Professor Peter Newman
Professor Peter Newman

ELECTION 2022: With the federal election this Saturday, climate change is growing as an election issue, but sustainability expert Peter Newman points out “there is absolutely nothing on planning on any of the agendas of any political party in this federal election”. 

A professor of sustainability at Curtin University, Peter Newman is credited with coining the term “automobile dependence”. Among his many accomplishments, he is the coordinating lead author for transport for the International Panel on Climate Change, has advised three WA premiers, sat on the board of Infrastructure Australia, has written 20 books and over 350 papers on sustainable cities.

Professor Newman told The Fifth Estate it’s no coincidence that federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese chose to hold the ALP’s official campaign launch in Perth. Rather, it’s because the state now holds three or four marginal seats that could help Labor to claim government.

“The reality is that our state premier absolutely wiped the floor in the last state election and they would like to ride in on his popularity. The Liberal Party collapsed in Western Australia. The Nationals have four [state] seats and the Liberals have two,” Professor Newman said.

“I predict that there will be a wipe-out this election as the big issues related to the future, such as climate change, have been sidelined in the Coalition, as they can’t resolve the deep divisions between the Liberals and Nationals. It will be pretty much across the board in Australia, but it’ll certainly be a wipeout in Western Australia.”

WA consumers and developers powering ahead with renewables

According to Professor Newman, WA has “stumbled into” being a world leader on net zero and the implementation of solar photovoltaics on rooftops.

“We’re talking about civilisation’s future, and Perth has been thrust into the limelight. We have a chance to help show what the next economy can mean for the built environment.”

This has mostly happened because ordinary people have chosen to embrace low-cost solar panels for their roofs, rather than as a result of a government policy.

In terms of town planning, there is absolutely nothing on planning on any of the agendas of any political party in this federal election. The Greens had the odd throwaway line about public transport but not much. Nobody else mentions public transport.

“It’s essentially that people had money and we had very cheap and very easy to install photovoltaics, and so we are now putting on one megawatt a day. And it is growing to the point where it is sometimes 80 to 90 per cent of the grid,” he said.

“By far the biggest power station in WA is now on rooftops. Our south west grid is very distributed now. It’s not part of the NEM (National Electricity Market), the national electricity grid, so solar is becoming a very local thing and needs to be managed with storage and grid services.”

Car dependent sprawl

Of course, when it comes to sustainability in the built environment, getting rid of coal and gas from our electricity supply isn’t the only issue we need to think about. We also need to stop the use of oil and gas for transport around our cities – and that isn’t necessarily a federal issue.

“It’s in our cities, because we have car dependent cities. I invented the term automobile dependence, and I’ve been working on that for 40 years to try and get rid of oil. And this is now happening, thank goodness, but not because of the federal government,” Professor Newman said.

We have the reputation of being the wild west, but it’s not just the wild west. There is a wicked and wise west as well which has produced projects like WGV, which are now spreading.

“In terms of town planning, there is absolutely nothing on planning on any of the agendas of any political party in this federal election. The Greens had the odd throwaway line about public transport but not much. Nobody else mentions public transport. 

“Nobody else mentions town planning as being an issue. But the reality in our system is that the federal government is a long way from town planning. Town planning is a local and state issue. States provide the strategy mostly, but local is where it all happens.”

It’s the wicked and wise west, according to Newman

With strong interest from homebuyers in renewables, many developers in the west – both publicly-owned and private – are “lining up” to do cutting-edge net zero developments around Perth.

“Perth’s development can be characterised as getting the best and the worst. We have the reputation of being the wild west, but it’s not just the wild west. There is a wicked and wise west as well which has produced projects like WGV, which are now spreading,” Professor Newman said.

“We are probably the first city in the world to be going through this transition so completely. It’s not something we planned for but it’s a great opportunity for the built environment professionals and technology servicing companies to become global leaders.”

The sprawl is just appalling now as it stretches so far. People are stuck out in these areas, there’s no work, there’s no childcare support, there’s no services, no public transport.

These include groundbreaking net zero developments by the state’s land development agency, Development WA. These include WGV at White Gum Valley in the City of Fremantle, which fulfils all 17 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“That occurred because there was a partnership between Development WA, which is the government development arm, with some good developers who went with it and support from ARENA at federal level.”

Meanwhile, Hesperia and Witchcliffe Ecovillage are doing groundbreaking work in the private sector.

“There are people like Adrian Fini, who has a reputation for doing high quality urban development, with three or four net zero developments that are test cases for the planning system,” he said.

Unfortunately, alongside these good explars the state includes many developers want to continue building awful urban car-dependent sprawl and those willing to have a go at urban regeneration.

“The sprawl is just appalling now as it stretches so far. People are stuck out in these areas, there’s no work, there’s no childcare support, there’s no services, no public transport. 

“At the same time as that, you’ve got people doing amazing stuff. Award winning globally significant, urban redevelopments that are fantastic. So many sub-centres building much more density than we have ever seen.”

Growing pains for green developments as regulators play catch up

While WA’s homeowners and at least some developers are leading the way in embracing solar and net zero, the problem is that regulations tend to lag behind. 

As a result, WA has no special regulations in place to manage energy efficiency or (at least prior to the most recent state budget) the introduction of electric vehicles.

“The councils are saying: ‘Well, what the heck is this?’ And the planning system is saying: ‘Well, we like the idea strategically’, but further down into the system, the statutory part of it doesn’t really know what to do,” Professor Newman said.

“At the moment, governments have no idea how to control it, which is their first reaction as the manuals don’t fit. But it’s a big chance to facilitate an amazing set of opportunities that are unfolding in our city and region.”

“The old manuals in planning, architecture and energy need to be revised and the regulatory system given a makeover.”

UPDATED 18 May to clarify quotes.

We’ll be doing more on WA’s planning laws, how the planning books shaped some of the issues that Perth faces today, and some potential solutions. If you want to contribute to this get in touch with Andrew@thefifthestate.com.au.

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