Under siege: Sydney’s medieval infrastructure governance

The Battle of Pavia by an unknown Flemish artist
The Battle of Pavia by an unknown Flemish artist

Sydney, apparently, is under siege!

This sounds a bit hysterical but proposals to replace recently constructed stadiums with new larger ones are being reported as a war.

Similarly, the long campaign for and against WestConnex is frequently marked by conflict with and between affected communities.

Multilateral conflict between rich and poor, and between the minister and opponents, also frames the decision to sell state-owned housing in Millers Point and The Rocks.

These examples are actually crises of delivery, which are due to disconnects between worthwhile strategic planning and actual implementation.

What makes these reports particularly strange is that they occur at all. We have, after all, invested heavily in new institutions charged with building citywide consensus on Sydney’s development; for example, the Greater Sydney Commission and Infrastructure NSW.

Community outrage springs from the reasonable view that the urban responsibilities of government are not to be measured in the hermetic delivery of isolated projects, but in how the whole city is improved.

This unsurprising perspective merely reflects the way we all live – as a continuum, an encounter with a single city comprising the sum of many parts. We expect improvements to the city to match this perception.

To illustrate the problem, let’s look at the introductory examples a little closer.

Stadium wars

Returning first to “stadium wars”; the Allianz stadium in Moore Park is only 30 years old but is now allegedly barely safe. Less than 20 years old, the centrepiece stadium for the Sydney Olympics must also be rebuilt, apparently. The “war” tag had been applied to funding competition between stadiums and social infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals.

Unlike most other recently constructed and very durable infrastructure, these stadiums apparently cannot be modified to satisfy current safety and access standards. Apparently, the rebuild would consume $2.5 billion of our state’s resources.

At this point we might pause to ask: if we were so stupid recently to invest in such apparently ephemeral infrastructure, why would we repeat the mistake? However, let’s press on.

Though taxpayers are incensed, sporting managers – following a playbook deployed worldwide – point to a grotesque prospect. Unless government funds complete rebuilds, the valuable sports currently hosted in Sydney will up sticks and move to, god forbid, Queensland – or even Victoria.

Conveniently downplayed in these accounts is that many of the hosted sports are televised and rarely fill existing stadiums. Also underreported is that the sporting rights hosted are highly profitable so, some ask, why can’t some of that profit privately fund stadium rebuilds?

Road crisis

Moving on to WestConnex, many will recall its initial announcement as primarily a city-building endeavour. New housing would be built along the Parramatta Road corridor in lock step with the undergrounding of its noxious traffic.

This synergy rapidly dissolved once road-funding commitments were made. The responsibility to deliver new housing now rests with another agency and its urgency has waned; yet the road project has, err, accelerated.

During this period, relations between project controllers and the general public became so fractious that special agencies were established at arms length from government. This arrangement has the effect of shielding the project from the kind of scrutiny normally applied to government enterprises.

Escalating cost has particularly troubled many commentators. Currently estimated at just under $17 billion, the cost of WestConnex approximates the amount the entire nation is spending on the controversial Joint Strike Fighter program.

Recent reports add to a sense of crisis. First, a principle goal of the WestConnex project – better Sydney Airport access for western Sydney residents – is reported as in dispute between the two agencies.

Second, motorists are reportedly avoiding the completed parts of WestConnex that are now subject to tolls. Instead, they are electing to drive on slower congested roads that were supposed to be unclogged by WestConnex. This contradicts a project assumption that motorists are economic rationalists who will appraise the time-cost of congestion as being greater than the cost of tolls and hence elect to use the new infrastructure.

The alarming prospect is that lower road usage will attract a lower purchase price when WestConnex is sold and the taxpayer will be left with the funding shortfall. One possible purchaser has already indicated that it will not “overbid” for the project. The report notes that its most profitable existing assets were purchased in receivership sales, leaving previous investors with debt.

To summarise these reports, WestConnex will consume some $3500 for every job-aged resident in NSW; the initially promised housing will arrive on the never-never; the residential amenity from lower surface road congestion looks set to be lost as potential WestConnex users avoid its tolls; the public may yet experience unabated congestion near the airport; lower toll income will likely attract lower purchase prices; and the taxpayer will be left with residual and rising cost, and have to endure the congestion the whole project was meant to alleviate in the first place.

Housing battle

Returning finally to the sale of social housing in The Rocks and Millers Point, it is claimed that proceeds will be redeployed to house many more needy people elsewhere. Opponents of the sale claim this to be a mere fig-leaf, an account developed late in the day to conceal what some thought to be cynical public asset stripping and social cleansing from valuable inner city land.

