RMB Articles

Planning Matters 2: Absence of Power

Posted 13-08-2013
Written by admin 101
Category Town Planning

In my last blog I queried whether the apparent silence from the community in responses to the White Paper suggested that we had, as a community, learned that in the planning system we the people have no power. That observation was prompted by the poor response the government has received to the reforms proposed in the White Paper http://www.planning.nsw.gov.au/a-new-planning-system-for-nsw. A recent article in the SMH http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/top-official-admits-errors-over-draft-planning-laws-20130812-2rsht.html quotes the Director General of Planning, Sam Haddad, as conceding that in designing the new legislation the department has ‘gone further than the government intended.’ The gist of the article is that a complaint from the Better Planning Network has been upheld with the government being forced to admit that the new planning system reduces the community’s ability to challenge ‘bad’ decisions. Despite the revelations, the article cites the Planning Minister Mr Hazzard as saying that the government still intends to introduce the legislation as drafted into parliament because the government ‘had conducted an unprecedented level of consultation.’ If that represents the government’s view of how best to engage the community then what does it say about the power of the community to shape decisions that will be made about their neighbourhoods? What chance do we mugs have of participating in the new planning system and of making a difference?

That doesn’t mean that we don’t want to participate in the debate about planning. I think that as a community we are vitally interested in what happens in our ‘hood. Social Demographer Hugh Mackay says in his 2007 book Advance Australia Where? that as people who are social by nature, our sense of tribe means that intuitively ‘we need to feel part of the local neighbourhood where we actually live; no matter how connected we may feel in other ways, there is a special meaning of “community” that relies on locality.’ Nothing demonstrates this more keenly than the recent protests over the proposed redevelopment of Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey. The government wanted to redevelop this remaining green space. The people disagreed. It squarely raised for the Turkish people the question: Who owns this space?

Cities as organic systems

History demonstrates that as population in an area grows, there has always been a need, generated by demand for housing, to demolish neighbourhoods to pave the way for development. Whilst it may seem to be a modern phenomenon, development pressure has historical antecedents. William Baer argues in his 2007 article in the Town Planning Review ‘Planning for growth controls in early modern Europe,’ that ‘current growth control disputes’… ‘re-enact and rehearse’ arguments ‘first uttered 400 years ago.’ What this demonstrates is the organic nature of development in a neighbourhood. Left to its own devices (that is, the market) cities and towns will grow ad hoc. The development of early Sydney demonstrates this well. Planning laws are meant to save the people from the ravages of the market by regulating what development happens in a neighbourhood.

As social people, we should be very interested in what the government plans to do with the planning system. In urban planning, strategies of the state are now implemented by land use laws. But planning laws are made by the powerful: by government and its allies. As the riots in Taksim square remind us, law is not made of history; rather, it is made in history. Francis Fukuyama was wrong when he predicted ‘the end of history.’ By remembering our history, we can see where strategies of the state lead to. As Engin Isin argues in his 1992 book Cities without Citizens, from mediaeval times there has been a constant desire by the state to disenfranchise the people from having control over their towns and cities. In the process, cities have become ‘cities without citizens’ because local autonomy was lost. If we continue to atomise our conception of civic involvement, reducing participation to the expression of an opinion in the ballot box or as a land transaction, then there is little prospect that the autonomy cities and towns historically enjoyed will be regained any time soon. A quick reading of the government’s White paper will confirm this.

Planning laws are not organic, they are not necessary to facilitate the orderly administration of cities and towns. What is organic to cities is ‘relentless evolutionary change’. It is this dynamic that creates the tension between the developer and the citizen. Battle lines are drawn when the neighbourhood is threatened. Yet development is necessary to enable the city or town to continue sustain itself. This does not mean that cities need democracy in order to thrive. In the context of power, all that a city requires is the ability to make development happen. At the level of a government, all that a state requires to fulfil its function as a government (and this is so whether it be a city-state or nation-state) is an identity and a system of laws. The history of the Roman civilization shows that participation by the citizenry in the governance of the state was not necessary for there to be urban planning. Provided a state can enforce its laws, it will be able to continue its legitimacy and give effect to its strategies. The government in Turkey will probably be able to authorise the redevelopment of Taksim Square. This outcome will demonstrate to the people of Turkey why it is the government and why it is powerful.

