GETTING TO YES:  Better ways of making planning decisions.

 

The tax summit in 2011 was an attempt to get a broader base of expert discussions to help reform our complex tax system. It was evidence of a growing feeling that the normal political way of proceeding, particularly the cynical use of focus group polling to determine what resonates with the electorate, is not the best way to determine the best policies for the country.  Lyn Carson's 'Dilemmas, disasters and deliberative democracy' (Griffiths Review 32)  is one of the best recent attempts to present the evidence for better and more democratic ways of making decisions!

But while we all have opinions about broad Federal issues like the carbon tax or refugees we are not as directly affected in the same way as we are with local government. The issues at stake here are much closer to home. Other than removing rubbish and sweeping the streets, planning issues are the bread and butter of council activities, and in the end planning decisions directly or indirectly affect the physical environment and property values in the areas where people actually live; all subjects that potentially affect the hip pockets of most suburban Australians.

Although many of these planning and environmental issues are of crucial and immediate importance, there is often a jejune, school mistressy attempts in local government of trying to make everything sweetness and light. For example my old council in the Illawarra wrote to ratepayers recently asking them to nominate people for Good Neighbour Awards. It was suggested that good neighbours were people who waved to you, who watered your pot plants while you're away, and so on. Those selected were to be given a certificate, our mayor has a penchant for handing out awards and getting her picture in the local paper. All a bit juvenile, not life threatening, but it some how sets the character of small town government.  Attitudes to local government are summed up perhaps by an old, not very good joke.  When some one rings up to find out the time the caller is asked which tier of government they're from.  When they ask the reason they are told that if you are from the Federal Government we would say 1430 hours, if you are from the State Government the answer would be half past two, and if you are from local government the answer would be that the small hand is on two and the big hand is on six.  It's not fair of course, there are many intelligent, hard working and talented people in local councils, but the joke has a grain of truth in the case of my small council. However my current much larger council in Melbourne is not much better as it tries to encourage ratepayers to have street parties and offers free golf lessons for beginners, presumably with the aim of encouraging better health. I hate Mrs Thatcher's term, the nanny State, but I can't help thinking of it when I read about free golf lessons while there are still people sleeping rough in the streets.

The big local questions on the other hand get relatively little public discussion in most councils. Major planning proposals are put on public exhibition when they are finalised and citizens are invited to object. Normally, any objections are considered by the officers who made the proposal and they rarely see the need to change anything. The councillors often don't even see the actual objections, they are given a potted summary of the objections received; a considered sixty page submission is passed over as easily as a handwritten letter and they mostly disappear without trace with self congratulation all round about how democratic the process is.

When the weight of public comment strongly disagrees with what has been proposed, the officers concerned usually confess, mea culpa, that they are at fault, they should have explained it better so we would have seen the errors of our ways.  Simple us, but the negative reaction doesn't usually stop them persisting with their proposals after a few cosmetic changes.  The officers are quite confident they know what's good for us, indeed one Chief Building Surveyor let slip in a meeting recently that 'his role was largely to protect the public from themselves ….the nanny state rampant!'  The council officers behave like latter day Jesuits who want you to do what they say for your own good. Larger metropolitan councils often have more effective governance and more real listening and discussion usually takes place, but on the other hand, their bureaucracies are that much denser and harder to deflect. And when party politics hold sway and the ruling party caucuses before meetings they can ride pretty rough shod over any opposition. In small councils the degree of participation in the planning process is usually pretty routine and on the whole not particularly helpful to either side of the equation. 

The latest fad is to hold what is called a charrette. Une charrette is an old French word for a handcart and its architectural use comes from the 19th century Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. The carefully rendered architectural drawings were prepared on large rigid boards and collected from the studios on a handcart to be taken to the jury for assessment.  Students rushing to meet the deadline set by the impending arrival of the handcart were said to be working 'en charrette'. Many Americans went to France rather than England for their architectural education after the revolutionary war and the term is in common use in US architectural offices for meeting a deadline; 'I can't meet you tonight, we're on a charrette to finish some tender drawings.'  The term has never been part of architectural parlance here, but is used as a fashionable term for a planning work shop; to my mind it's pretentious and smacks of the cultural cringe. 

A planning consultant is usually employed to run the charrette over a weekend and leads by suggesting possible changes and planning proposals for the group to react to. Often background papers on transport or economic issues are commissioned by other consultants to support the direction advocated by the local planners.  In the case of my small council 'they' were strongly in favour of actions to increase tourist activity (they hoped) by redeveloping the main street with higher buildings of serviced apartments. Interested citizens are divided into groups and given butchers paper and pencils to answer broad, almost unanswerable questions like 'what sort of town centre would you like to see', questions that inevitably lead to such broad Motherhood, Truth and Beauty answers that they aren't very helpful. It can be an interesting experience of course, the performance by the consultant is often charismatic and persuasive, and in the end the officers write a report for the council on the outcomes. Some persistent citizens manage to get pet proposals mentioned but generally it ends up saying what the officers want it to say; and justice of course, has been seen to have been done!

