It’s the wild west down south (and elsewhere)

By Tina Perinotto

10 December 2010 – The Fifth Estate newsletter this issue has been sent from Melbourne, that wild place down south where the very first thing the newly elected government does is throw out the city’s major urban plans.

Plans developed in years of painstaking, groundbreaking work by Melbourne City Council’s Rob Adams to place infill development along the transport routes are no longer acceptable, apparently.

Already-compromised urban growth boundaries are to be “reviewed” and more greenfield land thrown open to hungry resi developers baying at the gates. Believe it or not the new premier Ted Bailleu is an architect.

You can only hope that the Sir Humphreys of the world will soon be whispering, “Such a courageous decision, Mr Baillieu.”

NSW is no different. In Sydney Premier Keneally extravagantly threw away hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars when she ditched the good, but not very well explained, metro light rail, after local residents raised a fuss. A slightly more sensitive implementation plan that avoided ripping down a few much loved buildings might have avoided the fiasco.

Unfortunately Baillieu and Keneally are not aberrations but very much politicians of their time. It’s the same governance-by-focus group that dominated the last federal election.

What’s so alarming is that the trend towards “aggressively interventionist” planning ministers has migrated right to the top.

The term was coined by highly regarded planner Marcus Spiller, a director of SGS Economics & Planning to explain how our notion of planning and democratic rights have changed.

“Planning,” says Spiller, “has been taken hostage by the electoral cycle… but cities take generations to shape.”

When Spiller started his career, he told The Fifth Estate this week, “planning was bipartisan, not political at all.”

Plans were prepared at arms length by a statutory authority or semi-democratically mandated bodies like the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works or the Cumberland County Council in NSW, he said.

“The state government approved the plans but they weren’t involved in the day to day development or implementation of the plans.

“It meant the minister could sit above the political fray and didn’t own the plan directly so they weren’t called in to bat every time a problem arose.

In NSW things have settled down for now but in the recent past, there have been “very aggressively interventionist” planning minsters, Spiller says.

Of course opposition parties everywhere want to differentiate themselves from their competitors,  “So every time there is a change of government there is a change of direction.”

And that simply doesn’t gel with cities, which take generations to shape. What we need are longer-term solutions.

Instead the Cain Government dismantled the MMBW in a move towards apparent greater democracy in planning. A similar thing happened to Cumberland County Council. But in London, the Greater London Authority still ploughs on and most of the world’s major cities also have metropolitan planning authorities.

The problem now is that the mention of a change in governance structures causes huge angst. The fear is a loss of democracy. But democracy for who?

A great outcome for local residents is not necessarily a win for all metropolitan residents.

Climate change is serious and inevitable. The ugly truth is we have missed our chance and the focus for many governments now is how to adapt to  climate change.

Dealing with these issues requires  big picture thinking. Not a “does my bum look big in this” style of town planning.

As Spiller points out the democratic planning we’ve had for a few decades now has not delivered the planning we need.

Spiller has written a paper about his ideas to re-invent the wheel we lost, with modifications of course. Perhaps a commission.

“It is essential that any such commission be seen to have an independent, albeit subsidiary, mandate to that of the state government. We could do worse than re-instate the seven board member model with three including the chair appointed by the state and four elected – directly or by electoral college – by sub-regions comprising the metropolis,” he says.

Spiller also co-authored a Griffith University paper with Brendan Gleeson and Jago Dodson on the governance issues for cities, Metropolitan governance for the Australian city: The case for reform

The paper starts: “Our premise is that serious urban governance failings will inhibit responses to manifest threats to national sustainability and security, especially global economic instability, climate change, resource insecurity and social inequity. A shift to stronger and more explicit metropolitan governance is no simple panacea for these complex threats, but we see it as a precondition for comprehensive policy response.

“There is a stark social gradient to this mounting stress and vulnerability. Poorer and modest income communities are overrepresented in the metropolitan areas suffering locational disadvantage. …In this way, the failing structural make up of our cities emerges as a major issue for social equity and inclusion at the national scale.

Pity that the paper has been so controversial.

Let’s take a breath. These issues are not about taking away rights, but about sharing responsibility on behalf of whole communities.

As Spiller tells it we need to reinstate some of the institutional frameworks whereby metropolitan planning “sits outside of the day to day purview of the minister.”

You really do have to follow the argument carefully though.

We’ve published provided some access to the arguments here and in the coming period will bring you more, including an account of Brendan Gleeson’s fascinating presentation to a recent Arup forum in Sydney, part of it’s New Agenda series.

Gleeson is another of the best thinkers on urban policy in Australia, someone not afraid to venture into the volatile territory of the seemingly politically incorrect, such as why we need to re-invent our suburbs.

Sadly Australia has lost Gleeson, at least for three years. He was off to Ireland this week to take a post at the National University of Ireland at Maynooth in Dublin, where he will be city director of the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis.

But don’t think he’s escaped controversy. Gleeson has ventured into possibly the most disturbing planning issue to emerge on the global sphere. It’s how laissez-faire planning laws directly contributed to Ireland’s economic meltdown and how people are now trying to live in “ghost estates”, in houses that have no plumbing, are unfinished and have no hope of refinance to enable completion.

It’s the subject of a paper that his new university released to worldwide outraged coverage just this week.