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Urban Consolidation - Local Government Experience?

Clr Genia McCaffery Clr Genia McCaffery - Mayor of North Sydney Council

The Policy of Urban consolidation underpins much of the State's Planning Policies. It's a principle that has been seen - not just by the current Labor Government - but by successive State governments, both Coalition and Labor (and it's been running now for the past fifteen years), as the only way they can curb Sydney's urban sprawl, by using less land for more housing. The solution they've seen has been to force local government through State imposed planning policies, to implement development controls which pursue urban consolidation - or what's often talked about as the development of the compact city.
I conducted a survey of my constituents at the beginning of last year. I got more than one thousand planners argue that the traditional Australian urban form of single houses on separate allotments (the house that I'm quite devoted to, with a backyard, real grass and trees) does not deal with the changes in household size and the aging population - that is, the needs of smaller households of the 21st century. The major problem I have with this policy is that it's been imposed from above, with absolutely no dialogue with the communities - with us - who are most affected by these policies. I think we need a transparent process, which reviews, criticises and then, through that process, we can together as a community, improve our strategies for urban development. But we need to have that debate!

There is a wonderful book by Patrick Troy, called The Perils of Urban Consolidation. Patrick argues very forcibly, that as more people live in high density housing they need more public open space, and that increased density requires more urban land for purposes other housing such as roads and supporting infrastructure. There is actually little net gain in residential population by pursuing the policy of urban consolidation.

Another myth is that our forefathers somehow built our cities with vast infrastructure and enormous capacity that was never used, yet there is simply no evidence to support this. In fact many inner city areas like my own (North Sydney) are facing looming crisis in their infrastructure. The developers do their development and move away, and it will be our community that will be paying the price in the decades to come to renew this infrastructure. Most of the infrastructure in places like North Sydney was built over 100 years ago and yet it's now required to service not only larger population but it's a population that requires much more, much greater demands on that infrastructure, per person.

Now I know that many people here would agree with what I'm saying, but there's probably many other people who would disagree. But I guess that's really the point. Without the debate, local communities - and it is the local communities who bear the brunt of the consequences of urban consolidation policies - will remain unconvinced that they are actually necessary.

Furthermore, if the State Government is not required to justify and then regularly reassess such a fundamental policy that underpins all of the planning controls, then the failures of State policies (like dual occupancy - and we all live with the consequences of that disastrous policy - and SEPP 5, another disastrous policy) will continue. Such a public debate would result in a clear assessment of how much growth Sydney can or should actually handle.

There are many questions about the current level of development in Sydney that we need to discuss. And I'll throw in some for starters -
  • Do we really want to remove backyards from our cities?

  • Do we want to continue to have contact with urban wildlife?

  • Do we want our children to grow up with only limited access to open, passive green spaces?

  • Can urban bushland survive if it's isolated by development on all sides?

  • Is the city actually going to get smaller and more compact or just denser? and

  • Is a compact Sydney really achievable?

One of the key problems for local government is that the State government has not even set a specific dwelling yield for any local government area. Tony Recsei and I were involved in a panel debate on radio 2BL the other day with the Director General of DUAP, Sue Holliday, and she actually said that the Department does not set targets for local government . And I think that's the problem - because targets would give us a chance to actually argue about whether our individual areas and our infrastructure would cope; whether we are able to fill the targets. Instead, most of us are working to some sort of unspecified level of development - we just know that it has to be more. And the giving of the actual yield that we'd have to provide in each local government area would give us a chance to look at whether we are really be able to provide a range of housing choices. DUAP talks all the time about providing a range of housing choice.

But what has happened under urban consolidation policies in places like North Sydney, is that the single house has become an endangered species. We are not providing for family anymore. All we are offering is medium to high-density dwellings. And I think there continues to be this false idea that the best cities are some kind of random accident and that planning should be resisted because it produces sterile environments. I think that the opposite is true: that the best cities are the ones that are carefully controlled and planned, so that the form and character reflects our culture, and the aspirations of our community.

It's the responsibility of all of us involved in city planning to decide what we really want to happen. And then can go from that vision to establishing planning mechanisms that assure that vision is achieved. Whether it is at the local level or at the State level, this process needs to be inclusive, involving the community in the plan making process that will shape the environment they live in.

And I think that it is particularly disappointing that DUAP are not speaking today. Because if DUAP thinks that their urban consdolidation policy is good, then they should come and justify to you - the community who live with the consequences of those policies. They should be able to justify it.

And rather than just involved in a DUAP bashing exercise, I think the current Director-General of DUAP is very good. I think she is attempting to engage with the communities. And I think that the current Residential Strategies policy is a much better policy than dual occupancy, which produced the most gross development in my own area, and I'm sure in many of your areas. At least with the Residential Strategy policy we are able to develop a policy that responds to our own community.

The problem is that at the top of that Residential Strategy, is the urban consolidation policy. And DUAP has to be prepared to engage with the community about whether that overriding policy of urban consolidation is working. And if they believe it's working, they shouldn't be afraid of engaging in the discussion. Public confidence in the planning process is vital and the responsibility for that confidence lies with government; it cannot successfully pursue urban policies, which do not have public support. Both levels of government involved in the planning process need to respect each other and their roles in that process. Both levels of government need transparent processes to ensure we review, criticise and improve our strategies for urban planning.

The Olympics have shown what extraordinary things we can achieve if all levels of government are committed to work together to achieve a common goal. And I'd like to send a message to DUAP out there: please let's not go through the dual occupancies again, come and be involved and start a real discussion about urban consolidation. Let's just do it!
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