We are all of us planners!
On my start-up walk on the St Kilda pier last Saturday morning I met my re-elected local State Labor MP Martin Foley who was helping with a beach clean up. We talked about politics, what else, and in particular the state of play with the planning of the Fishermans Bend Redevelopment Area.
Foley described the latest ambit claim by a developer in the Montague Precinct (closest to South Melbourne) as totally gross, and lamented that in the eyes of many of the public, planning didn't always have good connotations and that developer claims for greater freedom from planning controls were tolerated and not seen for what they really are, simply an attempt to make their building developments even more profitable.
I find it strange there is any doubt about the need for citizens (via their local council) trying to plan urban development to serve the interests of all of us. We accept that every other corporation, company and organisation in the country without exception is busily planning to achieve it's particular objectives, so why shouldn't the community also be planning to achieve better outcomes. Surely no one is naive enough to think we will achieve a rich and meaningful environment by letting everything rip?
Managers in Coles and Woolworths are busily commissioning location and economic studies to help them plan where and how big their new stores should be in order to maximise the income they will generate. What is this if not planning?
If the community doesn't decide where service stations should be allowed, the petrol companies will plan and decide where and how many they want. It is clear who would make decisions in the best interest of all of us, and it's not the oil industry!
Some developers like the supermarkets are smart enough to see that they might make even more money if what they plan is also in the public interest. But this decidedly isn't the case with developers of stand alone office and residential buildings; the higher and bigger they can get away with, the more they'll make!
The normal reply by pro-development apologists is that the 'market' knows what the community needs, and that new buildings create new jobs and benefit the community financially, with self-serving economics to prove it.
In my experience developers like the one Foley was describing automatically make ambit claims for the biggest building that's feasible on a particular site. Then it comes down to a simple battle of how tall it should be and whether you like the look of it, without much concern for the detail liveability of the flats or their long term environmental sustainability. Once the developer has sold off the apartments (not many are ever for rent), the apartment owners and their Body Corporate are on their own.
Fifty years ago in 'Australian Outrage', I quoted JK Galbraith, author of The Affluent Society'and a leading economist in the New Deal administration of Franklin Roosevelt that pulled the USA out of the 1929 Depression, and Galbraith's philosophic case for planning is still worth repeating:
'We do not have development in order to make our surroundings more hideous, our culture more meretricious or our lives less complete. Nor as scholars and scientists, should we be detained for a moment by the protest that this is a highbrow view and that people want what they want. This is the standard defense of economic priority. Those who most insist that this is what people really want are those who most fear that, given the opportunity, people would make a different choice- one that involves a greater measure of control of environment.'
So why are there any niggles at all about community attempts to implement planning controls to restrain those whose only aim is to maximise their profits at our expense?
Those of us who would like greater involvement by the community in the planning process, and who support the need to control bad urban development, need to start calling a spade a bloody shovel and forcefully and loudly advocate the need for better urban planning. Passive fellow citizens should be enrolled to stop shopping and get involved.
All the experts are agreed that Melbourne is headed for 6 million people over the next 20 years and this will clearly require better and more efficient planning to increase densities in existing suburban areas without at the same time destroying the sense of place.
However for the voices of citizens to be more effective, there is a crying need to reform local council and state bureaucracies and the long winded, self-serving way the public are permitted to make planning inputs. Council planning departments are often the major impediment to effective public discussion and one of the major reasons why the public are often so sour and unresponsive about local planning issues.
Councillors must ensure that their planners don't see themselves as 'independent professionals ' and see that they pay more attention to the wishes of the ratepayers.
As one of the Port Phillip councillors emailed me recently about the St Kilda Triangle: 'The project has become so consumed with process that it is no longer focussing on the outcome'. It is the councillors' responsibility to ensure this isn't the case
For example can you believe that the following so-called Vision Statement took the best part of a year to write: The St Kilda Triangle is a loved seaside place that acknowledges and builds on the local character and place. It is a public place supported by a mix of uses to make it attractive and welcoming. It makes St Kilda a great place.
This is real emperor's new clothes stuff, there IS no vision; you don't know whether to laugh or to cry but it certainly won't inspire anyone and is a great time waster when there are real planning and environmental issues still to be solved.
Responsibility for the processing of Planning Applications in Fishermans Bend was removed from Port Phillip Council by the previous government, and should now be passed back to them, although I don't think it's unreasonable that there should be some sort of final overall control by the Minister; neither of them can be trusted entirely!
At all levels of government, clear exposition and defense of public policy, and the level of debate, have declined badly on both sides of politics since Whitlam's time. There are too many pointless polls and focus groups, too much effort to manage problems rather than solve them in a principled way.
A lot of the time our politicians exhibit a lack of courage to argue a full case and act as if citizens are unable to grasp major issues. Who does Tony Abbott think he's fooling talking about 'climate variability' instead of climate change? That's simply spin for the unthinking. The Abbott government's reluctance to plan for the impact of climate change should be seen for what it really is, a thinly veiled defence of the continuing profitability of the coal industry. Using our taxes to subsidise infrastructure for the coal industry and justifying it as bolstering job creation and the economy is a deception. Removing all help and assistance for the renewable energy industry likewise; the Abbott government is simply serving the interests of their political and financial supporters in big business and we should be saying so.
It's not just politicians who are at fault, the media have a lot to answer for with their short news cycle, their reluctance to hold politicians to account, and their over emphasis on personalities and tactics as though politics were a game of football rather than a life and death business that ultimately affects us all. (On reflection that's a bad comparison in Melbourne perhaps, where for many people football IS more important than politics!)
The following comparison made by Barry Jones is revealing of our own situation:
'In 1869 in New York, Abraham Lincoln began his campaign for the presidency with a very complex speech about slavery. All four New York newspapers published the full text, which was widely read and discussed. In 1860 the technology was primitive but the ideas were profound and sophisticated. In 2012, the technology is sophisticated but the ideas uttered in the presidential contest so far are, in the most part, embarrassing in their banality, ignorance and naivety, much of it fuelled by rage or ignorance.'
Slavery was an even more a gut-wrenching dilemma then than refugee boat people are with us now, yet rather than playing on people's emotions with slogans, Lincoln calmly argued a serious case for abolition in detail. Would that we were being treated as seriously on the whole issue of refugees as Lincoln treated his fellow citizens!
As it is we have Scott Morrison treating us as children by concealing information and mouthing platitudes, and what's worse, largely getting away with it! There are world-wide refugee problems, no one pretends there are easy answers or that immigration should be unrestrained, but "Stop the Boats' is not a policy, it's simply a slogan for bogans to avoid the difficult details.
On big issues like this we are not being given the respect that Lincoln gave to his people over 150 years ago! In his case it was the prelude to a bloody civil war and yet all the people were given the opportunity to understand and debate the issues. In our recent past we have simply followed the USA into wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan without debate! We have to be more forthright about defending our interests at both national and local levels.
And it's exactly the same with the just as important local urban issues. Let's have some real detailed discussions about height limits, the need for higher densities and the need for the BCA (Building Code of Australia) to be upgraded to incorporate mandatory sustainability controls to reduce our emissions as a matter of urgency.
Don Gazzard LFAIA
Mid January 2015