It actually seems that some of the environmental optimism accompanying the COVID-19 “rupture” is surviving into the recovery phase. How and where is it being expressed and are there opportunities for its extension?

Like fingers clicked in front of a hypnotised subject, the sudden collective wake-up in response to the pandemic has prompted a flood of clear thinking about our cities.

We now realise how “key” our key workers are.

We understand through direct experience the economic and social importance of universal childcare. Improving education more broadly is now urgent.

We question pre-pandemic work patterns. Many would like to continue working at least part time from home.

We appreciate our local neighbourhoods more and wish to improve them.

The lack of congestion and improved air quality across the world was remarkable. Many would like to keep it that way.

Pre-pandemic policy orthodoxies are now contested. Socially corrosive neoliberal and climate-denialist ideologies are no longer tolerated. Most now accept the intensity of recent bushfires is linked to catastrophic climate change and demand more vigorous action to prevent it.

We are concerned about the next generation’s capacity to recover from the economic losses caused by the pandemic. We recognise theirs will be a long hard slog.

We also recognise the interconnections of things; that solving urban problems by attention to isolated atomised components will not deliver the cities we need.

Overall, we appreciate responsible governance, evidence based decision-making in place of its inverse, and the quelling of partisan wars.

Refreshingly, these perspectives are often couched in optimistic terms and accompanied by genuine collective good-will to achieve them. We’ve discovered a depth of social capital that many thought lost.

The Greater Sydney Commission’s recent musings

It now seems many within government agree. One is the Greater Sydney Commission.

Recall that in response to calls for better coordination by government, the Commission was established a few years ago to coordinate and integrate the various plans and agencies that collectively deliver Sydney – transport agencies, planning authorities, policy and decision makers, tiers of government, utilities and the like.

Originally reporting to the Minister for Planning, the work of the Commission was recently brought closer to the centre of state decision-making and now reports to the Premier.

The new chief commissioner and chief executive officer of the Commission presented its current perspectives in a recent webinar – “The city making implications of COVID-19” – presented by the Committee for Sydney.

It’s worth a look because it reveals the extent to which many popular post-pandemic perspectives are finding expression in the Committee’s work program and advice to government.

For example, the chief commissioner shared recent experiences encountered when wearing another of his hats within the state’s Treasury. He reported that during the previous 10 weeks of the pandemic many financial businesses had decamped from central Sydney and Asia back to their national headquarters elsewhere overseas. Other sectors also experienced declines, including tourism and university education.

However, over the same brief period he had witnessed a doubling of applications from advanced manufacturing, “med-tech”, and defence companies to move from Asia to Sydney. From these applications he detected a shift in investment logic away from cheap labour – a reason to locate in many Asian nations – and towards lower sovereign risk, stable government, the rule of law and good lifestyle.

In short, during the strategic rethink currently underway globally, these companies were valuing social capital above cheap labour costs and thus found Australia,  particularly Sydney, attractive.

He saw his task as persuading many of these companies they would find congenial investment ecosystems in western Sydney, particularly around the proposed “Aerotropolis” and “GPOP” (Greater Parramatta and Olympic Park) – two of the “three cities” model developed by the Commission.

The larger message is that the risk from brittle globalised production systems, exposed by the pandemic, is leading not to a universal slowdown but to an economic broadening within Sydney.

In this respect, many of the pandemic policy responses find parallels in climate change abatement measures. Though each may have been grounded in concerns for human well-being, it is becoming evident that the cost of the “do-nothing” option is greater.

Hence, persistence of policies under pre-crisis settings – poor funding of scientific research; small government; failure to innovate; slow phase-out of high-carbon fuels – will be economically harmful at the national level.

Yet, responding to questions during the webinar, the success of the third “harbour” city was pretty much conceived as a continuation of its existing policy settings, with perhaps some attention being warranted in the Kingsford Smith to Port Botany area.

This may be due to the Commission’s acknowledged emphasis on western Sydney rejuvenation. However, there is opportunity – particularly right now – to consider significant intervention in the physical fabric at the very centre of the “Harbour city”.

The ruse of strategic planning

Though optimistic – even uplifting – these integrative strategic perspectives may appear, faint niggles of cynicism linger.

These doubts spring from previous experiences of bold strategic chat and the disappointment of delivery – think of the claims made for WestConnex or the cross-city tunnel and how they all turned out.

The issue is implementation.

Strategic discussions are sexy. Popular imaginations are engaged from the vantage of the commanding heights that few will get to occupy.

Strategic urban policy is ultimately expressed at a granular level.

