Thursday, June 30, 2016

Dear Greater Sydney Commission, my idea for Sydney is ... democracy

Last weekend, my fam and I popped in to Canterbury Racecouse, where a food market has just started up on Sundays. Empanadas and stuff. Right on.

At the far end of the market sat a parked bus that announced itself as a 'Talk Bus'. People with black t-shirts and balloons covered in hashtags were trying (and mostly failing) to connect with passers-by. They wanted to know what we loved about living in Sydney, and our ideas for making it better.

Someone from the bus tried to give one of my kids a balloon. It kinda freaked her out and she grabbed her mum's leg. Exactly, girlfriend. They also tried to stop my Mum for a chat. Mum's nice, and she politely declined. But in a classic spruiker move, that politeness was twisted into an invitation to talk some more. Mum tried to escape by telling them she was old, and that if it was all about the future, maybe they should be asking younger people. The frustrated spruiker then had a crack at her -- "what, younger people like the ones you're here with? They just walked past without talking to me!". End of engagement. I wonder what box got ticked on the woman's clipboard...?

It turned out the Talk Bus people were from the newly-established Greater Sydney Commission.

Here's a tweet of a picture of a camera filming a moment of consultation in front of the Talk Bus, with a guy with one of the hashtag balloons in the background:


The Greater Sydney Commission in action, working with some people and their dog to "co-create a more prosperous and liveable Sydney"
Image source: GSC Twitter Feed

Apparently, the Talk Bus will be travelling around Sydney for the next few weeks. Planning Minister Rob Stokes says it's all about "hearing directly from the local community to help shape the future of Sydney".

My blood is starting to boil just from typing out those words ... honestly.
 
I don't know anyone who works at the Greater Sydney Commission. They might be lovely people, for all I know. But I do know some bullshit when I smell it.

With the recent establishment of the Greater Sydney Commission, a bunch of appointed Commissioners have acquired incredible powers to shape this city. They've been given those powers by a Tory NSW Government that claims Sydney's problems are caused by the lack of a metropolitan planning authority. Apparently we need such an authority to make 'strategic' decisions for the city as a whole. Reduce silos! Cut red/green tape! Blah blah blah.

But the things that are most wrong with my town are not going to be fixed by the creation of the Greater Sydney Commission. In fact, the way that the NSW Government has gone about establishing the Greater Sydney Commission is a perfect example of what's most messed up with the way this city is governed.

When my mum extricated herself from the Talk Bus, she suggested maybe I should go talk to them and tell them what I thought. Best if I don't, I said. I'm not a fan of tokenistic consultation, and had no interest in contributing to their 'engagement' statistics. I was also a little annoyed that they had tried to get to me through my kid, and then made my Mum feel bad about not talking to them. And I had spotted the empanadas. 

But I probably should have stopped for a yarn, because I just ended up spending the rest of the afternoon being a little distracted, thinking of the kinds of things I coulda-shoulda-woulda said. You know the feeling, right?

Then I remembered I have a blog...

**

I don't have a problem with the idea of a planning for the city as a whole. In fact, I spend a lot of my time thinking about 'the city as a whole', and how it might be organised and represented and made more just, beyond local initiatives.

But as I've argued elsewhere on this blog, when people make claims to be representing 'the city as a whole', we have to ask some critical questions about the kinds of authority on which those claims are based.

At best, the Greater Sydney Commission is an assertion of technocratic authority. There are lovely statements on the webpage about the Commission 'working with us', how they want our ideas so they can 'co-create' a better Sydney with us. It's very nice of them to seek our ideas.

But we know how this goes. The plans they develop will be the plans they were always going to develop. I'm sure their reports will include selected quotes from consulted punters and pie charts of community attitudes, to give them the veneer of democratic legitimacy. They will claim they were shaped by our 'participation' and 'engagement' through extensive consultation. 

This form of consultation is not the same as democratic participation -- indeed, it is close to its opposite. Those involved in the Commission may genuinely wish to know what we think. They may even deign to incorporate some of our ideas in their plans. But ultimately, they are not accountable to us. We don't get to determine what they do with our ideas. The plans will be theirs. Indeed, the strange motto of the Commission -- Our Sydney, Your Home -- kinda sums this up for me. Weird, right? It's like the Commission is telling us "you might live here, but Sydney is ours, not yours...".

Now, don't get me wrong. Technocrats who consult with us might be better than technocrats who don't consult with us. And technocrats with some expertise might even produce better outcomes than local governments whose 'democratic' planning processes were tainted by corruption. But ultimately, the problem with technocracy is that while it might make reference to the will of the people, it is not accountable to that will.

Searching for democracy: here's what happens when you search for 'democracy' on the Greater Sydney Commission website. Screen grab taken on 30 June 2016. (And yes, a search for 'democratic' gets the same result.)

Indeed, in the case of the Greater Sydney Commission, the technocrats serve at the pleasure of other masters whose agenda is far from democratic. And those masters will surely have way more influence on the kinds of proposals they develop than punters like the folks with the dog in the PR tweet above.

