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Sustainable Community Development

Michael Richardson Michael Richardson MP - State Member for the Hills

Ladies and gentlemen it is a pleasure to come down here apparently representing DUAP. I must say that my paper will be slightly different from "Community participation inplanning metropolitan growth". But I do think that one of the great failures, quite honestly, of DUAP in the past has been its failure to undertake appropriate community consultation in the decisions that it has taken that have affected all of us.

It is also a great pleasure to be in Sutherland Shire, because I think that Sutherland Shire and my own electorate of the Hills share many values in common. In fact, we tend to call Sutherland Shire 'The Hills sur mer'. But there is also, I think, similar anger, here in Sutherland, and in The Hills, and in fact right across Sydney, as to what people see as the destruction of their way of life.
I conducted a survey of my constituents at the beginning of last year. I got more than one thousand responses, so it was statistically significant, valid and reliable. And 96 per cent of the respondents were opposed to high rise in Castle Hill. There is a proposal to build 14-storey blocks of flats on Council owned land in Castle Hill. Now, I know that down here in Sutherland, you have lots of blocks of flats - and that's a contentious issue - although perhaps the fact that you have a railway line may well make that decision a little bit more understandable. We don't have any dedicated public transport links in the Hills, and quite frankly having imposed on us 14-storey blocks of flats and the same sort of density targets and requirements as the rest of Sydney seems to me to be downright bloody stupid.

I launched my new website last week, and we have a survey on that website, and in the survey we are asking people to list their four top local issues. The first response we got back - I'm delighted to say, within 48 hours of the launch of the website - was from a gentleman living in Castle Hill who listed issue number four as: "Higher density, we will be moving out".

That is the central tenet of the paper I have written, Community Ties . That, in fact, the planning policies that governments adopt can contribute to a breakdown of community. I know that all sides of politics across the world are committed to the idea of fostering community, because they see that it generates better health outcomes, better outcomes in terms of law and order, better environmental outcomes - people look after one another; they look after their local community; they look after their local area.

But, of course, if you have an area that is - and has been since it was first settled - detached houses on reasonable sized lots of land, and you suddenly knock all of those houses down and replace them with townhouses or blocks of flats, the people who move into that area will not share the same values as those who went there originally. People come to live in my electorate, or in Menai, or on the Northern Beaches because there is a certain quality of life, there is a certain amenity, that they wish to enjoy. And when that amenity is destroyed through the imposition of unwanted urban consolidation, many of them take the same sort of approach as my constituents from Castle Hill intend to do, and move out.

It was interesting to note that in a survey of 18 suburbs conducted by Homel and Burns a few years ago the area that nine to eleven year olds most wanted to live in was the north-western suburbs. There's no prize for guessing what that area is; it's called the Hills. But the point is that the Hills has always been known for its detached houses on large blocks of land and leafy green streets. It's a good place to grow up; it's a good place to bring up children.

Mr Ruddock spoke earlier on about the possibility of there being two million extra people in Sydney by 2050. He also acknowledged that these were ABS projections and that they were only projections. In fact it's very hard to come up with an accurate figure for where Sydney's population is going to be in 20 years' time, let alone 50. For example, in 1968, the Sydney Region Outline Plan predicted there would be five million people in Greater Sydney - that included Gosford and Wyong, but excluded Newcastle and Wollongong - by last year, the year 2000, with 500,000 other people living in new centres outside the Sydney Basin. In 1995, Cities for the 21st Century predicted that the population of Greater Sydney would reach only 4.48 million by 2021. That's 20 years on and perhaps a million fewer people.

About the only prediction we can make with really any certainty, is that Australia's population will keep growing for the forseeable future. And much of that growth - like it or not - will occur in Sydney. Because Sydney has a number of attributes that attract people here. You're not going to stop the economic growth of Australia and there will continue to be population growth. If we don't have an immigration policy, I suggest, that the world is virtually going to force it upon us. As Philip Ruddock has identified, we would have a major problem with the demographics of our population because there would be so many people over the age of 65.

The question really becomes: "Where are these people going to live"? Now, if you continue down the path the current government is going down - where all local government areas are required to come up with housing density targets, which include a target of something like 60 per cent of all dwellings being multi-unit within ten years - I think that ultimately, within 50 years, you will end up with a brick and mortar jungle extending from the sea to the mountains. And every suburb is going to look like every other suburb.