Partial sale is probably warranted to extricate government from the imminent costs of some under-maintained and ill-suited government heritage assets, but it fails completely to explain the sale of the purpose-built Sirius building with its now valuable sweeping harbour views.

Furthermore, if government is seeking greater efficiencies from it assets, less than 200 metres away from the Sirius building is the start of the Western Distributor, which has for many decades cut a four-kilometre-long swathe from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Rozelle through some of this nation’s most valuable real estate.

Why is a cash-strapped government elsewhere happy to place roads below ground – think WestConnex beneath low-density Rozelle – but not in the valuable inner city?

More broadly, why does government subject social housing to market contestability yet fail to expose large inner-city road holdings to the same discipline, particularly where air rights redevelopment would enable expansion of the central Sydney home to Australia’s financial services sector and thereby add substantially to national productivity, as well as providing a return to government that could enable Sirius residents to stay in their homes?

What’s to blame?

At this point, commentary generally flagellates elected government. After all, we elect it to provide urban infrastructure oversight and grant it ultimate control over delivery agencies.

Much discussion then turns to supposed strategic shortcomings in the planning of urban infrastructure. Agencies like the Greater Sydney Commission and Infrastructure NSW were established to address this need, so why do these shortcomings persist?

Discussion needs to move from strategic planning to focus instead on the mechanisms of delivery.

Notionally, executive power prevails over administrative power. Yet, when combined with its inherently arcane knowledge, administrative power is immense and often opaque; is well able to influence the exercise of executive power; endures well beyond the life of individual executive regimes; and in these examples is narrowly focused. It is no accident, then, that the infrastructure delivered mirrors these features.

The introductory examples illustrate enduring delivery themes in Sydney: the pursuit of narrow agency interests; pragmatic formation and dissolution of allegiances; apparently indifferent central oversight; simultaneous appeals to and conflict with local populations; public perception of chronic conflict; public despair that urban shortcomings will never improve; concealment of deal making; and the careful long-term shaping of official discourse in response to intermittent public attention.

Viewed this way, Sydney infrastructure delivery starts to resemble the turmoil between Medieval Italian city-states. To illustrate the analogy, and with apologies to Machiavelli, would much accuracy be lost if the examples were re-written as follows?

Within the perpetually disputed region of Sydney, peasants with tacit support from the Pope have thwarted the renewed siege on Treasury by the upstart General Stadium. Following a brief but now dissolved alliance with the Prince of Housing Development, the Duke of Roads continues to expand his magnificence westwards. The Pope, unwilling to tax lands owned by the powerful Duke of Roads, requires instead the impoverished Social Housing princess to sell more jewels to fund her diminishing estate. Meanwhile, all these princely ambitions buffet the region’s peasants and merchants, who talk of unification but in the meantime have no option but to endure the turmoil.

Returning to the 21st century, strategic initiatives like the establishment of the Greater Sydney Commission are to be applauded but will not likely have the power to ensure Sydney’s infrastructure is strategically delivered.

It is plain that strategically sensible delivery – as distinct from planning – can only be achieved by rearranging delivery agencies into entities where strategic decision-making naturally flows, as the former chief executive of the Committee for Sydney Tim Williams recommends.

The Grattan Institute charts the role of toxic partisan political interests in ad hoc and wasteful infrastructure delivery.

Both of these perspectives apply because infrastructure delivery is the consequence of combined agency and political effort. It follows that reform of both agency and political governance is a prerequisite for the delivery of truly city-building infrastructure.

The community is sick of “stadium battles”, the slow expensive drip of WestConnex disappointments, and the frank outrage of social cleansing in Millers Point.

The recently announced banking royal commission is challenging the notion that the community should solely suffer the consequences of poor decisions made by others. Reportedly it will examine instances of moral hazard alleged in that industry.

Public servants are rightly shielded from similar liability by limited immunity because their activities are, ostensibly, in the public interest. However, the change in public mood cannot be ignored.

Decision-makers should note that public expectations have been raised with the establishment of the Greater Sydney Commission. The community is moving beyond objecting to individual decisions; it is now starting to object to the way these decisions are being made.

The community is seeking a delivery revolution. Who will be the Garibaldi* for Sydney?

*Garibaldi was the best known of a number of revolutionaries who contributed to the reunification of Italy during the first half of the 19th century.

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years.


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