The long awaited Bays Precinct Taskforce Report1, and the Government’s response to it, was released in late March. The Report is a mixed bag. It makes some very significant findings and recommendations – although these are often loose and open to many interpretations. Jane Marceau and I considered refusing to sign-off on the report, but, as important gains could still be achieved if the Government responded positively to key recommendations, we made an on-balance decision to stay inside the tent.
The Report and the fate of the Bays Precinct (Bays) are inextricably linked with the Government’s overall new planning regime. The shape and intent of this regime are now disturbingly clear. My apprehension is that the potential positive outcomes in the Bays Report will be translated so as to privilege developers over community, private benefit over public interest on all the big decisions, and generally dispense with effective community (or Council) input into these decisions.
Positives in the Report
The Report is quite strong on many things the community has long campaigned for. Many of the community planning principles are accepted and recommended to ‘be adopted and applied to decision making in the Bays Precinct’. (R3) These include the important principle that publicly-owned foreshore lands and harbour waters be retained in public ownership. (R1).
There is, however, one hugely disturbing exception. The longstanding, overarching principle, giving public good precedence over private benefit for any development relating to Sydney Harbour or its foreshores was removed from Report after the Taskforce had disbanded. The Sydney Harbour REP 2005 established this as the overarching principle for the whole harbour: ‘Sydney Harbour is to be recognised as a public resource, owned by the public, to be protected for the public good” and “The public good has precedence over the private good whenever and whatever change be proposed for Sydney Harbour or its foreshores’.
This strong protecting principle was replaced (post hoc and after our vociferous complaints) with a much weaker one referencing ‘the social and economic welfare of the community’ rather than public good. They have quite different meanings – and the replacement does not provide suitable protection for the Bays Precinct.
Jane and I could not think of a single positive reason for public servants to deliberately and provocatively remove a principle which affirms public good over private benefit from a Report. We could think of a few disturbing reasons.
The report recommends the existing Master Plans, Sydney Harbour REP, SREP 26 and Sydney LEP 2005, should be retained as the key planning instruments for the Bays Precinct. (R2, R4). This is important given that these will have no ongoing legal status for most developments.
Not surprisingly, greater community access to the foreshores is affirmed (R18, R19), but we could not get agreement to a 20 metre standard setback for buildings wherever possible.
Strategic uses, requiring proximity/access to a waterway, are given priority for the Bay foreshores and harbour. Residential development is specifically given a low priority. (R24, R25, R13). Foolishly, we thought these might protect the Bays from commercial entertainment uses and expensive, high rise residential developments.
Community unease about lack of transparency in agency/government decisions – especially with regard to lease arrangements for publicly owned lands, waterways and buildings – is clearly recognised and greater transparency is recommended. (p.52)
The Government’s response was outlined in a media release from Ministers Hazzard and Gay2. They made generally positive noises about the Report and committed to five priority tasks:
- Consolidating the concrete and bulk aggregate storage on Glebe Island freeing up foreshore land at Blackwattle Bay for ‘public access and appropriate urban renewal’.
- A new waterway management plan investigating locations for recreational and passive boating facilities.
- Investigating potential recreational and open space at head of Rozelle Bay.
- Review of leasing to ensure policy and procedures are open and transparent.
- Investigate the potential for a new port access road.
These are important matters with the potential to deliver positives for the community – depending on how they are implemented.
The Government has set up an Implementation Committee under the Government Architect to act on these tasks and make recommendations on other matters raised in the taskforce report. We understand the Committee and five working groups
are in action. We have no information on these and whether there is any community representation. Questions to Minister Hazard’s office have not been answered. This does not augur well.
Most significantly, the Government was silent on the key planning parameters that are imperative to achieve integrated, strategic planning decisions and protection of the Bays Precinct from inappropriate development. This is alarming given there is no Government commitment to hold off on new proposals pending decisions on these core matters.
What has been achieved?
There is potential for significant gains IF the Government responds positively and swiftly to the central issues raised in the Report. But right now, after two review processes and years of effort, the Bays Precinct is without any statutory or policy protections from predatory development.
Given the inside lobbying of the Urban Taskforce and developers, the demonstrated propensity of the O’Farrell government to approve unsolicited development proposals involving public lands, the shape of the Government’s overall planning regime and the extraordinary location of these foreshores, the community should be very worried about the fate of the Bays over the next few years.
There is real potential that this ‘once-in-a-century’ opportunity for strategic development of a unique public harbour asset will be squandered and the foreshores and Glebe Island will be surrendered to developers for the greatest profits and the least public good – more expensive, high-rise residential development and entertainment facilities such as the ones associated with the super yacht marina and possibly with the B1B2 Elias Group development.
Dr Lesley Lynch