Michael Koziol August 06, 2012
Troublesome ... Leichhardt Council has campaigned against an apartment complex replacing the abandoned Harold Park Paceway. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Sydney's housing crisis is substantially the fault of "narrow-minded, self-interested individuals who oppose the building of any new homes in their suburbs," says a recent McKell Institute report. Bingo. But it's not just your NIMBY neighbours blocking the road: it's local government, too.
In a brief period covering local politics for community newspapers, I attended several town hall sessions, chaired by councillors, aimed at blocking, downsizing or at the very least delaying commercial and residential development.
From Maroubra to Ku-ring-gai, whether it's multi-storeys or commerce, there is scarcely an enterprise unaffected by blinkered councillors. Leichhardt Council is one of the worst. In the past year it has campaigned against a modest apartment complex replacing the abandoned Harold Park Paceway, a cruise ship terminal at the disused White Bay power station, and now a redevelopment of Rozelle that will provide a modern shopping centre, a couple of apartment towers and a new Balmain Leagues Club.
The irrepressible Leichhardt councillor and Greens MP for Balmain, Jamie Parker, says he supports "suitable" development within the area. We await an example with bated breath.
Meanwhile, Sydney's housing crisis worsens and our infrastructure ages. A Grattan Institute report tells us the demand for more affordable, modern urban living is not being satisfied - to which anyone trying to get a foot in the market could attest. State and federal governments are being forced to throw subsidies at a generation of first-home buyers locked out of home ownership by local government resistance to the laws of supply and demand.
Developers are out there, bricks and mortar at the ready, willing to help rectify this problem. What they don't particularly want is a protracted battle with a local government that, like an old garrison poking their heads above the parapet, sits ready to gun down anything that moves.
The NSW Labor government initiated a clever but much-maligned amendment to get around these roadblocks: Part 3A of the Planning Act. This handsome caveat essentially allowed the planning minister to take direct control of high-value development projects, depriving councils of their approval rights. It was saddening that the Labor Left wanted to formally apologise at the recent state conference for this "mistake", which was necessary to avoid perpetual development limbo.
The O'Farrell government, in its perennial populism, abolished Part 3A, while still allowing some projects approved under it to remain unaffected. The Rozelle Village is one of those lucky survivors. While there is some uncertainty about whether the proposed 32-storey tower would trespass on the flight path, overall the plan seems a boon for an area which has long wanted renewal.
But Leichhardt Council has been fighting various forms of this proposal since 2009. The first time around it rejected a development half the size of what is now planned. China has built mega-cities in the intervening period, yet we can't redevelop a single suburban block.
Half of Leichhardt's 12 councillors are Greens, as are a quarter of blue-ribbon Waverley's: indeed, their success at a local level is substantial. Whatever becomes of the party federally, its impact on local government will be felt, and regretted, for a long time to come.
The Greens' approach to urban consolidation is puzzling: they oppose it despite high-density being the most environmentally sustainable form of living we have besides farmland subsistence. The result of their intransigence is even more urban sprawl, the kind that produces McMansions and 4WDs to traipse the motorways twice each day.
They generously welcome migrants and refugees on one hand, but resist policies that would provide affordable accommodation for them on the other.
A referendum next year could provide financial recognition for local government in the constitution. That would effectively guarantee councils a place in our democratic process, perhaps immovably. Many of them will be looking forward to such constitutional protection, particularly in NSW, where the Business Chamber is pressing to reduce their number from 41 councils to 10.
Perhaps that is still 10 too many.
The likes of MP Joel Fitzgibbon have talked about abolishing state governments, but we should look a little lower. Local government simply does not have the capacity, or the obligation, to consider the big picture: the role its territory plays in the city, and the role the city must play in housing, transporting and employing its inhabitants.
Only the bigger tiers of government can conceive of Sydney in the global economy, and they should be allowed to progress that vision unencumbered.
Michael Koziol is a media/communications student at the University of Sydney and an editor of Honi Soit. Twitter: @michaelkoziol