The Greater Sydney Commission was established by a NSW Government that is pro-developer, pro-privatisation, pro-market and anti-democratic. It is brought to us by the same NSW Government that has sought to reform planning laws to grease the wheels for developers ... the same government that is selling off public land and assets at an unprecedented rate ... the same Government that looks exclusively to the private sector for the provision of new urban infrastructure ... the same Government that has forced amalgamations on local governments and appointed its own Administrators with delayed elections ... the same Government that has introduced draconian new laws to curb rights of protest ... among other things!

This approach to urban policy and governance clearly shapes the way the Commission was established. Its Commissioners are hand-picked appointees of the State Government. What are these Commissioners tasked with achieving? As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald at the time, the Commission was established with the expressed intent of overcoming blockages to increasingly the supply of housing in Sydney. It aims to better 'co-ordinate' the release of land, the rezoning of existing localities for redevelopment, and the provision of infrastructure.

This approach privileges the role of private sector 'partners' in delivering urban outcomes. It's one part of an approach to urban policy and governance that equates the public good with the profitability of private sector housing and infrastructure developers. It point-blank refuses to see other means to address our serious housing and infrastructure problems.

All this will be a bonanza for developers like Harry Triguboff's Meriton, which is responsible for a sizeable chunk of new apartments built in Sydney. He has already overtaken mining capitalist Gina Rinehart to become Australia's richest individual. Ultimately, then, with the Greater Sydney Commission perhaps we have technocracy in the service of plutocracy?

The Commission will approach its task by developing planning frameworks for the 6 Districts into which the city has been carved up (that strange 'carving' is another story ... based on these opaque maps, I'm sure many Sydney-siders will not be sure which District they are even in). Planning processes established by (recently amalgamated) local governments in those Districts will be required to conform to those District Plans that they have had no part in determining (of course, they will be consulted!). So, even when we finally do get to vote for our local councillors again, they will have barely any actual authority to shape their locality.

Now, I am not suggesting that 'locals' should have the ultimate say in how things unfold in their locality -- when localities are part of a wider city, this is not necessarily democratic or just. But when the locals are disempowered, it tends to be only ministers or technocrats who are empowered in their place.

We've seen this when the State Government has taken control over parts of the city defined as 'state significant sites' and given itself extraordinary planning powers. We've also seen it with the establishment of urban redevelopment authorities like UrbanGrowth NSW, who have powers to take similar control of other urban areas. These moves have not involved a re-scaling of democratic authority from the local to the metropolitan scale. Instead, they have resulted in a consolidation of authority in the hands of the few -- the body politic has been equated with the body of the planning minister, and on the basis of elections held every five years, somehow that's meant to be ok.

The establishment of the Greater Sydney Commission very neatly works to curb the powers of those pesky local governments in parts of the city that the State Government can not convincingly take-over as state significant sites. And the authority of those local governments is transferred to appointed Commissioners working at the pleasure of the Planning Minister.

There will no doubt be some folks in the planning and associated urban professions who insist things are not this bad. They might hope that at least the planners working for the Greater Sydney Commission will be a step removed from government and 'politics'. Perhaps they believe that a new metropolitan planning authority might be able to better co-ordinate development agendas across the city on that basis.

You see, many planners in Sydney seem to believe that the history of urban development in Sydney is a history of their very excellent plans being scuppered by politicians and their pesky politics. I love John Toon, but the title of his book on the history of metropolitan planning in Sydney nicely encapsulates the way many planners see things -- it's called Sydney - Planning or Politics. It's as though good planning can only happen without politics. If only the experts didn't have to deal with pesky politicians and people who don't know what's good for them, things would be awesome! I'm sure that's why plenty of planners seem excited about the Greater Sydney Commission. As Sarah Hill, planner and CEO of the Commission, said: "It's something planners have dreamed of for a very long time."

This is both a flawed and an unrealistic aspiration. If the Greater Sydney Commission agenda is ultimately tasked with freeing up the market to enable the private sector to 'fix' the very real problems with housing and infrastructure, then it is really just going to facilitate more of the same crap that got us to where we're at. The idea that the Commission will facilitate better co-ordination of a planning process designed to advance the commodification of urban life does not fill me with hope, it fills me with dread.

This certainly involves 'taking the politics out of planning', as Chris Johnson from the Urban Taskforce (a developer lobby group) put it. But while he sees that as a good thing, I certainly don't! Politics is taken out of planning by denying the people of my city a chance to actually explore alternative ways of organising and living our lives together.

In Sydney, we desperately need alternatives a representative political system that panders to the interests of developers and other shady interests, and a planning profession that sees itself as the only alternative form of authority to that system. The role of 'the people' in these two visions of urban governance is reduced to casting a vote for a representative every five years, or being 'consulted' by someone who already thinks they know what's best. Neither will do. Our problem is not too much politics, but not enough politics.

This is exactly why I find myself returning to the green bans and other attempts to construct and enact a different model of 'the people' and their interests. We've done it before, and it can be done again.

**

Right then. It's nice to get that off my chest. I wonder how that would have gone if I'd stopped to talk to a spruiker?

I guess my short answer to the question "what's your idea for improving Sydney" is ... some democracy would be nice.

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