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A tale of three cities - and there's a sting in the tail

"This proposal by Ms Turnbull is just a diversion, an absurdity not worthy of being called a thimble and pea trick, but the agenda behind her smokescreen is worth examining. The GSC is a body set up by premier Baird who, you will recall, had been elected in 2011 on a platform of getting rid of what was undoubtedly the unaccountable and corrupt planning regime of the Labor government. But Premier Baird's promises of returning planning to the community and the councils was soon forgotten and his new government launched reforms that bypassed all community input. These proved to be so unpopular with the public that they were withdrawn and, instead, Premier Baird introduced the GSC, which essentially did the same thing."

Lucy Turnbull is the Chief Commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC), and in this role is promoting the idea of “re-imagining" Sydney as three great separate cities - Eastern Harbour City, the Central Parramatta River City, and the Western City in and around the new airport at Badgerys Creek. These smaller cities will, according to Ms Turnbull, be able (in 40 or so years) to meet an essential criteria for a liveable city - the 30 minute transport target where residents can travel to work in half an hour or less. She went on to say that it was essential to embrace the three-cities approach to deal with Sydney's expected population growth. "There's around 4.6 million people living in Sydney now, by 2036, it's expected that number will be more like 6.2 million, and in another 20 years it will be up to eight million." See Michael Bleby and Su-Lin Tan, “Lucy Turnbull’s Grand Plan for Sydney, Australian Financial Review, November 20, 2016.” www.afr.com/real-estate/lucy-turnbulls-grand-plan-for-sydney-20161118-gss887 [Editor: This address is not linked because it lacks the https prefix.]

Sydney does have a major problem with transport – its now ranked 51st out of 100 cities in terms of ease of travel . Congestion cost Sydney $16.5b in 2015 and its been growing every year largely because of increased car numbers. But to suggest that dividing the city into 3 separate identities will somehow mean people will travel less or faster is an absurdity. People commuting to the city centre from Baulkham Hills, Beecroft or Carlingford will still travel the same distance and face the same delays despite having their home address changed to Parramatta River City. And by the same token this name change won't create more employment in Parramatta or western Sydney. Fixing Sydney's transport is almost entirely dependent on providing massive amounts of infrastructure for public transport and has nothing to do with name changing. If previous governments could not do that when the population was 4 million then they certainly won't be able to do it if the population doubles.

The GSC should be aware that retrofitting infrastructure is hugely expensive and disruptive as shown by the unpopular WestConnex which Ms Turnbull described in 2014 as a “necessary evil”. While there are many who would agree that it is evil - the National Trust described the destruction as the “worst hit to heritage” in Sydney’s history and 12,000 submissions from residents as well as 5 councils opposed the project. (These councils were subsequently replaced by forced amalgamations while demolitions were underway.) In 2015 the project was costed at $16.8b but new estimates suggest that it could rise to $45.3b (including $650m so far spent just on legal battles associated with land acquisition) leaving NSW with an impossible debt that will beggar the state for decades curtailing expenditure on other essential projects such as the need to almost double the number of schools & hospitals.

While this scheme may sound a bit like a plot that was rejected by the script writers of the ABC's Utopia it did not receive much in the way of critical analysis. In fact there was even some faint praise because the proposals did mention the importance of cycling, its commitment to women's needs (more street lighting, ramps for prams and footpaths without pot holes) and even gave a slightly bizarre claim to connecting with indigenous history. If you Google “Greater Sydney Commission Plans for Sydney” you will see some inputs that - like the Telegraph -¬ just repeat the governments press release, trumpeting the joys of Jobs & Growth. But there are precious few questioning the validity of the plan let alone the need for population growth - the exception from MacroBusiness. See https://www.macrobusiness.com.au/2017/08/heres-lucy-turnbull-can-fix-sydney/

However there is more than just Sydney's congestion to consider. For instance the planned population growth will require the construction of 725,000 new dwellings along with 817,000 new jobs at a time when employment is threatened by technological changes. There will also need to be a matching increase in our capacity to handle waste and supply water yet we have governments that allow mining under Sydney' water catchment and won't apply even the mildest restrictions on plastic usage. Developer-related corruption is rife, yet the NSW government cut ICAC [Independent Commission against corruption] funding in half and the federals won't even consider having such a commission. Ms Turnbull claims that Sydney is not full and we need to grow to become a “World City”. Well we could argue that Mumbai or Jakarta also aren't full but most of us would consider the European capital, Brussels at 1 million more liveable than Beijing with its population of over 20 million.

This proposal by Ms Turnbull is just a diversion, an absurdity not worthy of being called a thimble and pea trick,[1] but the agenda behind her smokescreen is worth examining. The GSC is a body set up by premier Baird who, you will recall, had been elected in 2011 on a platform of getting rid of what was undoubtedly the unaccountable and corrupt planning regime of the Labor government. But Premier Baird's promises of returning planning to the community and the councils was soon forgotten and his new government launched reforms that bypassed all community input. These proved to be so unpopular with the public that they were withdrawn and, instead, Premier Baird introduced the GSC, which essentially did the same thing. This is a common tactic of governments. The GSC is but one of a number of unloved bodies, like Urban Growth and the Hunter Development Corporation, that can carry out the dirty work while isolating the government from the responsibility of any unpleasantness. Even more importantly the government can dictate the charter of these agencies, in this case limiting their role to planning for population growth without the need to consider adverse consequences. As an example NSW and Queensland recently removed sea level rise from their state planning policies and the former Labor governments sea level planning benchmarks, based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change data, were rejected, and decisions left to local councils. More than $226 billion in Australian commercial, residential, rail, road and industrial assets is at risk from climate change-induced sea-level rise with close to 250,000 residential properties and 8600 commercial buildings vulnerable, as well as ports, power stations, hospitals, and water and waste facilities. See https://www.thefifthestate.com.au/tag/planning-2

It is hardly likely that Ms Turnbull or anyone in the SGC is a climate sceptic, yet they feel no compulsion to listen to warnings from the Climate Council. None of the media outlets – Fairfax, News, or the ABC - felt it necessary to point out that bigger cities are hotter and more prone to damage from severe storms or even that developer-related corruption has become endemic and might be influencing these decisions. Nor did they mention that Sydney's expansion will come at the expense of its green spaces, air quality, and even its food bowl, which provides the bulk of its fresh food production. See https://theconversation.com/urban-sprawl-is-threatening-sydneys-foodbowl-55156

It seems that all those involved in city planning have restricted their activities to searching for land that can be acquired from fortuitously defunct industrial sites or older dwellings – even schools - that can be replaced with high rise. No one seems to heed warnings from the science community on the threats from increased storm intensity, even though at its current size Sydney will be unable to withstand the adverse effects of climate change. Such is the way civilizations have collapsed in the past. Ideology is no substitute for science.

NOTES

[1] ‘Thimble and pea trick’: The shell game (also known as thimblerig, three shells and a pea, the old army game) is portrayed as a gambling game, but in reality, when a wager for money is made, it is almost always a confidencetrick used to perpetrate fraud. (Wikipedia)

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Comments

What could motivate Lucy Turnbull to this vandalism of what is possibly the most beautiful city in the world? Is she like Kevin Rudd who "came out" in favour of "Big Australia" but actually doesn't really see Australia as home? He doesn't live in Australia any more. Is that how Lucy sees her future, one where she doesn't have to stay in the mess she has helped make of Sydney.