Speech: Greater Sydney Commission Bill 2015

In Parliament | 11.11.15

Greater Sydney Commission Bill 2015


The Hon. PENNY SHARPE [5.41 p.m.]: On behalf of the Labor Opposition I speak in support of the Greater Sydney Commission Bill 2015. Labor understands that it is time that the State's largest city and Australia's only global city had a strategic planning body able to manage its future population growth. The creation of such a body is consistent with governance in many of the world's global cities. The Greater London Authority was established 16 years ago with the passing of the Greater London Authority Act. Metro Vancouver was established in 1967. Copenhagen's famous five fingers urban plan was first developed in the 1940s.


Sydney has long needed a single entity able to coordinate all the arms of government, with the goal of delivering on a single strategic plan. Labor will support this bill but it will look to create a more ambitious, transparent and accountable body by moving a number of amendments in Committee.

The Greater Sydney Commission Bill 2015 is part of a much longer story of urban development and planning in Sydney. Unlike other cities, Sydney's geography, topography and history have meant that a global city has been built on the goat tracks of early commerce and around a harbo ur with some of the best views in the world. The need for better coordination and planning has been constant but too often illusive. Since the 1890s there have been calls for a Sydney-wide organisation to coordinate the city's infrastructure, services and development.

In 1913 to 1914 a royal commission of inquiry was conducted into the question of the constitution of Greater Sydney. The 1913-14 commission was chaired by then Lord Mayor of Sydney Sir Alfred Cocks, who served in the New South Wales Parliament first as the member for St Leonards and later as the member for the North Shore.

Walter Griffin, who a year earlier had submitted the winning plans for the design of a new Federal capital—which is my old home town—told the 1913-14 commission, "Some body of control was needed with power to plan and develop land on a modern town planning basis ..." A number of bills to create a planning authority for Greater Sydney came in the wake of the Cocks royal commission. None were successful. In 1931 William McKell, then Minister for Local Government, introduced a Greater Sydney Bill. At the time McKell argued the following:

Every party in New South has at some time or other advocated the principles of Greater Sydney ... Different leaders at different periods have placed Greater Sydney in the forefront of their policies. The platform of the Australian Labour party has had in its forefront for quite a generation the establishment of a Greater Sydney Council.

We also propose that provision shall be made for the preparation of a town and regional planning scheme for the Greater Sydney area. It is proposed to constitute a town-planning advisory board and also to prescribe its powers and functions.

The introduction of the Greater Sydney Bill by William McKell occurred during a period of civic engagement with Sydney. The political intentions of the wider Greater Sydney Movement found institutional form and public voice in the Cumberland County Council. The creation of that body was, at least in part, a response to a rapidly changing urban form. In the decades that followed the Second World War a newly prosperous working class and newly arrived migrants moved westward, seeking opportunity and a quality of life not possible before. Government policies such as the establishment of large housing commission estates were also used to encourage people to move west. Families moved into the suburbs that now dominate Sydney's west, propelled by a model based on transport by motor car and compelled by the prospect of employment.

Like most cities in the western world, while Sydney's fringe was filling in, its centre was hollowing out as its industrial heart searched for cost-effective connections to the nation's economy. The rapidity and quantity of this change was such that people often moved to Sydney's west and adequate infrastructure and services followed some time after. It would be fair to say that while services and infrastructure failed to keep pace, so too did the city's planning and governance. This lived experience and community scepticism remains in the discourse between our communities and our three tiers of government as we continue to take on this challenge. There were fitful attempts to rectify it. The idealism of the Greater Sydney Movement, the good intentions of McKell's Cumberland County Council, and Whitlam's insightful appointment of Mick Young as the country's first Minister for Urban Affairs were important. Tom Uren, Brian Howe and Anthony Albanese have also championed better cities policy, and I welcome the Federal Government's new focus on cities.

But nothing was sustained or sustainable about the Sydney's urban planning in this period. Sydney was then—and remains to some degree—an accidental city. The introduction of this bill in 2015—which is 84 years after McKell proposed "provision shall be made for the preparation of a town and regional planning scheme for the Greater Sydney area"—comes at an important time in the life of Sydney. In the past 30 years the opening up of Australia to the world has rewritten much of Sydney's urban fabric. The remnants of a once industrial city remain, but the forces of a new global economic order are reshaping Sydney. Gone for the most part are the inner-city industrial sites and the working class suburbs that sustained them. They have been replaced by the gentrifying spirit of a middle class that has profited from the opportunities of the global economy. Gone too in many places is the large-scale manufacturing that once attracted postwar hopefuls to our city's fringe. In the decades to come we must face the challenge of sustainably managing Sydney's future.