Too often the language of high-minded strategic policy has been cynically deployed to repackage business-as-usual or ideologically partisan projects; strategy used as marketing.

A sleight of hand is involved. We assume that well-founded strategic direction will be delivered as a direct consequence. We are encouraged to conflate agreed strategic direction with its sometimes-contradictory ultimate output.

Perhaps wilfully, we are comparatively meek when it fails to materialise because the mechanisms of delivery are opaque. Delivery agencies and their defenders have other ideas and are run by experts equipped with arcane knowledge.

And besides, our attentions spans are brief. Flares of disgruntlement are short-lived compared with lengthy periods of grinding delivery.

The consequence is that urban policy is ripe for political gaming. Thus, the lure of greater urban betterment becomes hostage to struggles for partisan ideological advantage.

Yet despite these conditions, it remains entirely reasonable that we insist on comparing strategic policy intentions to the ultimate “facts on the ground”.

Asset recycling and urban land – the Western Distributor

Why, you might ask, are we considering the Western Distributor in the same context as the merits of well-grounded strategic planning?

The Commission has identified the “Harbour City” as one of three that warrants specific attention in its conceptions of Sydney. Improving its productive efficiency is a clear goal.

The land occupied by the above ground road decks of the Western Distributor is largely state owned or controlled. The road decks prevent development above and around them to an extent that is now visible as a furrow dug through valuable surrounding high-rise development.

Not only do the road decks occupy valuable CBD land but they also have long depressed surrounding land value.

CBDs can be understood as high-density precincts hosting high-value economic ecologies that thrive – indeed depend – on physical interconnectivity. Yet the Western Distributor corridor still divides the established CBD-east from the emerging CBD-west.

If a typical write-down period of say 25 years is applied to these road decks then they have long been paid off.

If providing room to grow our single most valuable economic asset – the CBD – then it is entirely reasonable to ask why its current pathologies are allowed to persist.

Further, if a better connected, pedestrian-oriented, more productive city is a strategic goal – and it is – then the same question applies.

If government is concerned to leave a legacy of responsible urban management – developments that will serve subsequent generations both economically and symbolically – then retaining frankly underperforming or wasteful public infrastructure is not the way to achieve that goal.

If we are concerned about recycling government assets – it’s clear government policy – then currently underproductive ones deserve early and urgent attention.

Ongoing infrastructure funding through asset recycling – selling state assets to fund more – only makes sense if the class of assets includes not merely the just-built but those older assets, including land, that could be more effectively deployed.

Is it feasible to lower the Western Distributor?

Some 10 years ago the City of Sydney undertook a preliminary feasibility of lowering the Western Distributor just below ground level between the Sydney Harbour Bridge approach ramps and the alignment of King Street. Different redevelopment options for the resulting unencumbered land were explored to pay for it. Different methods of value recovery were also explored.

For the most intense development, where the state undertook most of the development risk, showed not only full recovery, but also a return to Treasury approaching $1 billion – an amount approximating the cost of the now-delayed Sydney Olympic Park stadium refurbishment.

The study showed that the idea was worth looking at in further detail. If on further examination it proved feasible, and as the road decks and associated land are controlled by it, only the state could undertake such a project.

The whole objective would be to up-cycle scarce developable land for further “Harbour city” CBD growth while relocating the through-route below-grade at no additional cost to government.

Clearly, a specific delivery mechanism would be required to extract the value and fund the works on behalf of government.

Fortunately, government has long used special purpose development authorities for such purposes. For example, the Barangaroo Delivery Authority (BDA) still operates on government land directly adjacent to the Western Distributor corridor.

Why now? 

But if all this is true, you may ask, why do we need to consider it now?

Well, in addition to the opportunity afforded by the big infrastructure rethinks currently underway, there are also proposals to increase development yields in a number of precincts within Central Sydney. If approved by the state these increases would have a number of consequences.

Firstly, they would confer windfall gains to land-owners that might otherwise be directed to funding the lowering of the Western Distributor, as explored previously.

Secondly, the generation of this value will be dissipated – rather than consolidated – according the development programs of individual land-owners. Thus, the prospect of relocating the Western Distributor below grade without significant call on taxpayers would be lost.

Thirdly, the loss of development potential and value-depressive effect of the Western Distributor would persist.

The state currently possesses motive (growing central Sydney; recycling under-used land assets; stimulate the lethargic economy), the means (use of development corporations), opportunity (right now before the value of extra development yield is dissipated) and previous form (successful use of development corporations such as BDA, City West, and Honeysuckle).

It would be a crime not to do it.

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.

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