So the freedom of choice (and that's the mantra of urban consolidation), the freedom of choice that the urban consolidationists talk about, will be lost forever. Because, you won't be able to go and buy that detached house on a 700 square metre block, and a good environment to bring up your kids. Every suburb is going to look like every other suburb. I'm not sure that's the sort of Sydney I want to continue to live in. And I know that, based on comments that have been made to me, it's the sort of city a lot of other people don't want to live in also.

The Government has talked about vibrant, dense communities, as though density is a good in its own right. And yet if you go back to the end of the 19th Century, there was an exodus from the centre of Sydney towards the outer suburbs. Do you know why? It was for health reasons. It was actually considered to be healthier for the population - there had been an outbreak of bubonic plague in The Rocks, there had been a cholera scare, and it took until after World War Two for there to be any sustained movement back towards the inner city.

They drew pretty heavily on Ebenezer Howard and his Garden City movement in developing Sydney over that time. Of course the expansion was along railway lines. We didn't have the widespread use of motor cars at that time and it was only after the war, when Holden (I guess, more than anybody else) popularised the motor car, and affluence meant that people could afford cars, that the spaces in between the railway lines were filled in. Now unfortunately we didn't do a particularly good job of filling in those spaces. Our understanding of planning issues (and these evolve all the time, as in every discipline) was not as good as it might have been. So we created suburbs that were very car dependent, suburbs that were very hard to service by public transport, suburbs - particularly after the seventies - that had curvilinear streets and culs-de-sac based on the model of an 1850s American cemetery. I hope that isn't a metaphor for what is going to happen to those suburbs in the future!

We go through periodic spasms of guilt about the way Sydney has grown. So back in the sixties, you had an explosion of six-pack blocks of flats being built right across Sydney. Most of them were pretty ugly, I must say - they didn't really add much to the architectural beauty of Sydney. And then we went away from that again, we went back to the idea of detached houses and the result is much as you see it today.

But the excuse today given for urban consolidation, is sustainability. And, of course, I think that is to an extent a myth. It is quite impossible to locate four to six million people in the Sydney Basin and to have no impact on the environment. Take, for example, rainfall. In the built environment 80 per cent of the rain falling on the built environment runs off, so you get localised flooding. And more major flooding down in the Hawkesbury River. But in the natural environment, 80 per cent of the rain that falls on the land is absorbed by the ground. And that's an example of the kind of problems that you get through growth and through population pressure.

The real reason for urban consolidation is not a desire to contain urban sprawl, that is just the excuse that's used. It's really economic; it's public transport. Our two previous speakers have spoken about that. It's the sheer economics of attempting to service that number of people, to provide infrastructure for that number of people and to get them around, with a limited public purse. Because there's no evidence - despite this mantra about vibrant dense communities - that denser communities are better communities. You could go out to Kenthurst, for example (it used to be in my electorate, but not since the last redistribution), and you'll find that there is more community spirit there - because of the shared values that those people have on their five acre blocks - than in many much more densely settled suburbs.

Of course it is also true that Australians are living longer, marrying later and having fewer children. The average size of households has fallen from 3.8 persons in 1947 to 2.6 in 1996. Now that's a phenomenon around the developed world. Like us, Britain has acknowledged this, and they put out a major report - the Rogers Report - stating that they are going to need more households in the future. But this is not a continuing trend. The major falls in household size in Australia occurred before 1980. In fact the average household size has fallen by only 0.2 persons since 1988. One of the reasons for this is that human beings do not always fit into bureaucrats' nice pigeon-holes.

The Department of Urban Affairs and Planning would hold that an elderly lady who is living alone in her three- or four-bedroom house, on her seven hundred square metre or quarter acre block of land, is using up resources that she's not entitled to. But there are many elderly people who don't agree with that. There are many elderly people who have better health outcomes, for example, and are a lesser burden on the State because they are able to get around in their gardens and remain active. And there are many elderly people who would just pine away, I suspect, in a block of flats. One size does certainly not fit all.

We've also enjoyed increasing affluence over the last 15 years. There has been a significant increase in the size of new homes - 163 square metres to 248 square metres. And with that has gone, of course, increasing use of motor vehicles. Now a lot of people (and a lot of people in this room I suspect) would be saying that that is wrong, but the Rogers Report recognised that unless public transport changed out of all recognition, you were not going to have a quantum leap in the number of people who were going to use public transport.

