Kristina Keneally, NSW Planning Minister: dealing with the BANANA syndrome – build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone

By Tina Perinotto

– 21 August 2009 – For a “former feminist theologian with a funny accent” Kristina Keneally sure knows how to hold the rapt attention of the property industry’s core players.

As NSW planning minister for nearly 12 months, the industry generally acknowledges – as it’s done with every planning minister for the past 10 years – that she’s been “doing OK”.
Making reforms,  working on slashing red tape and speeding up approvals. Creating the “country’s best planning system,” as she put it.

Just what the property doctor ordered you might think.

But for Property Council members and guests crammed into the Hilton Hotel planning breakfast last Thursday morning, the frustration that lies just beneath the surface of the always polite, ever-smiling industry, managed to break through, thanks to panelist Sylvia Hrovartin

Sylvia Hrovatin: You will know when you’ve got good legislation because it will be opposite of what we’ve got now.

As a planner with a postcode’s worth of housing development under her belt (as PCA NSW chief executive Ken Morrison put it) through Meriton for several years and now Walker Corporation Hrovartin, knows about delivering places for people to live.

The claims to be creating a better planning system in NSW were not convincing enough.

It was rather like the “Emperor’s new clothes,” Hrovatin said.

“I know the system at the moment and it doesn’t work.

“It’s complex, it’s bloated and no-one understands it.”

The blame, she said, was squarely that of the legislation that spawned the system. A good piece of legislation was one that was “more simple, unambiguous, not adversarial”, and did not contain “unnecessary duplication.”

“You will know when you have that system because it is the opposite of the one we have now,” Hrovatin said.

In Sydney, as in all of the bigger cities, Melbourne and Brisbane in particular, planning is a tool that urgently needs better resolution as we try to work out how to jam more people into city clusters, in the face of climate change.

Panellists (left to right): Kristina Keneally, MP, Minister for Planning; Sylvia Hrovatin, general manager approvals, Walker Group Holdings; Nicholas Wolff, chief operating officer, Frasers Greencliff Developments; Alan Stoneham, general manager, Penrith City Council. Moderator: Julie Bindon, JBA Urban Planning

Infill development and higher densities at transport nodes and near facilities is something the development industry wants. But at the same time, it also constantly agitates for more land release, on which to build traditional house and garden packages, which are major drains on infrastructure and other resources.

For the public this signals choice. In the face of climate change and tighter public resources, not to mention that Sydney’s food basin has dramatically shrunk, that is a choice that is increasingly redundant.

At the same time state governments and now the federal, keep talking – and sometimes behaving – as if land release were indeed a priority and citizen’s right that absolutely needs to be met.

As Christine Milne of the Greens pointed out at the Built Environment Meets Parliament conference in Canberra last week, the federal government talks about the urgency of environmental action then goes about chiding the states for not releasing development land fast enough.

In Sydney the debate about where to put the six million people expected to move to Sydney in the medium term, is no closer to resolution.

Shutting the gates is not an option, according to Keneally. “We are a pro-growth government,” she told the breakfast delegates.

Putting greater densities in infill sites close to transport and services makes sense but comes up against those determined to fight this, often  the same local residents who claim to be environmentalists.

Keneally called it the BANANA principle – build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone.

And now debate about inner city infill housing versus suburban sprawl is starting to be socially divisive, at least if you listen to the influential and these days inflammatory Bernard Salt who has weighed in on the side of “more land, more land” and swiped at the inner densities argument as being somehow the product of an inner urban elite.

In The Australian on 30 July Salt was quoted saying:

“The urban elite think that if something is more than walking distance from their terrace house boundary, it must be unsophisticated and uncivilised.

“It’s the modern version of the cultural cringe that you need to be near cafes, bars and restaurants for this culture to rub off on you. People are living just as meaningful lives going to little athletics, to church and the local sausage sizzle. This satellite existence is the new Australia.”

(Of course this doesn’t address resources, merely wishes and wants, a bit like a kid in a lolly shop.)

Melbourne architect and ponderer of these issues, Ivan Rijavec, mulled over this turn of events in a conversation with The Fifth Estate last month, feeling bemused (rather than angry) that his pro-urban density attitude could now be so pilloried, and portrayed as elitist instead of responsible.

He wondered how are Melbourne’s government planners would respond. By shifting the “cast iron” growth boundaries, as they have done recently?

The “anti Australian” undertones in such arguments are dangerous, because they are so simplistic and easy to latch onto by people who don’t want to think about the future or wider consequences. It’s all about personal freedom and personal rights (like smoking and the move to resist seat belts eons ago) and nothing about the public cost, or pain and suffering to loved ones.  In the case of urban sprawl, it’s the future cost of weaker communities and poorer families isolated by the higher petrol prices that will come with peak oil.

For Kristina Keneally, one answer to achieving higher inner urban densities could be technology.

She believes that a lot of the fight against urban densities is because people don’t know how to visualise what will be built.

With today’s sophisticated software complex and “realistic” worlds can now be played with on-line, showing residents the various versions of proposed developments so that they can “walk” around the project, see what it feels like from ground level, or what the shadows are like at 5 o’clock in July, as Keneally put it.

She thinks technology will help with the politics too. At Balmain, in Sydney’s inner west, options for development of major sites are canvassed in an on-line forum where residents “can debate each other, instead of the proponents.” Some residents want a park but some want more housing, she said.

The debate shows the community is “far more diverse than the Sydeny Morning Herald would have us believe,” Keneally said.

Well, that’s a start

tperinotto@thefifthestate.com.au

The Fifth Estate