Opening address by…

Barry O’Keefe

President, The National Trust

Thank you for your generous introduction Mr Walshe.

Madam Mayor, Councillors, ladies and gentlemen. First, I would like to thank the organisers, the Combined Precinct Associations, Sutherland Shire Environment Centre, Eco-Transit Sydney, and Total Environment Centre, and the major sponsor Sutherland Shire Council, who have invited me to take part in today’s Forum.

It is 10 years since I left Local Government, so I am able to look at proposals from outside the system. It is 10 years since I was elected President of the National Trust and I am able, as a consequence, to bring to bear an additional dimension to my analyses. But notwithstanding the fact that I have been 10 years out of Local Government, perhaps more because of that, I am even now more and more convinced of the value of the democratic method, in which people have a real say in relation to things that matter – that matter in their lives and the lives of those who matter to them.

Deep in the heart of each individual there is planted a desire to be loved. The fulfilment of that desire is a complex matter. There are many factors involved in it, as there are in the complexity of human nature itself. However, one mechanism for the satisfaction of this desire to be loved is a sense of belonging. Belonging usually involves the individual relating to some group. It may be, at the macro level, a family.

On a broader plane, it may be a religious group. It may be a group such as a political party, but for many the satisfaction (at least in part) of a sense of belonging, which is part of that desire to be loved, will involve a place and a sense of place. Place in the geographic sense and place in the particular sense, that is being within something. The place may be a nation. I may be able say, as I do whenever I travel abroad, I am proud to be an Australian. It is a badge that gets you not merely recognition, but acceptance in most countries throughout the world. A place may be a State. ‘Up the Waratahs!’ ‘Go the Banana Benders!’; that sense of association with a large geographic area that one would hope would be prosperous and well regarded. It may be a suburb or a small geographic area or it may be home.

But at grass roots the fundamental thing that will matter most will be the small, more proximate unit in which one can feel a sense of belonging. The combination of the last two factors that I mentioned, suburb or smaller geographic area and home, are for most people very important. Peace, pride and, for many, a sense of permanence are the essence of this way to experience the sense of belonging. We, that is most of us, go through various phases of our lives. As we grow older, but younger than I am, as young adults in particular we roam, we experience the world, we sow our wild oats, if we have any to sow, and most of us do. We establish our identities. That is the process of maturation. And then we come to that stage where we ‘settle down’.

That frequently involves the selection of a place to live, and it is through this choice that we begin to experience a sense of belonging in place, and thus, the fulfilment of the deep seated desire that I spoke of earlier.

Home is where the heart is! And home is also where most of us have our most significant investment, in economic terms, that we will ever make in our lives. As I have said, peace and pride and permanence are part of the home. And in settling down in a particular place, the investment that we make, which will be a very long-term investment for most of us, will be part and parcel of putting down out roots. And in making the selection and occupying our homes, the process brings together two great forces in life: the desire to be loved, and the desire to feel a sense of belonging as part of that, and the protection of our prime asset. And what is true of each individual, is also true of groups of individuals – people who share things in and about the places or areas in which they live – that is a sense of community. That is how a community, with all the benefits that flow from it, develops.

And it is peace and the pride and the permanence of place that are threatened, or perceived to be threatened, by any change. That is a very significant word, threat of change. Most people see change in terms of threat in relation to those very special matters. Particularly in the planning field, we have seen again and again that changes in planning can pose threats to most, if not all, of us.

We have seen time and time again, that change has moved places from quiet, peaceful owner-owned cottages, to rented high-rise buildings. That pattern is all too common. It has been repeated over and over again throughout the years, under many guises of planning change. This may well be because the objectives or goals of central government, that is, at the State level, on the one hand, and those of local communities on the other, are not in harmony.

The policy of central government, at the State level, has been over the years, to locate more people in the same place; so central planning has equated with further crowding. At the local level, the status quo, or recognising that some minor changes will occur, has been the norm. The conflict between the objectives at State level and at local level, and the processes that have been used by central government at the State level, have led to distrust by local communities of the planning administration of State Government. That distrust has been heightened by what has been seen by many as a heavy-handed, bureaucracy-driven, threatening approach to urban consolidation.

