Many if not most of the people capable of creating the change we need in Sydney’s built environment – in affordable and social housing, better infrastructure, value capture and more sustainable cities – were in the same room on Thursday for the Built Environment Meets Parliament conference.
You’d think Lucy Turnbull could pull a few strings, as chair of the Greater Sydney Commission and married as she is to the PM himself. Rob Stokes, NSW Planning Minister, was there to address the audience, as was chief executive of UrbanGrowth NSW David Pitchford and Government Architect Peter Poulet. Also on stage and in the audience were several more of the best thinkers and doers on the topic.
There was even inspiration from US urban expert Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, who talked about retrofitting America’s huge freeways that have “lanes so wide you could see the curvature of the Earth in them” and retrofitting the suburbs.
(This suburban focus it seems is the latest buzz-thing from the country that implanted car-based design in its national DNA. But not so foreign to Australia, with works such as Lifeboat Cities published years ago by University of Melbourne’s Brendan Gleeson as part of a raft of studies on the topic he did with colleagues when he was at Griffith University. See the latest Griffith Review that Gleeson edited with Julianne Schultz for the most recent thinking on urban topics).
It was the first BEMP to be held in Sydney, at the NSW Parliament, after the event moved away from its original home base in Canberra (unsurprising after Tony Abbott’s Feds scrapped the Cities Unit, and tore up any work that mentioned a unifying approach to how we devise this most important contributor to our national future).
But this new state-based focus for BEMP is interesting. It puts the heat back on the cities themselves and the states which of course have the biggest power in drafting the way we deliver essential planning outcomes in housing and infrastructure. Inclusionary zoning, for instance, is a state-based power. Value uplift capture, another.
These are all powerful and proven instruments that the states can wield whenever they want and in NSW at least are singularly missing. This despite the yawning need for radical policy now that average house prices are tipping $1 million and a raft of new rail projects with not a whiff of value capture.
(The bells that several times interrupted lunch calling MPs to their duties seemed big on metaphor.)
Rob Stokes focused on the need for greater diversity of housing typologies in Sydney. He wanted to see a greater diversity that in years to come would replace the legacy of vast arrays of red tile roofs visible from the air now.
“[Government Architect] Peter Poulet’s team is getting bigger,” said Stokes. and it was a good thing with more departments collaborating to produce the better vision Sydney needed.
He said it was worth thinking about how to provide homes rather than housing as a commodity to be traded.
Maybe owning a home was not as important as long-term security, he indicated, pointing to Berlin where a quarter of the population lives in community owned and subsidised housing and seems perfectly comfortable with the notion.
Shadow environment and infrastructure minister Michael Daley was strong on the value capture issue and surprisingly better briefed and more insightful than you might expect from a member of a party that doesn’t expect to be in power for a while yet.
On the issue of infrastructure and its funding, Daley also added to the increasingly hoary topic of value capture.
The state has a raft of excellent infrastructure projects under way including the North West Rail Link the Light Rail and the Sydney Metro but not one of these is attached to value capture, Daley said. The result is nearby property owners gain a windfall profit as their properties soar in value, but without value capture, the taxpayer gets to pay for the whole cost of the infrastructure that’s delivered the windfall.
Grattan Institute’s transport program director Marion Terrill said later that value capture was no more than a tax (yes, but on a windfall gain…)
What’s interesting on value capture is not the idea itself – it’s been around for years and demonstrated in other countries – but that it’s gaining attention, perhaps a sign that this grain of logic is working its way through those bureaucratic silos.
Debt might be better than asset sales in today’s environment and equity in planning reform is essential
On the sale of assets to fund infrastructure, Daley questioned that wisdom in an environment of historically low interest rates; perhaps it’s better to borrow, he said, weighing into an idea that’s growing momentum.
Daley also demonstrated an understanding of the power that his portfolio has to deliver on social equity along with economic and environmental needs.
Sydney was struggling to meet the demands of the existing population he said, let alone another four million expected.
“Transport is perennially broken,” he said, “so too our schools and hospitals.”
These were, in the end, equity matters, he said.
“You have to go back a long way to find a Sydney less equitable than today.”
“Proper planning is the key – not in town planning, but the detailed planning that will drive connectivity.”
He also said the absence of attention to equity in the last planning reform bill was why it failed. The bill proposed that suburbs in the south such as Bankstown bear a much greater burden to deliver higher density than St Leonards, for instance. And it indicated that the environment of the Lower North Shore was more worthy of protection than that of the Inner West.