It's interesting that citizens who oppose what's being proposed, mostly come away happy even when their suggestions are ignored.  They like being taken seriously and having their say in public, even if in the end their views are not accepted.  So this sort of public participation has a good political outcome for the council inasmuch as it tends to silence potential critics. Based on the charrette outcomes the council usually claims wide spread public support for what is being proposed even when this is often patently not true. In the case in question for example, there was wide public opposition to a higher growth of tourism revealed by a professional survey carried out at the same time. I've been involved in these sort of public consultation exercises from both sides and I think most professional planners would admit off-the-record that it's an inefficient process and very rare that suggestions from the public produce any new ideas that haven't already been canvassed and explored by the professionals.  Planning after all is a complex business with a lot of legalities that have to be respected, but not so complex that citizens can't understand it and have sensible views, far from it. In essence, planning is about what values should be embodied in the planning scheme, even if citizens may at times want nimby ones like 'no high rise'. My larger Port Phillip Council holds Community Forums, which are a bit like charettes, groups sit around tables and write on butchers paper and each group has its say at the end summing up, but the whole process is still firmly controlled by the officers.

Despite its flaws, the conventional wisdom among politicians is that public participation is 'a Good Thing', that some sort of communal common sense from ordinary citizens can and should guide the process in a way that planners cannot.  The more candid planners will admit that although it doesn't usually produce any great folk wisdom, it's necessary in order to get the appearance of democratic public agreement, and as I said, it helps to quieten dissent. And at least with public involvement there is the possibility that the politicians might be swayed by objections from the voters even if the planners aren't, and it's certainly much better than the written objections-after-the-event common to most statutory planning processes. But it doesn't really get us closer to understanding what might be called the democratic will of the people.  Pre-election policies are vague enough in the Federal and State spheres, in local government they are almost non-existent.  Councillors usually get elected without any publicly stated policies at all, except vague promises perhaps to keep the rates down, improve the rubbish collection or do something about dog shit on the foot path; their detailed views on planning policies or specific development issues are rarely canvassed during elections.  It's hoped I suppose, that there will be enough competing views to bring the public interest to the surface somehow.  But in the absence of policies how can we to know whether the people we elect mirror or understand the broad and diverse views of the whole community. In my small Illawarra community for example, dairy farmers are an important but numerically small segment of the community, yet none of the councillors are farmers; they have to get up too early!.

It is therefore of  interest that an experiment in participatory democracy was held in Kiama in 2005 which holds out great promise for determining the considered views of the community. Local Environment Plans (LEP), the legal town planning schemes that guide and control development in NSW, are reviewed and updated every ten years, and that process was in train at the time. To guide this process, Kiama Council set up a community panel to arrive at a considered 'community' view of a number of important key policy issues to guide the planners and councillors in making the decisions that would be enshrined in the LEP for the next ten years.

To avoid any suggestion of possible council influence over the selection process and composition of this panel, consultants in Brisbane were commissioned to select a sixteen person panel that mirrored the demography of the area. Over five hundred people were contacted by telephone to find out if they were interested and prepared to spend the time involved, as it was proposed that the panel meet for five days from 8.30 am till 5.30 pm every day.  The panel chosen appears to be a surprisingly accurate reflection of the community. There were equal numbers of men and women (including a woman from the local aboriginal community), a spread of ages from an 18 year old female apprentice chef to a 75 year old male retired architect (the writer), and people from all parts of the municipality with a wide range of occupations, including several people from the dairy farming community. None of the panel knew one another except a dentist who found a couple of his patients on the panel. Panelists were paid a token fee for their participation.

The first three days were taken up being briefed about the municipality and being educated by speakers selected for their wide expertise. The experts didn't necessarily agree, and imparted information with the obligatory power point presentations about the geology and infrastructure of the area, demographic change, agriculture, urban planning, ecology, transport, the economics of the dairying industry after de- regulation and climate change, among other things. Panel members had the opportunity to interact and question the speakers and there was a wide range of views.  It was hard work with the danger of overload, and from time to time the panel withdrew to another room to talk things over, and on occasions to ask for additional specific information on some contentious or legal point. The council planners sat in on the presentations but absented themselves from the panel discussions.  This whole process was stage managed by a firm of independent consultants who made sure it ran smoothly and everyone was encouraged and given equal time to participate.

The panel spent the last two days in answering the four questions that the council had posed about this beautiful part of the Illawarra.  The first question asked; 'How the LEP might protect the agricultural and scenic landscape, and at the same time support a diverse, changing and viable economy and community?'

Experts had explained the position of the dairy industry in relation to deregulation, the drought, the advantages of the good volcanic soils and climate of the Illawarra, and close proximity to Sydney; the evidence was consistent on the importance of the retention of rural land. CSIRO studies suggested that while the inland parts of Australia are probably going to increase in temperature and have more frequent extreme events such as droughts, it is thought that the coastal areas will more or less retain their current temperatures and regular rainfall. It was thought that climate change combined with increased energy and transport costs are likely to once again make agricultural production in the Illawarra important in relation to food and fibre production for the Sydney region. Convinced by these arguments, the panel agreed that all agricultural and rural land should be protected for future generations.