As discussed in my last blog, the British academic Patrick McAuslan identified three ideologies at play in the planning system. He identified that the private property ideology only requires governance, not participation in governance, to enable the market to operate ‘efficiently.’ Accordingly, if the government is to recreate the NSW planning system as the White Paper suggests, then the question that could be posed is should the new system be based on the current model which is squarely based on McAuslan's ideology of the public interest? Under this ideology, the bureaucrats figure out what we need and deliver it to us as a process. This is the planning system we have enjoyed since the late 1940s. But what is now proposed in the White Paper is a very centralised top down system with a hierarchy of plans controlled by the Department of Planning (see Fig 10 in the White Paper). New undemocratic bodies such Regional Planning Boards will be established by the Minister (White Paper p73) to drive ‘transformative’ change. The regional plans will direct what development is to occur at the level of the neighbourhood. Indeed, it is not too far a stretch of the argument to suggest that under the White Paper there seems to be a real desire to return to the days of a centralised bureaucracy first seen in the 1960s with the emergence of a centralised planning authority to control development. The current planning system swept that away introducing, for the first time, the concept of providing greater opportunities for participation by the community in the planning system. This right was enshrined in the current objective found in section 5(c) to the EP&A Act. The draft legislation waters down this important objective. Now the purpose of the Act is to promote ‘opportunities for early and on-going community participation in strategic planning decision-making’ (see proposed cl 1.3(1)(b) of the Bill). This ominously hints at the exclusion of the public from the decision-making process of determining development and a wide range of activities presently the subject of judicial oversight. Even Mr Haddad has been forced to conceded that the Bill provisions reduce the opportunities for judicial review. The article by Nicole Hasham in the SMH signals that someone in the department has in the darkness been designing a system to exclude the public despite the best intentions of even the government. We should not forget that it was this government that sought a mandate on the promise to return planning to the community. What the revelations in the SMH article show is how far removed from that promise we have become in the review process. It brings to mind Tolkien:

In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

If the right to participate is a fundamental right, then should it be restricted to just a right to be consulted? Or should the citizens be empowered in the new planning process such that their contribution has the prospect of influencing the decision-maker? If history is a guide then two things are certain: firstly, the market is disinterested about the creation of a planned space. According to market theory, order will happen organically. Secondly, the state will not willingly share power with the people. When power is not shared, the people can become revolting. If you don’t believe that, then look at what is happened in Takim Square. The citizens of Istanbul do not want this shopping centre that the government is intent on delivering to them. In NSW, the government should take note. Powerful Mordor was rocked by the persistence of hobbits. We should thank the convenors of the Better Planning Network for bringing to the light the work of the department in reducing the role of the public in the planning system under the proposed new legislation. You can find out more about this non-aligned group at their website found at < a href="http://betterplanningnetwork.good.do/nsw/pages/about-us/" target="_blank">http://betterplanningnetwork.good.do/nsw/pages/about-us/.

John Deely writing in Semiotica in 2001 says that an umwelt reflects the manner in which identified aspects of the environment are networked together so as to constitute ‘objects of experience.’ In the context of a neighbourhood, it is ‘an invisible bubble’ within which we live. The people who control the development of land create the ‘umwelt’ of the neighbourhood. Seen in that light, equality and access to power are essential to a functioning planning system. It is at the junction of property rights and land use planning laws that the concept of public interest needs to be considered more closely. If land use planning is to facilitate the life of the people living in a neighbourhood, then planning laws should aim to respect the principle of the neighbourhood. Brown and Sherrard writing in their book Town and Country Planning (1959) expected that participation would lead to this occurring ‘spontaneously.’ This is a different type of spontaneity to that which occurs by reason of the operation of the market. Markets rely on the price mechanism and the application of the subdivision rule to unconsciously determine the nature of the built form of the neighbourhood. Webster and Lai in their work Property Rights, planning and markets: managing spontaneous cities (2003) suggest that over time, by the fractionalisation of property rights, neighbourhoods form and reform. Depending on the choices made by participants, even failed outcomes lead to new opportunities. If that is right, then we need to be more inventive in the way we plan to engage the community.

It is arguable, in the context of neighbourhood, that the umwelt is an open access resource. It is owned by no-one but it is used in common by the community. If it is the case, as suggested by Webster and Lai, that ‘anarchy results from individuals asserting their economic right to a resource by might,’ then tyranny arises when the political elite silences the voice of the people in decisions about the allocation of shared common resources. This is the message we can draw from the Taksim Square riots. Without participation by the people in the ordering of the neighbourhood, a form of oppression exists. Market theorists can argue, as Webster and Lai do, that markets ‘democratise resource allocation’ but they go too far when they argue that democratising planning would lead to collective action inertia in decision-making. Participation is opposed because it is an ‘inefficient’ allocation of property rights. Mark Pennington argues in his 2003 article ‘Hayekian Political Economy and the Limits of Deliberative Democracy’ in Political Studies that the market is a superior mechanism to bureaucratic planning because it ‘enables people to adjust their behaviour to the changing scarcity of goods without ever having to be consciously aware of why this is the case’.

Yet without good planning all this leads to is slums and chaotic space. Pennington cheekily reframes Oscar Wilde’s quip on socialism to suggest that introducing deliberative democracy procedures into planning would ‘take up too many evenings’ and there is some truth to this observation. But the obvious difficulty with the strict application of market theory is that in an unequal market, the winners will be the rich and powerful. Citizens will be reduced to being mere consumers disconnected from the life of the place in which they reside. It is a conundrum but one that is not resolved by suppressing the voice of the people in the processes or by marginalising participation to tokenistic gestures. I accept that if we intend to rely on the market to deliver our built form outcomes then we must facilitate the construction of this development. I just wonder if we can only achieve that outcome by excluding genuine participatory mechanism from both the strategic planning processes and the development assessment procedures. We can do better than this. In regional NSW we really need to do better than this.

Grant G