Is Sydney just too big? Maybe Dubbo is better
Daley also pointed to the elephant in the room, that Sydney might not need to house another four million people. He didn’t say it but former Dubbo mayor Mathew Dickerson did: perhaps people would be better off moving to our regional centres that could alleviate mortgage burden, provide jobs and a great quality of life.
With fast trains, this could be possible. It was an issue close to the heart of another speaker, Professor Ralph Horne from RMIT and director of the United Nations Global Compact Cities Programme. Horne is involved in the latest proposal for a fast train that banks on value capture for its funding.
- See our article, The big names behind value capture proposal for high-speed rail
Inclusionary zoning can deliver affordable housing, but it’s a work in progress
Facilitator for the first session in the conference, Sydney Morning Herald’s Jacob Saulwick, asked about inclusionary zoning, a topic that has finally made its way into the daily papers. Couldn’t this system mandate a percentage of housing approvals for affordable housing?
There is certainly a crying need. Speakers cited workers who needed to travel from the Central Coast or South Coast to work because they could not afford inner Sydney prices; a teacher who travelled 80 kilometres each day to work.
Turnbull said there had been good past work in delivering affordable housing such as through CityWest but warned that inclusionary zoning needed to be thoughtfully assessed in case it had unintended consequences and created too great a burden on projects.
The matter was being discussed in the right channels of government, she said.
“You need to get the balance right. It’s a work in progress.
“The affordability strategy is something we are working hard on but the government agencies will be critical.”
A truly great city has great places
David Pitchford was keen to reverse the knee jerk reaction that density was an ogre to be avoided. The thinking should be about “great places with great spaces”, he said. He cited Jan Gehl who says that a great city has great buildings, but a truly great city has great places.
The community will not fight projects that it’s been involved in; it values certainty
Jamie Parker, Member for Balmain and a former mayor of Leichhardt Council, notorious for its feisty community and intransigence on planning issues, said the first thing needed to gain higher density was trust and certainty.
It’s fine for the state to send out orders for local councils to draft new local environment plans, he said, but when council works doggedly to meet them and the state keeps changing the goal posts with greater heights, bigger densities and then an almost free for all “go for gold” approach, the community becomes cynical and oppositional.
“People shudder when they hear about ‘iconic buildings’ after the disaster of Barangaroo,” he said.
Even in Leichhardt with its protesting heritage one big development that had been clearly and openly discussed sailed through without problem, flushing out just one resident protester at the final council meeting because the community felt informed and comfortable.
If the Greens can collaborate with the Property Council, anything is possible
Parker wondered why there couldn’t be more collaboration and pointed to WA where Greens Senator Scott Ludlam worked with the WA Property Council to produce a well-regarded plan for well designed greater density.
Jeff Speck said when he’s appointed to a project he liked to collaborate and get a whole team on board. Yes it means sharing the fees but it also means sharing the risk and boosting the number of people with skin in the game. And not a bad strategy to win kudos for future work, you’d imagine.
Not so many cars in 2026
Asked what Sydney would look like in 2026 David Pitchford said “taller, denser, thicker”, but with not as many cars.
“In 2026 we will have crossed over that magical love affair Australians have with the vehicle. We will have moved away from three cars per household.”
And we will have moved closer to the European experience where many young people don’t have licences because they feel so well connected.
Which elicited from The Greens’ Jamie Parker: “Why are we spending $16 billion on a motorway then?” referring to the WestConnex.
Later in her summing up after lunch in the Strangers’ Dining Room Consult Australia chief executive Megan Motto extended an inclusionary hand saying the answers need not be one or the other, high rise or low rise, roads or rail – we could have a balance of all.
What is this fear of bikes? Needs to go
From the audience Julie Bindon from JBA Urban Planning Consultants wondered why there was so much opposition to collaborating on bike paths. The introduction of ebikes could vastly improve the walkability of our cities but growing the range people could cover without cars. In Holland, she said, one train station provided for parking for 5200 bikes. Parker said in NSW politicians were antagonistic to bike paths and actively opposed them.
On the connectivity of power
On bureaucracy and cut through Romilly Madew asked the most pertinent question of all of Jeff Speck: “How do you get the bureaucrats to have the courage to make the changes?”
Madew was talking about how Beck had convinced local government in the US to amend their supersize roads with tree planting and verges that regained the streets for human life forms.
But she probably had in mind the most important connectivity issue of all – how to connect those who have studied the problems of our urban areas and crafted solutions, and those who have the power to implement the solutions.
And that, as they say, is politics. Which is why BEMP is BEMP.