The reality is that by 2031 we must house an additional 1.5 million Sydneysiders. That is more than 100,000 people per year for each of the next 16 years. That growth is not something our State can ignore. We cannot turn away from it or simply pull up the drawbridge and hope it will go away. Labor, as a party of government and not just of protest, must face the challenge. We are determined to shape a response that seizes the opportunities, manages the challenges and demands a public dividend for future generations. To do this we have to be smart. We have to be ambitious. We must be innovative and we have to put in place a robust framework to manage the growth of this city. We need growth that is sustainable and that puts a premium on our water, air, marine environment, bushland and precious green spaces. We need growth that is equitable so that the benefits can be enjoyed by all our inhabitants, not just the wealthy few—where owning a home is a not a luxury that only baby boomers and generation X can afford and where quality of life matters whether you live in Avalon, Airds, Alexandria, Arncliffe or Auburn.

The type of growth that Labor supports generates employment and drives productivity, collaboration and a sense of community. That means demanding the highest design standards, the most sustainable building practices, and community consultation and participation that is meaningful, consistent and transparent. An inadequate response to the challenge of Sydney's future growth will condemn this city to congestion, overcrowding and a loss of community that no-one will thank us for in the future. Ignoring the growth and failing to put in place robust, transparent planning with our communities at the centre will soon find the city that we love turn into an unmanageable and unsustainable mess. This is why Labor supports the Greater Sydney Commission.

The Greater Sydney Commission must manage the city's future challenges. To do otherwise will only cause our city to sprawl outwards, with negative consequences for social justice, liveability and sustainability. In performing its task it must challenge the mentality that views any local development—whatever its merits—as unwarranted and unnecessary. Sydney cannot keep building suburbs at the edges indefinitely. Even if we could, it is not a sustainable or desirable outcome. If we are going to deal with population growth and our environmental challenges we must begin a mature and measured discussion about urban density and sustainability. The evidence is clear: Dense, well-planned cities with good public transport networks are the most sustainable of urban forms. Recent work conducted at the University of Berkley has confirmed what many of us suspect—that cities contribute less greenhouse gas emissions per person than suburbs.

Well-designed, well-connected, high-quality increased density is the key to Sydney's environmental and economic future. It is not just about our environment or the economy; it is also an intergenerational equity issue. Very few people under 35 who live in Sydney can afford to buy their own home and an increasing number of people are struggling to find suitable rental accommodation in this city. While supply on its own will not increase affordability, there is an opportunity through urban renewal and urban consolidation to plan for and deliver more social housing and long-term affordable rental properties and bring some rationality to housing prices in Sydney. Failure to address housing affordability means that too many people will be locked out of a global Sydney. Part of Labor's vision for the Greater Sydney Commission is that it be an institution that is able to begin a discussion about the relationship between urban density, social justice and sustainability in a city that will grow to six or eight million people in the coming decades.

We need clarity and clear purpose in this area. It is long overdue. The predictable education, health and transport problems surrounding some of the current Government's land release announcements is proof enough that sound strategic planning is sorely needed. In 2012 the Government released a green paper authored by Mr Tim Moore and the Hon. Ron Dyer. Two years later, the Government released the white paper "A New Planning System for NSW", which called for a new, world-class planning system for New South Wales. In 2013 the Government introduced the Planning Bill 2013. I need not remind this place that Labor opposed the Planning Bill 2013 in the form in which it was presented—and for very good reason. The Government's lack of consideration of the need for ecologically sustainable development as a fundamental component of any revised planning system was a major bone of contention for Labor. I see that in this bill the Government has given weight to ecologically sustainable development, as it should. I commend the Minister for this and note that he has championed this particular issue. I also acknowledge Minister Stokes and his office for their willingness to speak, brief and negotiate with the Opposition on the content of this bill.

