There is no doubt that Mr O’Farrell and his party scored an emphatic victory in the NSW election, rewriting the record books in the process. While the main factor in the result was the electorate’s obvious dissatisfaction with the performance of the previous government, the size of its win has given the new Government an unprecedented mandate to implement its policy agenda. The question is, where should they start?
The new Premier has got off on the right foot by announcing that he will implement a first 100-day action plan which will have a primary focus on transport issues. Although there is some debate about whether the electorate regards transport or health issues as the highest priority for action, there is no doubt that the previous government’s underinvestment in public transport infrastructure and its chaotic administration of the transport portfolio were the most public symbols of its failure.
Just as success has a thousand parents while failure is an orphan, new governments find themselves with lots of new friends and plenty of people offering free advice about their policy priorities (unlike new oppositions, which only get post-mortems for free). I’m joining a long queue, but in this spirit I’d like to offer seven suggestions on what the Premier should do in the next 100 days, specifically relating to planning and transport:
1. Don’t reinvent the wheel – just get it turning. There is no need for the new government to restart all transport and metropolitan planning from scratch. Transport in particular has been the subject of exhaustive planning processes, through the previous government’s transport strategies and those prepared independently, most notably the Sydney Morning Herald’s Public Transport Inquiry (in which I participated). These have identified the key infrastructure projects required in the next 10 to 15 years.
While existing plans will need to be updated and the whole planning process rebuilt in the longer term (see suggestion no. 3), there are already more than enough planned projects on which work can begin. What we really need is a commitment to their funding and implementation, the things that have been sadly lacking in the past three decades. In the first 100 days the new government needs to consolidate the existing plans as a basis for immediate action.
2. Repeal Part 3A – but clarify what it will be replaced with. The new government’s commitment to repeal Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, which allows the government to take over from councils the assessment of “state significant” development applications, is very welcome. Under the previous government the definition of “state significant” had been increasingly widened to the point where it no longer had any meaning.
This commitment can easily be implemented within 100 days. However, there will still be some need for government input on the really major project proposals that will have a significant impact on a wider region. To deal with these – and to reduce the temptation for future governments to reintroduce Part 3A-type powers via the back door – a collaborative framework between state and local governments needs to be established at the same time Part 3A is abolished (see next suggestion).
3. Set up a real partnership with local government to run the planning process. The promises made by the new government and reiterated by shadow ministers in the run-up to the election to consult and work with councils and Regional Organisations of Councils (ROCs) are also welcome, especially in the context of regional and metropolitan planning.
This initiative requires a meaningful and sustained commitment from both sides. The new Government should establish a dialogue with local government in the first 100 days to develop a new medium and long-term planning process as well as a mechanism to handle major development proposals – a difficult task with over 150 councils. This means that councils will also need to cooperate through the ROCs or other structures to present a coherent and strategic response.
4. 50:50 or 30:70 – it’s also a case of where people want to live. Mr O’Farrell has already made a commitment to change the target for the ratio between the population urban redevelopment in existing suburbs and new housing in greenfields areas from the current 70 to 30 percent to a 50:50 balance.
This needs to be carefully considered. Population movement is usually gradual process – people tend to move outwards in a “shuffle” as they change houses in Sydney, and not by leaps and bounds. While cheaper housing at the urban fringe might cause an initial flurry of interest, this demand may not be sustained as people increasingly consider the cost of transport and limited range of services available in these areas.
The new government therefore should commit in the first 100 days to a process to examine whether people actually want to move out to the outer suburbs in such numbers. And if the government proceeds, it must to commit to providing all the infrastructure required when these new suburbs are developed. To do otherwise would be to continue the vicious cycle of backlog and underinvestment that has plagued development in Western Sydney since the 1950s.
5. Sort out who’s going to prioritise transport infrastructure – and make sure the RTA doesn’t get in first. The new government has proposed the establishment of a new body called Infrastructure NSW to oversee all major infrastructure decisions as well as a separate Independent Transport Authority to oversee all public transport planning and operations.
While the infrastructure authority concept has drawn on the Herald’s Transport Inquiry’s recommendations, the proposal to create two separate authorities is an important difference. The Inquiry’s proposal was for a single authority to oversee all aspects of public transport, including infrastructure.
Having two bodies instead of one creates a potential for duplication and even conflict. The new transport authority will presumably have to pitch its proposals to the infrastructure body, competing with other departments including experienced hands such as the Roads and Traffic Authority. There is also a danger that public transport could be disadvantaged if Infrastructure NSW adopts narrow assessment frameworks to assess these projects.
To avoid this happening, the new government needs to move quickly to clarify the relationship between the two authorities. It also needs to ensure that public transport receives the priority it deserves and that Infrastructure NSW uses a broad range of environmental and social criteria in project assessment.
6. Recognise that the money for infrastructure has to come from somewhere. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Public Transport Inquiry not only identified and costed a range of transport options, it also looked at how to fund these projects.
There is no such thing as a free lunch, or a free transport system. The Inquiry nominated a mix of funding options to raise the funds required, including fare increases, parking, registration and other levies, congestion charges and Commonwealth Government support. While at first glance none of these would seem to be very popular, the Inquiry also found that a significant majority of people are willing to pay for the redevelopment of the public transport network, so important do they regard this issue. The 100-day plan needs to include a commitment to identify funding sources for public transport infrastructure.
If both governments dig in, there is a strong risk that the Federal Government will simply trouser the $2.1 billion it has offered for the Parramatta-Epping link and use the money elsewhere. This would be a dismal result for NSW and Mr O’Farrell and the new Transport Minister should quickly exercise some nimble footwork to reach a compromise.
One solution would be to treat both links as a single, staged project, effectively providing a link from Parramatta via Epping to Rouse Hill and incorporating the full extension of the North West link to meet the existing Richmond Line.
The total cost would be considerable, but (along with the South West Link under construction) would be a major investment in Western Sydney’s future. It would mean that all major employment centres and residential release areas in the region would be linked by rail to each other, as well as to major destinations in eastern Sydney.
There would also be major savings in combining the projects, which lend themselves to a staged approach. Planning for the North West project is much more recent and considerably more advanced than for Parramatta-Epping, especially as the route for the latter is yet to be finalised.
This means that tunnelling could start in the North West and then continue straight after completion onto the Parramatta-Epping Link once planning for that is finished. Fit-out of both sectors could proceed in the same way and then North-West line completed to the Richmond Line.