Last food orders on the urban frontier?

Recently I was asked to comment for a newspaper article on the plight of the last piggery in the Sydney basin, which is under pressure from urban expansion.

The piggery is located in the corridor for the South West Rail Link currently under construction and close to the proposed Leppington town centre, which will form the centrepiece for the south west growth centre’s planned 100,000 new homes. Not only is it the only piggery left in Sydney, it also has a pathogen-free herd which means that it supplies hospitals with organs for research and use in transplantation.

While the government wants to resume only a portion of the site, the area required is essential to the piggery’s waste management procedures and if it is resumed the piggery will have to close. Unfortunately even if its owners received full compensation it would be unlikely to reopen anywhere near Sydney. As one of the owners observed, few councils would agree to approve an application for a new piggery; “we’re just above, or below, nuclear waste dumps on the scale of developments that governments want. It’s the smell.”

As I pointed out in my response, intensive animal farming has its limits in an increasing urban setting – even if it was there first. This is particularly if the farm is close to a new town centre or other planned high-density development; obviously more people are affected and it is more difficult to either screen the farm area or provide a significant buffer zone, especially if the farming operation involves noise or small.

However, I was also at pains to point out that it was vital to retain agricultural land in the Sydney basin, especially for the city’s food security. As Sinclair, Bunker and Holloway note in their 2003 paper, the Sydney basin (at that time) produced the greatest amount of perishable produce in NSW. They also observed that as land became more valuable because of its potential for conversion to residential use, agricultural uses also became more intensive, especially as farmers relocated from other areas as they were developed.

However, as more and more land is turned into housing lots, farms start to close down. From my observations, the resulting collapse in agriculture can happen surprisingly quickly. Farmers rely upon a range of support services such as transport providers, farming equipment and other specialist suppliers and in some cases packing and distribution facilities. In turn, these suppliers rely on a “critical mass” of farms to provide demand.

As farms cease to operate these support services become unviable and also close down. Without these specialist services in the local area the remaining framers struggle to hang on and in turn also decide to shut up shop, a decision aided by the increasing value of the land in terms of its potential for urban development.

Another point which I raised briefly when I was contacted by the paper but which wasn’t included for space reasons was that the way in which the planning process for the south west and north west growth centres had been rolled out had resulted in these issues not being adequately addressed. The original plans had included “green wedges” which would preserve some high-amenity natural bushland and farming areas within the growth centres.

North West and South West Growth Centres (from Planning NSW website)

North West and South West Growth Centres (from Planning NSW website)

However this caused a furore when the plans were released. The problem was that those property owners whose land was directly affected by the new development would be fully compensated whilst those in the “green wedges” would receive no compensation at all. Not surprisingly the latter objected. The government went to water and announced it would acquire all the land including that which was set aside in the plan to be preserved as rural.

To “compensate” for this the government also increased the number of dwellings it was proposing to develop in the growth centres, in part to off-set the additional land acquisition costs involved. As a result the green wedges disappeared overnight.

Without a detailed comparison of the piggery’s location with the original growth centre plans it is impossible to know whether it was located in one of the original green wedges or would have been acquired for development anyway. However this is beside the point; a proper planning and land acquisition process for the growth centres would have at least attempted to identify and protect key aspects of agriculture within an urban setting.

This hasn’t happened and the new state government has announced that it was to expand development at the urban fringe even further. Unfortunately it now looks increasingly likely that food production will fade away on the urban frontier.

This entry was posted in Environment, Growth, Planning, Population, Sydney metro area, Western Sydney and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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