Labor will be seeking to amend the bill to increase the ambition and accountability of the commission. These amendments are driven by two simple principles. First, any increase in power must be accompanied by an increase in accountability—rights should be tempered by responsibility. Secondly, the Greater Sydney Commission should coordinate all arms of government to ensure that its plans are holistic, sustainable and truly able to deliver not just housing but also jobs, transport, schools, health and other community services that are a prerequisite for community trust, acceptance and support for a greater population. These amendments range from minor alterations to more serious modifications that will shape the nature of the commission, its structures and powers. First, to be a truly strategic planning institution the Greater Sydney Commission must include resources and command the power of all the relevant departments, including health and education. This is why Labor will be moving amendments so that the Secretary of Health and the Secretary of Education are included as part of the strategic planning and infrastructure delivery committees.

Communities across Sydney already understand the failures to plan for the community services and infrastructure needed before development occurs. Overflowing schools and long elective waiting lists are the result of the poor planning of the past. The Government should not make the same mistake in the future. It is my view that including the departments of health and education on the strategic planning and infrastructure delivery committees will help deliver this outcome. Secondly, the Greater Sydney Commission must be accountable to the community through the Parliament. This was a key recommendation of the House of Commons report following legislative scrutiny of the Greater London Authority Act 2007 and the London Assembly. When reviewing the powers of the Greater London Authority the House of Commons found that "the Mayor has to be held to account for the substantial powers he exercises". The structure of the Greater Sydney Commission is slightly different from that of the Greater London Authority but the principle is the same: Great power should be accompanied by transparency and accountability.

The Greater Sydney Commission should be above local politics but it must still be answerable to local communities and to the people of New South Wales. That is why Labor will move amendments to introduce accountability to the Greater Sydney Commission. Labor will propose a joint parliamentary committee to oversee the activities of the Greater Sydney Commission and to make sure the institution is accountable to the people of New South Wales. Thirdly, the Greater Sydney Commission must have clear guidelines about community consultation and participation. One of the key findings of the green paper authored by Mr Tim Moore and the Hon. Ron Dyer was that the public lacked confidence in planning decisions. Part of the answer to addressing this antipathy and apathy is to improve the process of community consultation. Further to this, Leslie Stein's "A review of international best practice in planning law" found that the most effective models of metropolitan planning are those where there is collaboration between local government and a metropolitan commission.

Minister Stokes knows the importance of consultation in the planning process—he has written a thesis on it, and I recommend it to all members of Parliament. Given this, and the international experience, it is crucial that the Greater Sydney Commission consults extensively and works collaboratively with local councils. Labor will move amendments to improve the community consultation features of the commission—namely, Labor will seek to insert a subclause that makes consultation one of the principle objectives of the commission. If I have one particular criticism of the bill it is that community consultation is not set out in the objects of the bill, which it should be. If we are serious about the challenge and understand the hostility to the change that is coming in our communities—based on lived experience of failures in infrastructure, failure to deliver services and very poor planning outcomes resulting in rows and rows of apartments that are not sustainable and not where people want to live—then we have to be serious about people being able to shape the plans that are coming and being genuinely consulted.

Labor will also be seeking to extend the exhibition periods for plans to ensure the community has ample time to consider, discuss and contribute to the city's future plans. Anyone involved in this space knows that there are many community organisations who work extremely hard. They become experts in planning law. They know far more about it than I do, and that is because they are forced through these processes to respond when there are large developers with large environmental impact statements and with every report in the world. We believe what is currently set out in the bill—that is, 45 days—is simply not long enough. We will be seeking to extend it to 60 days. Finally, Labor will be looking carefully at what additional provisions are made for community consultation in the associated regulations. We are taking a leap of faith here with the Government—we are inserting community consultation into the objects of the bill when we would have preferred to have seen a very clear charter around community consultation and participation as part of the regulations.

We put the Government on notice today: We will be watching this very closely and seeing how this develops. We must demand best practice in community consultation—consultation that allows communities to not simply be managed but instead be given an opportunity to shape and change plans as they are being made and on the way through. A recent survey of 1,000 Sydneysiders found that participants thought Sydney is worse today than it was five years ago, and more than half of those surveyed felt it would be even worse in five years time. Unsurprisingly, the reasons for this urban pessimism were the familiar problems of cost of living, traffic congestion and housing affordability. Each of those issues is complex—and, naturally, so are the solutions. But each, I would argue, is at least in part a product of Sydney's lack of sustained strategic planning in the post-war period.

The Greater Sydney Commission will be given the powers to ameliorate these concerns. Labor's hope is that, with the addition of some considered amendments, the Greater Sydney Commission will help to create a more sustainable, socially just, connected and creative Sydney—a world-class city that we can all enjoy.  

Hansard (Legislative Council, 11 November 2015)