Is Lucy Turnbull planning to stuff Sydney? A tale of three cities

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Greater Sydney Council boss Lucy Turnbull's plan for Sydney sounds like a rejected plot from the TV show Utopia, except it could be far more damaging. Don Owers reports.

LUCY TURNBULL is the Chief Commissioner of the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC). In this role, she is promoting the idea of “re-imagining" Sydney as three great separate cities: Eastern Harbour City, the Central Parramatta River City, and the Western City, in and around the new airport at Badgerys Creek. These smaller cities will, according to Ms Turnbull, be able (in 40 or so years) to meet an essential criteria for a livable city — the 30 minute transport target where residents can travel to work in half an hour or less.

She claims that it is essential to embrace the three-cities approach to deal with Sydney's expected population growth:

"There's around 4.6 million people living in Sydney now. By 2036, it's expected that number will be more like 6.2 million and, in another 20 years, it will be up to eight million."

Sydney does have a major problem with transport. It's now ranked 51st out of 100 cities in terms of ease of travel. Congestion cost Sydney $16.5b in 2015 and its been growing every year, largely because of increased car numbers. But to suggest that dividing the city into three separate identities will somehow mean people will travel less or faster is an absurdity. People commuting to the City Centre from Baulkham Hills, Beecroft or Carlingford will still travel the same distance and face the same delays, despite having their home address changed to Parramatta River City. And, by the same token, this name change won't create more employment in Parramatta or Western Sydney. Fixing Sydney's transport is almost entirely dependent on providing massive amounts of infrastructure for public transport and has nothing to do with name changing. If previous governments could not do that when the population was 4 million, then they certainly won't be able to do it if the population doubles.

The GSC should be aware that retrofitting infrastructure is hugely expensive and disruptive, as shown by the unpopular WestConnex, which Ms Turnbull described in 2014 as a “necessary evil”. There are many who would agree that it is evil. The National Trust described the destruction from Westconnex as the 'worst hit to heritage' in Sydney’s history and there were 12,000 submissions from residents, as well as five councils opposed to the project. (These councils were subsequently replaced by forced amalgamations while demolitions were underway.) In 2015, the project was costed at $16.8b, but new estimates suggest that could rise to $45.3b, including $650m so far spent just on legal battles associated with land acquisition. This will leave NSW with an impossible debt, which will beggar the State for decades, curtailing expenditure on other essential projects, such as the need to almost double the number of schools and hospitals.

While this scheme may sound a bit like a plot that was rejected by the script writers of the ABC's Utopia, it did not receive much in the way of critical analysis. In fact there was even some faint praise because the proposals did mention the importance of cycling, its commitment to women's needs (more street lighting, ramps for prams and footpaths without pot holes), and even gave a slightly bizarre claim to connecting with Indigenous history. If you Google “Greater Sydney Commission Plans for Sydney” you will see some inputs that, like the Telegraph, just repeat the Government's press release, trumpeting the joys of jobs and growth. But there are precious few questioning the validity of the plan let alone the need for population growth, with the exception of MacroBusiness.

However, there is more than just Sydney's congestion to consider. For instance, the planned population growth will require the construction of 725,000 new dwellings, along with 817,000 new jobs, at a time when employment is threatened by technological changes. There will also need to be a matching increase in our capacity to handle waste and supply water, yet we have governments that allow mining under Sydney's water catchment and won't apply even the mildest restrictions on plastic usage. Developer related corruption is rife, yet the NSW Government cut ICAC funding in half and the Federals won't even consider having one. Ms Turnbull claims that Sydney is not full and we need to grow to become a “World City”.

Well we could argue that Mumbai or Jakarta also aren't full, but most of us would consider the European capital, Brussels, at 1 million population, as being more livable than Beijing, with its population of over 20 million.

This proposal by Ms Turnbull is just a diversion – an absurdity, not worthy of being called a thimble and pea trick – but the agenda behind her smokescreen are worth examining. The GSC is a body set up by former Premier Baird who, you may recall, had been elected in 2011 on a platform of getting rid of what was, undoubtedly, the unaccountable and corrupt planning regime of the then Labor Government. But Premier Baird's promises of returning planning to the community and the councils was soon forgotten, and his new government launched reforms that bypassed all community input. These proved to be so unpopular with the public they were withdrawn and, instead, Premier Baird introduced the GSC, which essentially did the same thing.

This is a common tactic of governments, and the GSC is but one of a number of unloved bodies – like Urban Growth and the Hunter Development Corporation – that carry out the dirty work while isolating the Government from the responsibility of any unpleasantness. Even more importantly, the Government can dictate the charter of these agencies – in this case, limiting their role to planning for population growth – without the need to consider adverse consequences. As an example, NSW and Queensland recently removed sea level rise from their state planning policies, and the former Labor governments sea level planning benchmarks, based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change data, were rejected and decisions left to local councils. More than $226 billion in Australian commercial, residential, rail, road and industrial assets is at risk from climate change-induced sea-level rise, with close to 250,000 residential properties and 8,600 commercial buildings vulnerable, as well as ports, power stations, hospitals, and water and waste facilities.

It is hardly likely that Ms Turnbull, or anyone in the GSC, is a climate sceptic, yet they feel no compulsion to listen to warnings from the Climate Council. None of the main media outlets, such as Fairfax, News Corp or the ABC, felt it necessary to point out that bigger cities are hotter and more prone to damage from severe storms, or even that developer-related corruption has become endemic and might be influencing these decisions. Nor did they mention that Sydney's expansion will come at the expense of its green spaces, air quality and even its foodbowl, which provides the bulk of its fresh food production.

It seems that all those involved in city planning have restricted their activities to searching for land that can be acquired from fortuitously defunct industrial sites, or older dwellings – even schools – that can be replaced with highrise. No one seems to heed warnings from the science community on the threats from increased storm intensity, even though, at its current size, Sydney will be unable to withstand the withstand the adverse effects of climate change.

Such is the way civilisations have collapsed in the past. Ideology is no substitute for science.

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