Some of you who have been on Councils and those of you who are in communities, will have seen your Councils publish virtual edicts from central government to ‘do this, or we will take the process out of your hands’. By so saying, in effect, the process is being taken out of your hands.

As a Judge I know, if a gun is held at somebody’s head and they sign a contract, they will be able to avoid the contract on the basis that there is no free will involved in the entry into the document. And so too with local councils. They become the whipping boys for the implementation of State Government policies which they have little if any choice about. Now that’s been so in the past. All of those processes being worked through, we are faced now with a new concept: locality or place-based planning. Conceptually, it is, as the Chairman says, something that sounds ‘good’. It looks as if it has much to commend it. You learn in the law, however, to listen for the ‘but’, and there is a ‘but’.

If I could digress for a minute, I remember as a very young barrister doing a case before the late Judge Amsberg, who had tied for the University Medal with Sir Garfield Barwick, a very brilliant man. And I put my heart and soul into this case, and the Judge started off saying ‘Mr O’Keefe, although young in years and experience, has put this case with a maturity and a force which is most commendable.’ And my solicitor tugged my gown and said, ‘We’ve lost.’ And the next word that Judge Amsberg said was ‘but’. And then we had lost!

So it’s the buts that matter; it’s the ‘buts’ that you have got to look at and examine. Because ‘buts’ raise a question without posing an answer. It sounds good but how will it work? Will it involve real community involvement? How will communities be defined geographically? And who will define them? Are the objectives at State level, and in the State bureaucracy, the same as at the local level? Be it your Council or your smaller community? Is this just another way of bringing about greater concentrations of populations in existing areas? Another round of urban consolidation under another name? They are the questions that are raised.

They are questions that I hope would be thrashed out in this community, with firm messages, answers to the questions, formulated and made known to State Government. Can we as communities make it work? For in the end we will be faced with the process whether we like it or not. How do we make it work? That will be pivotal to this Forum. How can we ensure that our communities are as we want them to be, rather than as someone in Macquarie Street thinks they should be – those people not living where we are living?

The changes that are being talked about sound good and could be good, but they raise the spectre, as do all proposals for changes in planning, of local against central, of Council and people against State Government and its bureaucracies. The place of the National Trust in this is not without significance. The Trust is concerned, not with just grand buildings, or miners huts in Broken Hill, not so grand buildings. It’s concerned with our heritage. Built, natural and cultural. And all three of those, in places like Sutherland and Mosman where I come from, are integrated. The cultural life of a community will very largely be determined by the housing form of that community. Are there detached houses that will encourage children and pets and people who are involved in community activities, as opposed to high-rise buildings that are in the main occupied by lessees, who use them merely to sleep and have the odd party? That will determine the cultural life of a community.

Similarly, it will determine the way in which the Council responds. Will it provide day-care centres? Will it provide parks? Will it provide sporting facilities? The answer is, it won’t do so to the same extent if the area is occupied merely as a dormitory suburb for commuters who go to town to work each day. So culture and form and relationships of housing are fundamental to the nature of the community in which you live, and with which the National Trust is fundamentally concerned.

Next, it is important that each group should have a right to say what they want. That is, in relation to the definition of place; the objectives of the planning; the involvement of the people. And on the other hand, avoiding a fragmentation so that you look at no more than the street in which you live, which is a myopia for the development of community. One must be careful that the process does not promote forced amalgamations or, worse still, a descent into a wide regionalism with no Local Council. It has that potential.

Now they are the issues that, it seems to me, the Forum today poses. It is intended to air those issues and related issues. And not just talk about them, I would hope, but come up with some firm community decisions. The Forum is timely. It is important. I hope it will achieve its objectives, and I have great pleasure in opening what I believe will be a stimulating and productive day.