A Sydney-wide People’s Campaign is essential to ensure the public good is better protected for the Bays Precinct than it has been in the Barangaroo development. Come to the important meeting on Sunday 16 November.

The People’s Campaign to protect the ‘public good’ in the Bays Precinct mega-project has had one victory to date. (Let’s hope it is not our only one!). We got community members inside the Bays Precinct Sydney International Summit at the Australian Technology Park on 19 and 20 November and they made their presence felt.

It was a terrific Summit. I had been sceptical about what could be gained from a series of brief presentations from overseas experts who had no (or little) knowledge of the Bays Precinct or the compromised political context around development in NSW. In fact almost all the presentations from the overseas experts were both fascinating and highly relevant. UrbanGrowth had gathered an impressive array of experts from around the world with hands-on experience of very similar urban renewal projects and their analyses of what worked and what didn’t were sharply relevant to our context.

There was good space for interaction and input from the floor – including capacity to text questions and comments to speakers and panels and to key in thoughts for the record. Speakers were available for further discussion at ‘talking tables’ between sessions – and they were packed. We made a number of very useful contacts.

The mood was slightly marred at a few points when (local) chairs were unnecessarily dismissive of comments and questions from community members relating to the omission of the Leichhardt Mayor from any formal role in the proceedings. (Mayor Rochelle Porteous did get some strong statements on the record from the floor.)

Finally it must be noted that it was a lavishly resourced Summit: huge numbers of support people, security (not sure of the purpose), props, technology, documentation, and FOOD.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore on a panel at the Summit. Clover Moore used her keynote address to illustrate the City’s many successful urban renewal projects that have integrated community input, delivered bigtime for the public good, won recognition for innovation and quality and been financially viable. (image: http://clovermoore.com.au/revitalising-bays-precinct/)
Lord Mayor Clover Moore on a panel at the Summit. Clover Moore used her keynote address to illustrate the City’s many successful urban renewal projects that have integrated community input, delivered bigtime for the public good, won recognition for innovation and quality and been financially viable. (image: http://clovermoore.com.au/revitalising-bays-precinct/)

Lessons for NSW

The most positive and most exciting aspect of the Summit from our perspective was the broad affirmation from many of the international speakers of the core principles and values that the community has been advocating for years and which are now embodied in the people’s campaign. Many speakers flagged the imperative of upfront and ongoing community engagement if you want good outcomes in such projects and many described how one could both protect the public good and negotiate viable public/private financing and investment arrangements.

Some messages I extracted included: go for the best outcome FOR the world, not best IN the world; don’t squander this extraordinary site with consumption uses (eg mass housing) rather, invest for productive uses; be cautious about rushing to build housing; use more sophisticated criteria than capital and profits for such a site; mix rich with poor – affordable and social housing featured in most redevelopments; go for quality; make the shared commons the focus not a peripheral dimension; develop parks and public space first; recognise poor access to the Bays site as a critical problem so action access and transport infrastructure first; human scale for foreshores; don’t accept unsolicited proposals.

The CEO of UK Regeneration and current policy adviser to the UK Minister for Cities drew applause from the audience with a throwaway line that she could not understand why anyone would contemplate demolishing the Glebe Island Bridge, given the Bays site had major access problems. She speculated if it was just pandering to a bunch of rich folk with super yachts.

It was refreshing that across most international presentations (and some of the local ones) there was a non-contentious acceptance that the public good had a high priority in the planning and decision making for these kinds of sites.

The ‘imaginary’ 16,000 housing units

The media furore about the now ‘disappeared’ 16,000 housing units for the Bays was a bad look for the Summit opening. This was announced on the first day by the Treasurer. As we were convening to discuss future options from a ‘blank canvas’ this was a bit of an embarrassment for the Government and UrbanGrowth. Both the Premier and the Planning Minister Pru Goward used their welcoming addresses to deny any such figure existed and emphatically reaffirm the blank canvas was still blank.

We were pleased to hear this. But it’s a little hard to believe. Either the Treasurer let the cat out of the bag or he was irresponsibly misbriefed by somebody. This is a major project which is part of an even bigger project. It is inconceivable that Treasury has not done extensive modelling around the economics and has not established a bottom line figure for the revenue return to Government. Given recent experience, it is highly likely that the preferred modelling would incorporate quick returns that can be got from selling off public land to developers for high- and medium-rise housing.

