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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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