A hundred years ago Sydney was in a crisis situation, but that generation of Sydney city aldermen and officials pursued policies and political practices which saw reforms implemented over coming generations. The two founders of the town planning movement were also journalists and pamphleteers – John Daniel Fitzgerald and John Sulman. They and others pushed for the ‘Improvement of Sydney Commission’, and romped their way through ideas, projects and philosophies – to popular acclaim.
They saw what overseas best practice was, they understood how to negotiate the implementation of suitable policies here, and most importantly they were open and persuaded their communities of how to move forward. Peter Spearritt called this a “planning consensus”. The Wran Government (Ministers Cox and Landa) froze freeway construction then revised it. The Carr Government has brought in high-level thinkers to push the sustainability debate and they are suggesting the same – 25 years later. The vested interests are resisting, of course.
Royal commissions are much maligned but there is a lot to be said for the daily reporting of expert views, the open discussion of options and alternatives, and the persuasive influence of leaders, compared with what we have seen since the 1960s. The community is rightly cynical about plans comprising lines on maps, prepared within the bureaucracies, silent on the economic, environmental and social implications of options, lacking linkages with legislation and budgets.
London had its royal commission in the 1990s. Sydney is well overdue for an open, professional and totally consultative approach to urban design, architectural quality, environmental protection, and infrastructure systems improvements.
Robert Gibbons is former Executive Director of Planning in NSW DOT and General Manager of Newcastle City Council, and advisor to the Total Environment Centre and the Clean Air 2000 Campaign.