We will have to wait to see what the emphatic statements by the Premier and Minister actually mean. Housing will be an important part of the development of the Bays – but the question of where, for whom and how many units should be part of a considered and integrated plan and not a rushed grab for quick cash returns to Government – or profits to developers. But it did shake confidence in the Government’s management of the planning agenda once again.

“Don’t worry about the finances!”

No community member heard the Treasurer make this statement as we were excluded from day one of the Summit where the key discussions on ‘financing and investment of major urban transformational projects’ occurred. I was very surprised and irritated to discover that this critical area had been carved out of the Bays Summit and segregated into an experts-only event.

Obviously the financial and investment arrangements for this project will be a major determining factor. To exclude the community from this discussion was unacceptable and diminished the positives and the trust that came from including us – albeit belatedly – in the Summit. To date we have no serious response to queries as to why this occurred. It felt a little like being kept away from the ‘serious’ stuff.  

This unexplained exclusion of the mere citizens from the finance day does not augur well for meaningful engagement of the citizenry post the Summit.

Where to now?

We do not know whether this largely terrific Summit was a bogus stunt, or a genuine effort to try to do things differently in NSW.

We have strong assurances from the senior staff of UrbanGrowth that they are determined to be consultative and to oversee a proper process. The Premier and the Minister in their brief appearances at the Summit gave a similar message. But there is not much in past practice or current approaches to development to suggest a radical change of direction is in the air. Nor is it clear how much influence UrbanGrowth will wield in the longer run.

As a follow-up to the Summit, the People’s Campaign has put a number of specific and reasonable recommendations about principles, process and governance to UrbanGrowth and the Government for immediate action. The Government’s response will be an indicator as to how serious they are about engaging with the citizens of Sydney in the Bays project. We have called on them to:

  • Endorse and act on the community planning principles for the Bays Precinct Urban renewal Project.
  • Diversify the composition of the UrbanGrowth NSW Board to include community and professional and academic directors to balance its current domination by developer and big business interests.
  • Sustain the positive and consultative spirit that was strongly manifest in discussion and process at the Bays Precinct Sydney International Summit and immediately establish a meaningful and substantive consultative mechanism to engage the community and citizens of Sydney in the ongoing planning process for the Bays Precinct.

UrbanGrowth is planning a Sydneysiders’ Summit to be held after it submits a draft strategic plan on the Bays Precinct to the Government in April or May 2015. This will only permit a post hoc debrief, not an opportunity for further considered input to the draft plan. So we have called on UrbanGrowth to:

  • reschedule the Sydneysiders’ Summit to at least two weeks before the delivery of the draft plan to the Government to allow the community to have direct input to and influence over the content of that plan.

As noted, financial and investment arrangements put into place for the Bays project will largely determine what is possible and who benefits from the outcome. NSW Governments increasingly abuse ‘commercial-in-confidence’ agreements to impose a cloak of deep secrecy over financial dimensions of development projects. When the projects relate to public assets this is an affront to democracy. It fundamentally compromises proper accountability and too often – as we have repeatedly witnessed in recent years – is an open door to corruption.

This excessive secrecy also deliberately obscures the relative outcomes for the public good and private benefit. We have therefore called for far greater transparency in this area:

  • Recognising that the Bays Precinct urban renewal project relates to publicly owned lands and assets, the People’s Campaign calls on the NSW Government to commit to a high degree of transparency in relation to financial arrangements and relative outcomes and provides accurate and meaningful reports on these to the citizens of NSW throughout, and at the conclusion of the project.

 Finally, having had no answer yet to our letter of 21 August to the Premier and Minister, we again invited the Government to:

‘work with the people of Sydney to make this highly strategic, urban renewal project for the Bays Precinct a pilot for the restoration of integrity, transparency, community engagement and respect for, and proper protection of, the public interest into NSW’s planning and development processes.’

If the Government was listening to the clear messages from the international experts it brought to the Summit, we could expect positive responses to these requests.