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 January 2006

                                      “Rocky” Iemma dodges the green corner

Shortly before Bob Carr's retirement, an unnamed infrastructure consultant was quoted in the Australian Financial Review as follows: "Sydney is dying of NIMBYISM (not in my backyard). The state government is not scared of the Liberal Party or the federal government, but community pressure groups have really got them spooked".

Things appear to have changed. Morris Iemma may not be the first Italian who came from nowhere to win the championship, but he is shaping up as a more interesting contender than expected. Wrongly caricatured as a nonentity or head-office stooge at the time of his accession, Iemma is working out an agenda that aligns economic growth with environmental pragmatism.

The New City has noted the emergence, generally speaking, of two rival schools of thought on urban development, the “Green” and “growth” tendencies. As far as university urban planning faculties go, the Green school is clearly in the ascendant. Many community activists and politicians take their lead from this development. Their credo is the contradictory formula of open-space plus suburban containment (an aspect of the boader concept urban consolidation). There is a lot of institutional power-mongering in this posture, however. We agree with
William Kininmonth (climatologist), Bob Carter (geophycisist), Ian Plimer (geologist, earth sciences), Bjorn Lomborg (economist) and others who counsel against an over-reaction to clamorous predictions of imminent catastrophe.

Only one thing is certain. Greens will always prefer responses that are consistent with their technophobia and aversion to market capitalism, like crunching consumption and living standards.

The Green school's anti-growth nostrums just don't warrant the high cost to suburban working people in rising unemployment, higher charges and unaffordable housing. This is another case of progressive ideals coming at a cost to everyone but the self-righteous people who advocate them. Green activists often call for consolidation on the urban fringes while they squib it in the inner-city where they live. However, it is precisely in the areas of established infrastructure that consolidation is warranted. Urban policy should maximize freedom of choice for those who prefer inner-suburban lifestyles as well as others attracted to larger blocks in the outer suburbs.

While the education system, swathes of state and federal bureaucracies and media outlets like the ABC, SBS and the "quality" press may be enrolled in the Green school, the opposition has started to stir. Academic Patrick Troy and demographer Bernard Salt, author of The Big Shift, are longtime critics of suburban containment who enjoy media access. Professor Bob Birrell and others at Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research have also joined the chorus of dissent, particularly on consolidation features of the Victorian Government's Melbourne 2030 plan. Fairfax columnist and ABC broadcaster Michael Duffy has written eloquently on the pernicious effects of indiscriminate urban consolidation, such as degraded amenity and unaffordable housing.

Then there is Professor Wendell Cox, a leading authority on the fall-out from world-wide suburban containment movements, sometimes known as "smart growth" and "new urbanism". A recent visitor to our shores, Cox is the principal of Demographia, a US public policy consulting firm. Demographia generates an impressive array of research demonstrating how urban consolidation dampens economic vitality and causes many of the problems it is designed to address, including traffic congestion and air pollution. Adopting the slogan ‘democratising prosperity’, Cox slams urban consolidation as a threat to the dream of home ownership.

Nor is the growth school simply a mouth-piece for greedy developers. As Duffy points out, urban consolidation is supported by property industry representatives, since the emphasis on a smaller number of large projects benefits the big industry players. The losers are ordinary home-buyers, particularly working couples with two or more children attracted to sizeable suburban blocks.

The growth school remains a minority presence in the media nevertheless.

To an extent, Iemma has dispersed the Green fog and shifted to the drivers of growth. His media interviews are peppered with forthright statements like "Sydney is open for business and is unashamedly about growth", and there has been plenty of action to match the rhetoric.

In recent months the vendor tax has been scrapped, expansion of Port Botany and a desalination plant have been given the green light, a series of development levies have been dropped, green zoning proposals for the north and south west have been ditched, a host of local environment plans have been signed to fast-track development approvals, more development sites have been granted ‘state significant’ status, Sydney Harbour has been preserved as a working harbour and, amongst other things, a drive to attract more skilled migrants has been announced. In comparison, the government’s new greenhouse plan is moderate and practical, despite the elevated rhetoric and symbolic gestures. Iemma has been ably assisted in a lot of this by his proactive Minister for Planning, Frank Sartor.

Further, various strands of the Metropolitan Strategy have now been brought together in the ambitious City of Cities document. According to the Australian Financial Review, the new document “pulls back, slightly, from the 15-year push towards urban consolidation so that 80 per cent of Sydney’s existing streets will be untouched by the new development”. In short, the strategy sweeps aside the habitual resistance of local councils and resident action groups with a mechanism to expedite intense development along designated corridors (like Parramatta Road) and zone land for residential, commercial and industrial infrastructure around five "cities", including Parramatta, Liverpool and Penrith. This shift of focus to Sydney's western growth region is a historic breakthrough and long overdue. Says Iemma: "The plan supports continuing economic growth while balancing social and environmental impacts".

On the downside, the government panders to flaky green notions like “sustainability” and “ecological footprint” by retaining restrictions on the release of new land for "greenfield" development (apart from two north-west and south-west growth centres in the pipeline). It is yet to be seen whether this aspect of the plan is consistent with the objectives of locating workers close to new jobs or expanding the stock of affordable housing. And while higher densities are compatible with affluent inner-city lifestyles, the social consequences of higher densities in less affluent middle-ring suburbs may not be positive, as Bill Randolph of the City Futures Research Centre has warned. Since one recent survey found that 93 per cent aspire to 'stand alone type' housing on a separate block, the risk over time is that Labor will be vulnerable to the charge of having killed the great Australian dream.

Nevertheless, Iemma's government deserves credit for confronting the emergent obstacles to growth in NSW, including the property market downturn, infrastructure constraints and competition from rival states riding high on the Chinese resources boom. Needless to say, no such credit will be forthcoming from progressive circles, including the "quality" media.

According to the internal logic of progressive thinking, any government that fails to implement the Green school's agenda in toto is simply inept and cynical. Following this script, The Sydney Morning Herald summed up Iemma's first hundred days with this headline: "The bare pit. There is little vision as NSW politics fades to grey". The premier's clear-sighted program to engineer a new growth phase amounts to nothing it seems.

So will Iemma retain his title at the next election? There are still a few rounds to be fought; but then again, Peter Debnam is no Apollo Creed.

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