You are joking, aren’t you?

The Glebe Society’s Bays & Foreshores Convenor, Dr Lesley Lynch, responds to the news that UrbanGrowth NSW has won multiple awards for their community consultation on the Bays Precinct development.

A mix of community hilarity and outrage has greeted the startling news that UrbanGrowth NSW has won two (yes, two!) awards – ‘Project of the Year’ and ‘Planning Award’ – for their excellence in public consultation in the Bays Precinct Project. These awards were bestowed by the International Association for Public Participation Australasia (IAP2 Australasia): https://www.iap2.org.au/ccms.r?Pageid=6000&tenid=IAP2&DispMode=goto%7C10174.

The immediate irony for members of the Bays Precinct Community Reference Group is that we are at this moment, yet again, engaged in extremely frustrating interactions with UrbanGrowth about their ongoing inability/refusal to provide meaningful participation or access to information or even to support our requests to set up focused work groups to allow us to provide informed views.

At this point in time, I consider UrbanGrowth’s approach to the Community Reference Group to be pretty much a failed venture.

The few meetings we have had since our establishment in October last year have generally lacked substance and provided only superficial overviews of any developments. Our efforts to organise ourselves into sensible work groups around major aspects of the project were not supported. To date we have not been granted access to any of the ‘technical studies’ that were flagged as critical sources of information. We are not even certain that many of these have actually progressed. We have not been allowed any access to the one we know is at least in draft form – the all-important ‘transport and mobility’ study. We have not been able to have any sensible discussion about how WestConnex will impinge on the Bays transport planning and the future uses of the White Bay Power Station.

Extract from the booklet, 'The Big Plan for the Bays Precinct, Sydney' from the 'Schools Hub'; part of UrbanGrowth's educational package for primary school students.(https://thebayssydney.com.au/schools-hub/)

Extract from the booklet, ‘The Big Plan for the Bays Precinct, Sydney’ from the ‘Schools Hub’; part of UrbanGrowth’s educational package for primary school students. (https://thebayssydney.com.au/schools-hub/)

In the early days of the project – when community enthusiasm was still abundant – groups and individuals worked at developing ‘great ideas’ and ‘in-the-meantime’ projects for the Bays and sent them to UrbanGrowth. The ‘great ideas’ were formally assessed and, we are told, have influenced the ‘transformation plan’. The many ideas for action that could happen quickly as transitional or early projects, seem to have disappeared from the current agenda. But we have had no formal feedback.

We read newspaper reports about ‘plans’ for very intensive, high rise development around the Fish Markets (almost 2,760 residences) but note that this does not seem to be reflected in education department planning and wonder about the implications for transport in an already dreadfully congested area. We cannot get to have serious discussions about the place and relative priority of affordable housing in all this development.

But of course the Community Reference Group is not the only way UrbanGrowth NSW interacts with the community – perhaps the consultative ‘excellence’ has been elsewhere!

There were those fabulous Bays Precincts summits – one for the ‘international experts’ and one for ‘Sydneysiders’. The international experts’ summit was terrific in that experts shared fascinating ideas and experience about ways in which urban renewal could incorporate both economic priorities and the public good. The Sydneysiders summit was a great-fun weekend and provided visitors with lots of interesting information about the history and potential of the Bays, and piles of yellow post-it stickers – and recording facilities – for them to offer their ideas. Which they did. There were very enjoyable ‘open days’ at the White Bay Power Station and Rozelle Bay. And there is also the website with a portal for the input of ideas.

‘Community consultation’ a la UrbanGrowth NSW. ‘Sydneysiders Summit’, Australian Technology Park, May 2015. (image: V. Simpson-Young)

‘Community consultation’ a la UrbanGrowth NSW. ‘Sydneysiders Summit’, Australian Technology Park, May 2015. (image: V. Simpson-Young)

I note the award blurb claims: ‘Over 30,000 people were involved in the public participation program, with almost 4,300 items of feedback or ideas submitted’. I guess every person who walked through the doors of the summit weekend or open day and every post-it sticker and portal input got counted.

One suspects that professional gloss, rhetoric and entertaining events may be the substance underpinning these two awards.

The refusal to have meaningful community consultation may not originate within UrbanGrowth. Likely it is captured – like other agencies – within the corrosive veil of secrecy that excludes the public from any of important information about development in NSW – until it is all too late to exercise any influence.

We had high hopes for UrbanGrowth and the Bays Precinct – and they might still be our best bet for snatching some ‘public good’ outcomes from this mega urban renewal project – which is on publicly-owned harbour foreshores.  But it is just a little hard from the perspective of a frustrated member of the Community Reference Group to take these awards seriously.