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On why the built environment should be front and centre

It’s interesting how much of this coming state election in NSW is about the built environment. Or should be. That’s because the most potent issues on the planet right now are the way we intersect with the environment.

But don’t be fooled because the major parties haven’t put development and growth in their core messages.

As Property Council chief Ken Morrison told us in a recent interview published in this issue, Sydney in 2060 will be the size of New York today, about 8.5 billion.

That makes the built environment and how we handle growth a potent political weapon. The state government has already identified property development, house prices and cranes on the horizon as key to building up the state economy (and inflating brown paper bags when no one’s looking).

Morrison says it’s one of the most important conversations we need to have with the community. His members’ welfare and prosperity depends on it. And so does that of everyone who lives in the state.

To accept growth the community needs a payoff, the form of amenities and good public transport, Morrison says. The community is not stupid, “it won’t be sold a pup”.

Look at their fury in Queensland, in Victoria, in the ratings of the Abbott government right now to see he’s right.

Instead in Sydney, we have both major parties committing to the big WestConnex roadway that will soak up $15 billion instead of investing the money to relieve the pressure on the trains and build new public transport.

That’s why there’s such a big storm brewing in the feisty Inner West. There are growing numbers of rallies, reports, coalitions and off-the-record comments from inside the public service.

Think about Ken Morrison’s agenda. Think about the inevitability of growth in Sydney and the rest of Australia. Who in their right minds believes we can continue to sit on this amazing and magnificent continent, in our glorious lifestyle while our neighbours’ houses, farmlands, and populations are subsumed by rising sea levels, crop failures and vicious weather?

To steer this massive change to our cities, governments of all persuasion need to grapple with providing the things that will smooth the transition.

Instead they’re buckling to the insiders’ nod-and-wink club that wants to build these oil-guzzling monoliths because they make money for someone or other.

So what if the big roads don’t provide a fun uninterrupted ride (like Disneyland). People know the score. They know owning a car is going to be a pain in the butt for parking, for congestion, for getting around. So they’re walking away from cars and taking the train and bus and headphones instead.

Wait, could that be the problem?

Sydney’s residents never feel embarrassed to look at what other people do to get up in the world. They’ve seen the East West tunnel killed off in Melbourne and reckon they can do the same in Sydney.

Highly awarded journalist and professor of journalism Wendy Bacon has done some thorough investigation to find what’s going on.

Bacon found WestConnex deal is riddled with the same club members that pick up most of the lucrative public contracts in Sydney.

She says most public servants involved with the issue privately agree with experts such as Terry Rawnsley of SGS Economics & Planning who has just presented the key findings of his City of Sydney’s Independent Report.

“Like him they believe that this is a foolhardy project that’s not in the public interest- but such is the culture of silence and political pressure imposed on public servants these days that the public never gets to hear about this.”

See her detailed article that formed the basis for a speech she gave at one of the rallies here.

Note that The Greens on Thursday said that the Abbott government refused to answer questions in the Senate about the motorway and failed to produce a business plan and traffic modelling – “contrary to an order from the Senate.”

“If Senator Michaelia Cash’s response is anything to go by, we must have struck a nerve,” the Greens said.

Electricity networks

On the electricity networks sell them/don’t sell them – either way there’s good reasoning.

Some people on the green capitalist side say sell the damn things; others are undecided. We’re the kind of green capitalists who look at wealthy property owners and see that the most secure and steady way to make fortunes is to keep the property and collect the rent.

You can also borrow huge amounts against the freehold; 80 per cent sometimes 90 per cent or more of the total value, so why sell?

In fact the Torrens title system is Australia’s brilliant gift to many other parts of the world because it provides a secure property asset that gives banks the confidence to lend. This means you can leverage your asset and borrow to grow wealth instead of having to save for everything you need, as in poor and developing countries that don’t have a good property title system.

Call it kitchen economics 101. Impoverished aristocrats would rather eat porridge and wear last century’s rags before they sell the estate.

So why change the rules when it’s public property?

We’re not sure poles and wires are so different to real property.

Why do we care? Because for some reason we have less trust in a private ownership which is there to maximise profits than we do in public ownership whose objective is the greater good.

And more importantly because we are at the cusp of massive disruption to our energy system. Anything that gives us more control over how that happens is good.

The answer may not be for all of us to go off grid, the answer may be to use the infrastructure we have to share clean energy for all.

New Zealand has come up with a brilliant solution to the same problem. It’s kept three quarters of its poles and wires in public ownership and listed the rest on the stock market – a more disciplined kind of public ownership – so that the market forces keep a rein on efficiencies.

As The Fifth Estate often says the best answer to tough decisions is usually somewhere in the middle.

This is a time for compromise and collaboration.

On the most important or fragile part of the built environment, we’re extremely disappointed that the NSW government on Thursday said it would scrap acts protecting native vegetation and threatened species if re-elected.

The National Parks Association of NSW chief executive Kevin Evans said it perfectly. This was “ignorant ideology” driving policy.

It’s likely that despite this disappointment, snuck in in the final countdown, that the LNP will win back government. We hope it’s with a much reduced majority that will make it clear it needs to engage the community rather than small but powerful interest groups on the important issues driving the future.

Those small interest groups might be powerful, but while we still have elections, there’s another interest group with a much louder voice.