Up till then concerns over changes in the appearance of agricultural land had usually been viewed largely as middle class 'nimby' worries about retaining a green scenic landscape as a desirable background for the housing areas. The panel agreed with the view that rural land should be protected both for its cultural and landscape values as well as its agricultural ones. Not only were these landscape values considered important for the health of the tourist industry, polls showed that retention of the landscape was considered of prime importance by the people of the Illawarra. The panel was therefore concerned that as many productive farms as possible should be retained and that unused rural land should be encouraged to return to productive use.  With prices for rural land increasingly being determined by inflated residential prices for Sydney weekenders, it was clear that once farmers sold out, the land would never return to agricultural use; prices were so high no farmer could ever afford to buy it back!  As the community clearly benefits from the continuing agricultural use of this land as part of our visual, social and economic environment, the panel advocated that the local community should be willing to help dairy farmers to stay in the industry.  The panel was therefore unanimous that agricultural and scenic rural land, that is all land currently zoned rural, should be recognised as an important and limited resource that must be protected against any further erosion by urban expansion.  A number of suggestions were made for increasing agricultural use of unused rural land although the LEP was not the appropriate place to consider subsidies, the panel recommended that the council should consider a 90% rate reduction to Registered Dairy Farmers as an indication of practical support.

The other questions asked of the panel were not as far reaching as the first. The second was a hangover from an earlier charrette and concerned expansion in the town centre. The third question was more difficult and important and asked;
 'What level of population growth is appropriate over the next ten years and where can it be accommodated'

Various demographic projections were examined and future growth of 100 to 150 dwellings per annum was accepted as reasonable.  And supporting their answer to the first question, the panel proposed that this growth should only be allowed on land already zoned residential, and that the balance should be accommodated by infill development to increase the density of the existing built-up areas.  For this reason the panel's answer recommended that the LEP should be written to encourage dual occupancies, low rise medium density infill housing and affordable rental housing. 

The panel also proposed that fixed boundaries be drawn around the existing zoned urban areas of the smaller villages in the municipality (such as Gerringong and Jamberoo) with no residential expansion at all envisaged for them except for infill development. It was thought that fixing the boundaries would eliminate uncertainty in those communities, allow a green buffer to be maintained between Kiama and these smaller places, and maintain rural views from all parts of them.  These villages are small and special in their surrounding landscapes, but are without effective public transport to the rest of the Illawarra region, so it was thought that they should not be allowed to grow any larger or spread into the surrounding rural lands. The last question concerned environmental controls which it was proposed were to be strengthened. 

The panel reached consensus on the broad answers to all the questions with remarkably little final discussion or dissent.  It was as though the process they had gone through had clarified the issues to such an extent that by the time the answers had to be written down the facts had spoken and there was little left to discuss.  In my opinion, these were wise and at the same time, bold answers to very big and important questions.  I suspect there is general agreement in many places about the need to restrain growth, and yet there are usually State government policies (like releasing land to move people out of Sydney in order to ease the situation there) and commercial factors (like simple political pressure from real estate and development interests) that conspire to prevent this happening under the normal bureaucratic planning process.

A number of panel members said later that they had been tentative about participating, that they knew nothing about urban planning and were unused to talking in public forums. Later it became clear that not only had they enjoyed understanding the problems, but also had no difficulty in proposing solutions.  There was one young mid-twenties mother with two very young babies, who made special arrangements to be able to attend, who didn't say much but was spot on when she did. A dairy farmer talked all the time, delighted to be able to sound off in the sort of company he lacked in his lonely daily round, and most panel members were clearly empowered by the process.  Two panel members who were writers drafted the formal answers to the questions, and they were only altered for precision and clarity.

Time will tell about the effectiveness of this form of community consultation. Would another randomly chosen panel produce more or less the same result?  Is there such a thing as a generalised 'will' of the community' at any one time that could be determined in this way? It would be interesting to carry out a controlled experiment, with two panels being briefed in an identical way and asked the same questions at the same time; is there something in the zeitgeist that would lead to the same answers?  All the questions asked concerned planning and therefore indirectly concerned property and property values, subjects dear to suburban hearts.  What if the panel had been asked to deal with something more emotive, like whether refugees should be resettled in the area?  Community panels like this one could be likened to courtroom juries, where we entrust twelve people to decide whether one of their fellow citizens is guilty or not with potentially serious consequences. And then one thinks about citizen referenda, and how they work well in orderly Switzerland, but have had some disastrous results in California. 

In this case councillors and officers at Kiama profess to be delighted with the outcomes.  Perhaps councillors don't really want the total responsibility of making decisions in the name of the community and like the idea of using the panel's decisions to hide behind and deflect criticism. We will have to wait to determine the final extent of the panel's influence. This type of community panel appears to bode so well for more meaningful citizen participation that it should be studied and built on.  With the continuing erosion of democracy and civil rights in the Federal and State spheres, at least in our local affairs we should be aiming for more democracy not less.

 

Don Gazzard LFRAIA is an architect and planner who was randomly selected to participate in the Kiama Community Panel.  He now lives in Melbourne and can be contacted on don.g@hotkey.net.au.

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