had long range plans but McKay denies they were also funded long term.

“Nothing is resourced for 20 years which is why they got rid of the MMBW and the Cumberland County Council,” McKay says.

“What we’re trying to do is working with the community at a higher space and set the ground rules.

“This is a game changer. This is not planning as we’ve done it in the past.”