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Sydney's full! The Shire's full!. So where to now?
Community efforts to check overdevelopment are meeting opposition.

Sydney is full!

This shout of anguish didn't come from a driver stuck in gridlock or a homeowner threatened by high-rise. This was Premier Bob Carr - on the front page of Australia's largest-circulation newspaper, the Sun-Herald ("The House is Full": 19 March 2000).

A flood of letters and radio talkback expressed vast community agreement. Sydney has passed the 4 million mark. Overdevelopment has made our city an often uncomfortable place to live, for irritated motorists, noise-affected suburbanites, and sufferers from air pollution.

The developers don't agree

But soon after the Premier's cry from the heart, a counter-blast has come from developers. the big developers. A recently formed NSW Urban Taskforce declares its intention to "improve the image of developers" and "reduce delays in the processing of development applications" ( SMH 6.4.2000).

Not content with the efforts of already powerful pro-development groups such as the Master Builders Association and Housing Industry Association, the self-styled taskforce will push ahead to "build bridges between its members and government".

It will do so with huge funds. Membership costs $75,000! That's right, a joining fee of $75,000; plus an annual fee of $5,000.

Money versus community

The big developers - and many lesser ones - are well aware that in 1999 the Sydney community revolted against the headlong building boom of the 'nineties.

At the State election of March 1999 and even more fiercely at the Municipal elections in September, opposition to overdevelopment was loud.

Not good news for developers who want the boom to continue forever, regardless of the inability of Sydney's roads, services and other infrastructure to cope.

So they are putting up this big money to head off community protest. Subtly of course. The Taskforce patron says nobly that his group does not intend to "antagonise the community, but work with it. taking account of community attitudes".

The patron is no less a personage than former Premier, now businessman, Neville Wran. The Herald's urban affairs editor says that Wran and a former Labor Council secretary Michael Easson have helped to form the affluent new lobby group "as developers admit they are losing the public debate over the future of Sydney's suburbs".

Community wishes are clear

If the Taskforce sincerely wished to "take account of community attitudes" it could easily do so at no cost whatsoever. For example, by simply reading the letters of approval that greeted Bob Carr's "The House Is Full!" pronouncement. Or by consulting councillors around Sydney's 44 Councils who were swept into office on the protest wave of 11 September 1999.

Or, better still, by consulting the voluntary, unfunded Save Our Sydney Suburbs (SOSS) group which truly reflects community attitudes.

A SOSS meeting in North Sydney on 6th April brought together community people from throughout Sydney who voiced all the "community attitudes" a genuine "Taskforce" could possibly need. Yes, they said, urgently check overdevelopment - by scaling down to only sustainable development ; that is, by meticulously planned and controlled development, within a longterm plan put together by Government with wide community participation.

Shire grappling with excesses

A week after the SOSS meeting, a public forum in Sutherland convened by four of the new councillors (Shire Watch Independents) was addressed by SOSS Chairman, barrister Tom Howard.

He praised the Shire efforts in electing councillors opposed to overdevelopment, but added a caution: "You won't win this fight alone - only a Sydney-wide movement across all councils will achieve that".

The councillors reported on Council's Overdevelopment Working Party. Nearly a hundred residents attending the meeting responded with a lively discussion of the difficulties of framing effective policy. A further meeting in three months time was asked for and agreed to.

Detailed attention was devoted to Council's recent "Trees not Traffic" brochure. Here are points from the discussion .
  • Election of 6 independents to Sutherland Council has healthily broken the previous see-sawing supremacy of one or other political party (Liberal now has only 4 and Labor 5); thus real debate has at last become possible.

  • Strong opposition from developer-interests is predictable and must be withstood, while keeping the community informed at all stages.

  • The chief criterion for development approvals (DAs) must be that of sustainability.

  • Staff scrutiny of DAs has often been seriously inadequate - implying the need for better training of staff and closer scrutiny by senior staff.

  • Public education in planning problems should be provided by Council - often asked for by residents who participate in Precinct Resident Association activities.

  • Community organisations must be given representation on Council's Overdevelopment Working Party.

  • The current draft Development Control Plan (DCP) now on exhibition at the Council Chambers - subject of the "Trees and Traffic" brochure - deserves attention and constructive criticism by residents. It is the first brave attempt by the new Council to curb overdevelopment by instituting effective controls.

  • Crucial to such controls is the quality of Council's planning department, which is currently undergoing changes recommended by a recent inquiry (the Woodward Report).

  • Council's proposed 10 percent limit on "multi-dwelling development" in most residential zones will need critical supervision and refining in the light of experience.

  • At the root of overdevelopment are two forces: speculative capital and population increase. The latter stems from Federal Government immigration policy (currently bringing in 117,000 a year, 40 percent of whom come to Sydney) - an unsustainable influx which must be restricted.