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'Let it rip': Barangaroo, a masterclass in planning as deal-making

The redevelopment of the 22-hectare Barangaroo precinct on Sydney Harbour has long been a masterclass in poor urban development governance and lack of due process. It was meant to transform the former docklands into a world-class example of architectural and public space design. Instead, Sydney got a world-leading example of unsolicited urbanism, and a casino.

Unsolicited urbanism is a project of city-shaping initiated by developers, not government. It clearly favours powerful development and financial players. Instead of being subject to proper public planning processes, outcomes are often predetermined.

Read more: Australian cities pay the price for blocking council input to projects that shape them

In the case of Barangaroo, secretive monopolies over the site have been legitimated. A culture of planning-as-deal-making has been normalised.

A coalition of key state government figures and the real estate and development lobbies have targeted not just this prime harbour-side site for development, but the planning system itself.

The latest furore over the site involves a proposal to modify approved plans for Central Barangaroo. The changes would greatly increase floorspace, including a new 20-storey tower above a metro train station, and shrink a public park. It’s the last tranche of buildings that will sit between the highly developed southern end and Barangaroo Reserve at the northern end.

It’s another example of how planning here operates. The planning minister and not the Independent Planning Commission will make the decision.

Read more: Crown Sydney casino opens – another beacon for criminals looking to launder dirty money

The latest chapter in a decade-long saga

The story begins with the Hill Thalis-led competition-winning entry for the Barangaroo masterplan. It was effectively discarded in 2009-2010 – revised out of existence.

Since then the public justification for the project has relied on two main arguments:

  1. it should restore the harbour headland at the northern end of the site to something like its original form and character

  2. its southern portion should be home to “world-class architecture” and “icons”.

The second argument was standard guff reliant on “starchitects” and the rhetoric of global landmarks.

The first was more compelling. Often rehearsed in public by former prime minister Paul Keating, the argument was that the headland was a vital aspect of the city’s most important heritage, the harbour landscape. Reconstructing it was much more important, Keating suggested, than protecting the form and some of the residual industrial heritage of the container port.

Setting aside Philip Thalis’ judgment that it is a “kitsch, historicist fantasy”, where does this leave the current proposal (modification 9) for Central Barangaroo?

It involves notable development impact on the harbour landscape as seen from the harbour itself and from one of Sydney’s most significant public open spaces, Observatory Hill.

The expanded development and new tower would be in an area always envisaged as low-rise. The reason was to protect views and the historic landscape.

Read more: How Sydney's Barangaroo tower paved the way for closed-door deals

Part of a wider story of failure

This latest Barangaroo chapter is part of a longer story of urban governance failure.

Under the NSW Liberal government of the past decade, a raft of “reforms” have chipped away at the integrity and credibility of the planning system. Our research has tracked the longer history of how these changes have underwritten unsolicited urbanism, as shown below.

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We have seen small development loopholes open up over building heights and floorspace ratios, and the much more significant rise of the unsolicited proposal process at Barangaroo.

NSW is not alone here. In Victoria, the West Gate Tunnel project in Melbourne is another controversial case of unsolicited urbanism.

Read more: West Gate Tunnel saga shows risk of 'lock-in' on mega-projects pitched by business

The rise of planning-as-deal-making involves a geographical sleight of hand. Rather than work to a broad strategic plan for a city or a whole precinct, it reduces public debate to a discrete discussion about a specific planning or development process, or a new section of the site.

The objective of this incremental approach is twofold:

  1. to gain access to government land

  2. to undermine the planning process that guides how this land should be used for maximum public benefit.

What is lost is accountability for how a project fulfils the broader goals of strategic city planning. A “let it rip” mentality pervades the development sector and sections of the government too.

Any long-term plan, land parcel, public infrastructure or zoning process is seemingly up for grabs, liable to be sold off, changed or up-scaled. The planning system is increasingly fragmented and disjointed. Merit and the public good have made way for developer business cases.

Anyone standing in the way of development approval is charged with self-serving NIMBYism, no matter how valid their concerns.

Will the government heed Sydneysiders’ concerns?

Sydney CBD occupancy rates have flatlined. The Committee for Sydney is advocating reinvigoration based on diversity and inclusivity. The latest Barangaroo plans won’t deliver this.

Instead, real estate interests want more exclusive and higher-density residential high-rise development on land that could be used differently, were social, cultural and environmental considerations given priority.

In 2016 the NSW Audit Office urged greater transparency and public reporting of unsolicited proposals. It warned these “pose a greater risk to value for money than procurements done through open, competitive and transparent processes”.

Read more: Market-led infrastructure may sound good but not if it short-changes the public

The latest controversy comes amid scandals engulfing the state government, following a federal election won and lost on issues of public integrity and evidence-based policy-making, from climate to pandemic management.

The public have lost trust in politicians to represent citizens’ best interests. They are suspicious of corruption, and detest “deals for mates”. While people may not understand the technicalities of planning proposals, amendments and “state significant” developments, they do sense the cards are stacked against the public interest.

The battle lines have been drawn over this fateful final piece of Barangaroo. The government’s decision will reveal where its loyalties lie, and whether any integrity in planning can be salvaged before voters pass judgment in the 2023 state election.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Dallas Rogers, University of Sydney; Cameron Logan, University of Sydney; Chris Gibson, University of Wollongong, and Crystal Legacy, The University of Melbourne.

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Dallas Rogers receives funding from the Australian Research Council and Henry Halloran Trust.

Cameron Logan receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the Alastair Swayn Foundation.

Chris Gibson receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Crystal Legacy receives funding from the Australian Research Council.