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Is it being checked?

Six months after a new Council was elected "to halt overdevelopment in the Shire", what is the state of the Great Debate that has raged during and since last September's Council election?

"Overdevelopment" was the buzzword of 1999. No matter how doggedly the Shire's building developers denied it, the Shire community took it up - and prompted all sides of politics, then in election mode, to acknowledge its reality.

So what is it?

It is a community's perception that its quality-of-life is being eroded by crowding, by excess of buildings and vehicles - which causes congested roads, difficult parking, noise/air/visual pollution, overstressed infrastructure and loss of trees and urban bushland, often accompanied by rising vandalism and crime. ( Shire Life , August 1999)

Indeed "development", equated once with "progress", has meaning only when it indicates improvement - life-enrichment - whether by material gains or gains in services.

As town planners know, development always peaks, and then it trends downward into crowding and congestion: the "paradise" of a coastal resort declines into the "paradise lost" of a populous town (think of Toukley, Noosa, Gold Coast - or Cronulla).

From Shire development to overdevelopment

The great years of Shire development peaked in the 1970s, flattened through the 1980s, and has dipped into decline in the 1990s.

The palmy years of "Progress Associations" in most areas of the Shire were the quarter century following World War Two, as population rose rapidly.

Proud, assertive, optimistic residents campaigned for tarred roads, running water, sewerage, garbage collection, and the "soft infrastructure" of education, health, fire and sporting services.

Who believes in "progress" any more? Those post-war members of "Progress Associations" certainly did. But by the 1970s, in most areas, the Shire had more or less filled up; vacant blocks were scarce. Progress Associations were in steep decline, and a number ceased to exist.

From progress to precinct committees

By the 1990s the crisis in Progress Association attendance demanded a new start. Council felt it needed organisations that could gather and express community concerns.

If progress associations had served the decades of relative Shire "underpopulation", what could serve the period of "overpopulation"? The 1991-5 ALP-controlled Council decided on "Precinct Committees". In contrast to the old spontaneously formed progress associations, precincts needed some fostering by Council.

The word 'precinct', in its origins, hints at enclosed, bounded, limited - a form suited to today's built-up suburbs trying to shore up the infrastructure achieved in earlier decades and now under population stress.

The 1995-9 Liberal-controlled Council viewed the precinct committees with suspicion (hadn't the ALP started them!). It did nothing to encourage them, and some languished. But enough persisted, and they tended to lead the growing community opposition to "overdevelopment".

From Housing Forum to 'Stop overdevelopment!'

The Liberal Council's response to the community concern was to call a large all-day Housing Forum in March 1996. Strong warnings were voiced there about "overdevelopment".

Council then cautiously set up a Housing Strategy Working Party to help draft a new Local Environment Plan (LEP) to guide development. It met intermittently through 1996-7-8.

In mid-1998, Council at last brought its draft LEP to public exhibition, but it was greeted with a storm of criticism from ALP councillors and community groups who objected to what they saw as promotion of "multi-unit development in all residential areas", especially flats, villas, townhouses and dual occupancies - in short, an acceleration of development. The draft LEP lapsed: this Council had failed in its 4-year term to bring a fresh LEP to fruition.

In the stalemate that followed, the Council looked unresponsive while community anger about overdevelopment swelled. Finally it was the community that broke the stalemate by making overdevelopment the key issue in the March 1999 State Election.

ALP candidates realised just in time the depth of the community's concern - they raised "Stop Overdevelopment!" to their masthead. and won three of the Shire's four seats, including the plum seat of Miranda, held seemingly impregnably by State Liberal Deputy Leader Ron Phillips.

New Council with a new direction

Yet the 1995-9 Council still did not heed the message.

Six months later, at the municipal election of 11 September 1999, Liberals were reduced from nine to four councillors, Labor retained its five, two Independents succeeded, and a strong new force - Shire Watch Independents - had four elected. For the first time in the 1990s, independents (six) prevailed over each of the major parties. "The community is looking for action after years of stagnation," said Deputy Mayor Tracie Sonda (Shire Watch).

At the first meeting of the new Council, an "Overdevelopment Working Party" was set up to determine how to curb the high rate of building and the traffic congestion.

Confusion over the Council's powers

At issue in year 2000 is - How much power does Council have to curb development? Not much, say some.
  • State Government's Department of Urban Affairs and Planning (DUAP) had imposed an "urban consolidation" policy on local councils, demanding "infilling" and "higher densities" in order, it said, to check the "sprawl" of Sydney into rural areas.

  • The Land and Environment Court, feeling obliged to follow DUAP's consolidation policy, has usually taken the side of developers against the councils' attempts to limit them.

  • Sutherland Council, from 1991 to 1999, usually found itself losing in the Court - and the losses were costly.

Yet on the eve of the 1999 State Election, the DUAP Minister Craig Knowles condemned Council's Liberal majority for allowing development to exceed reasonable bounds! To general astonishment he declared: "Councils - not the Government - control where, when, how many and how high units will be in their area, as well as controlling their design and quality". He had never stressed anything so permissive before.

An Inquiry instituted by Knowles condemned Council for frequently granting developers "variations from the Council's building codes" - not least in the rash of building 3-storey flats.

More recently, DUAP's Director General, Sue Holliday, has said: "Councils. have tailored their housing strategies to suit their areas [in a bid] to achieve the essential balance between the environment and development." (SMH, 20.1.00) Permissive indeed!

The Knowles-Holliday pronouncements can only be read as legitimising the present Council's bid to drastically curb overdevelopment. This Council has every right to say that the power to do so has always been there but the previous Council either did not realise it or lacked the will to act.

After little more than four months in office, the new Shire Council has produced its eagerly awaited Report on how to check overdevelopment.
  • "TOUGH STANCE Council's war on overdevelopment" Leader headline
    At the full Council meeting of 1 February 2000, councillors unanimously adopted a draft Development Control Plan (DCP) giving it sweeping powers. [It will be explained in a brochure soon to be distributed to households.] Some of its provisions.

  • Planning conditions which will reduce the overall volume of development.

  • Especially, a 10% ceiling on multi-dwelling housing (villas, townhouses, dual occupancies, and "over 55s" dwellings) in low density zones.

  • A ban on such housing in cul-de-sacs, internal allotments, and roads less than 8 metres wide.

  • Separation between multi-dwelling developments in order to limit the overall number in the street (e.g. when, say, a 5-villa development is approved, then the 5 lots on each side of it can't be the subject of further medium density development).

  • Development to be in keeping with existing streetscape (e.g. where the majority of dwellings on either side of a proposed multi-dwelling development are single-storey, then that development too shall be one-storey).

The Shire's Determined residents

Within six months of its election, the new Council has indeed responded boldly to community concern! More is to come [this is only Stage 1]. And a hard road of implementation lies ahead.

Developers aren't pleased. Nor will some individual homeowners be pleased, who are understandably tempted by (multi-dwelling) developers to sell for a high figure.

But Council has responded faithfully to the clearly expressed will of the great majority of Shire residents. It has made the hard decision that alone can satisfy that will.

Now Council needs public support in its farsighted and unanimous bid to curb overdevelopment before Shire congestion gets completely out of hand.

It needs too the continuing unity of Labor, Liberal, Shire Watch and Independent councillors in the work of implementation during the remaining three years of what is shaping as an historic Sutherland Shire Council, which will earn the gratitude of the next generation.