And there are all sorts of reasons for this. Martin Ferguson was talking about working women; most working women find it almost impossible to juggle their home and their jobs, take their children to school, drop them off at school, drop them off at childcare, and do that by public transport. The only way they can juggle all of those responsibilities is by way of the car. And many people, regretfully, do not feel safe on public transport. And that has been a major issue. The number of kids walking to school, right around the world, has more than halved, in the last ten years. Because parents do not feel safe, secure, letting their kids walk to school. And of course that's created enormous traffic problems around schools. Something like 20 per cent of the cars on the road at ten to nine in the morning are associated with the schools: that is, teachers and parents dropping their kids off.

I just want to talk briefly about some solutions. I am extremely concerned about SEPP 53, which foists increased densities in all areas regardless of infrastructure or major employment opportunities. I think that SEPP 53 ought to go. And we really need to do what Sue Holliday was going to talk to you about today: consult more widely with people and with councils about development issues.

But, as I have said previously, the one thing you can be sure of is that Sydney is going to continue to grow. We are going to have more people moving into Sydney over the next 50 years and they are going to have to be housed somewhere. Now, I've travelled around the world and spoken to a lot of people about this, and I've seized on a model from another city that I believe could be adopted, with profit, here in Sydney.

Let me ask you this: "What city lies in the Pacific Ocean; had its location discovered by Captain Cook; was settled by the British; has a spectacularly beautiful natural setting; is surrounded by mountains, rivers and the sea; and has doubled in size in the last thirty years, largely due to a significant influx of Asian immigrants?" Anyone .? Someone's been reading my paper. You said Vancouver . and you're right.

In many respects, Vancouver mirrors what has happened to Sydney, although its population is only two million, so it's half the size of Sydney. They have set aside a green zone comprising agricultural land reserves, plus environmentally sensitive areas, particularly wetlands around the Fraser River Delta (the world's best salmon stream I'm told). Seventy-two per cent of the land area of the Fraser River Delta is now reserved in that green zone and has been since the early 1970s - 54,000 hectares. And they said: "If we are going to accommodate continuing growth, how are we going to do that?".

First, they designated a growth concentration area. Seventy per cent of the population is supposed to be going into that area by 2021. They identified eight regional town centres, around public transport nodes. They have a Skytrain and they have a commuter rail system. And that is where the blocks of flats are going right now. The metro core, which currently has a population of 20 000, is to double by the year 2021. And they are also increasing population around 13 municipal town centres. Forty three per cent of the population of Vancouver now lives in multi-unit housing, up from 28 per cent in 1966. And that compares with 35 per cent in Sydney. The figure for Melbourne is 23 per cent and it has recently been voted the world's most livable city.

How do I believe Sydney should be planned in the future? First, I think we should set the limits to growth. We should establish some sort of a green zone and councils, residents and government agencies should be consulted on where that green zone should go. We should be designating areas for growth. That is going to have to happen because we are going to have this continuing influx of people. We should be basing our density targets on the distance from the Central Business District, or major employment centres, access to public transport and neighbourhood character. And I think that is very important.

We should seriously be looking at developing new transport modes. I'm not convinced that Sydney's existing heavy rail system with its half-hour headways out of peak hour and, quarter-hour headways during peak hour is actually the right sort of system for the 21st Century.

We can decentralise, I believe, by building fast trains - this would put Goulburn within an hour to an hour and a quarter's commuting distance of the Sydney CBD. It's certainly the experience overseas that this can be done: it's the experience in New York; it's the experience in Paris; it's the experience with London - it could also be done here.

There should be a two-way housing mix. If we have to provide for singles and empty nesters in the outer suburbs, then in the inner city, in places like Pyrmont and Green Square, we should be providing accommodation suitable for families. Because that's the only way we can build communities.

And we should protect and improve the amenity of the area. We should put in facilities when they are needed.

We should make restrictive covenants effective at law as the Victorian Government has done - currently any planning instrument can overide restrictive covenants. We should give neighbourhood character equal priority with urban consolidation in new housing estates, with architecture sympathetic to the surrounding fabric of buildings and local tradition.

One way we can improve the quality of urban design is to establish urban design centres with university, local government and private sector support, to encourage debate on urban design issues and to raise urban design standards. I also think that we should make Development Control Plans more prescriptive. The trade-off for developers would be that there would be fewer objections to complying developments.

So, those are a few of the ways that I think that we could actually significantly improve Sydney over the next 50 years and it make a more vibrant and happier place to live - if not denser.
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