Building tensions and overhead wires await the next mayor of Nedlands after next month’s election.
Cilla De Lacy left little unsaid when she resigned as mayor of the City of Nedlands in February.
While celebrating her achievements as mayor and councillor, she quoted research from the Grattan Institute referring to the politics of planning as “poisonous”.
Systemic failures in the local government sector had emerged, she believed, with polarised debate stymieing compromise or outcomes.
Ms De Lacy had become intimately familiar with this dynamic during her two years holding the city’s top job.
Local Planning Scheme 3, which was gazetted months before her election, became something of a flashpoint for developers and residents in 2019, with new zoning opening significant swaths of valuable land just eight kilometres outside of Perth’s CBD.
Some residents, however, have baulked at the influx of high-rise developments along Stirling Highway, and personnel within the city’s council and administration stepped down amid the changes.
Bill Hassell, who led the state opposition in the 1980s, was the first to go, resigning as deputy mayor almost one year ago on account of what he labelled the powerlessness of local governments under the current state government.
Mr Goodlet’s resignation was particularly notable as it came at the same time it was reported he privately referred to residents who opposed new planning laws as zealots and dissidents.
When residents were informed of his resignation at a council meeting that same month, the news was met with applause.
Suffice to say the three candidates who’ve lined up to replace Ms De Lacy at June’s extraordinary election will need to navigate the contours of a frustrated community, demoralised administration, and planning policies largely outside of the council’s control.
Opinions differ on how to fix a council that services more than 23,000 residents and collected $23.5 million in rates in the most recent financial year.
Leo McManus, the city’s acting mayor, told Business News the atmosphere on council had become toxic in recent years, which had a flow-on effect to the rest of the city.
“The relationship with the administration has broken down; we’ve got 100 per cent turnover in the senior executive positions, including the CEO,” Mr McManus said.
“We’ve got staff turnover of more than 34 per cent, probably bordering on 40 per cent now.
“That can’t continue.
“Council can’t productively and efficiently operate when you’ve got that going on.
“I want to get it back on track [and] fix some of the problems we’ve got … which is going to be a hard ask.”
Noel Youngman, a Dalkeith-based councillor who was elected to replace Mr Hassell in September, more directly faults the increase of development applications under Local Planning Scheme 3 as reason for the city’s problems.
Those changes had led to myriad issues, he said, not least of all leadership failings, an overworked executive team and an increasingly fractious council.
Noel Youngman served on council in Vincent before joining Nedlands in September. Photo: David Henry
Mr Youngman said he was impressed with Tony Free, the city’s new planning and development director, and would like to see a fully staffed executive team and greater collaboration among councillors if elected mayor.
“There’s already the seeds of improvement occurring in the council with someone like Tony in it, and I don’t doubt that Ed [Herne, the city’s corporate and strategy director and acting chief executive] will be exactly the same once he can get back into his role with the finance side of things,” he said.
“I see I can actually play a role in this, and I’d like to think I’m right in the way I’m reading it.”
In contrast, Fiona Argyle, who has previously worked as a journalist, art curator and entrepreneur, is running for mayor without direct knowledge of the inner workings of the council.
Despite this, she comes to the race with some degree of name recognition, having secured 11 per cent of the primary vote at the March state election when she ran as an independent against Bill Marmion for the seat of Nedlands.
While significant coverage focused on Labor having won the seat for the first time in history, Ms Argyle received strong backing south of Stirling Highway, outpacing her finishing result with 19 per cent of the primary vote in Dalkeith’s booth.
Ms Argyle has been among the most vocal opponents of the state’s planning reforms in recent months, having feuded with developer Gary Dempsey earlier this year over his push to build a multi-storey apartment complex overlooking Cottesloe Beach in January.
When asked why she decided to put her hand up for council, Ms Argyle said the support she received for her candidacy at the state election had motivated her to run again in support of issues she believed were important to the community.
“Everyone needs a voice, and I thought … I’m going to stand up because that’s what the people want: a strong, informed local voice,” she said.
It’s hard to find a more vexing issue in Nedlands than planning laws, which have been drastically overhauled in recent years to accommodate the state government’s push to increase density throughout Perth’s inner-western and coastal suburbs.
The premise of these policy shifts – that, at present, the city’s exurban sprawl is straining the state’s infrastructure needs and making the price of homes near the city centre unaffordable – is generally thought of as sound by most property developers and policymakers in WA.
Many residents, however, have strongly opposed the encroachment of high-rise apartments and subdivided housing they believe run contrary to the character of the area.
Nedlands councillors have become some of the most vociferous opponents of the state government’s reforms, which, pushed through by the planning minister as part of a new planning scheme in 2019, have allowed for higher-density development along Stirling Highway and around significant landmarks, such as the University of Western Australia and the Queen Elizabeth II medical centre.
Most notably, Max Hipkins, who served as mayor until his defeat at the hands of Ms De Lacy in 2019, called the disagreement between the state government and Nedlands the most divisive matter he had seen in his eight-year tenure as mayor.
Despite rhetorical opposition to the moves, available options to obstruct new developments are often limited by the nature of the state’s development assessment panels, which put councillors in a permanent minority against Department of Planning appointees in giving the final tick to developments worth millions of dollars.
Court action is one avenue, with a $40 million proposal to redevelop the Captain Stirling Hotel currently in mediation (the latest hearing date, held earlier this month, was vacated following vacated dates in February and March).
Even without that, however, councillors in Nedlands have made their concerns evident over the past six months.
Of the seven proposals to have reached the North Metropolitan DAP since the start of this year, the city’s two councillors present have voted in favour of the application just twice: a three-storey, 12-apartment block on Smyth Road parallel to Stirling Highway, and a series of upgrades to John XXIII College.
Apart from an approval for car bays added into an already approved mid-size development on Broadway, which attracted the support of just one councillor, the remaining four developments attracted the unanimous support of the panel’s specialist members and the unanimous opposition of the city’s councillors.
The most notable of these was a multi-level apartment development at the former Chellingworth Motors site along Stirling Highway; that development was granted approval on its second go around the DAP in February, despite again drawing no support from either councillor present.
Mr McManus is promising a conciliatory approach to working with the state government on these matters.
While critical of mixed-use, high-density zoning being located next to areas zoned with the lowest residential code, Mr McManus acknowledged the city’s relationship with the state government had broken down, and the only way to address these issues was to re-establish a working relationship with relevant ministers.
“It’s one of things I’ve said we’ve got to fix,” Mr McManus said.
“We’ve got to start being a bit more diplomatic when we talk to them; yelling and screaming at them, and abusing them, is not going to work.
“We’re going to have to get a more constructive dialogue going with them because they’re going to be there for at least another four years.
“We’ve all got to live with increased density … everyone in the western suburbs knows increased density is here, it’s just how we go about it.”
Mr Youngman, similarly, believes the time has come for a new approach. He notes that with David Honey, who leads the Liberal Party in state parliament, and Labor’s Katrina Stratton, who narrowly won Nedlands at the March state election, representing the city’s suburbs in state parliament, building strong working relationships with them should be a priority.
Mr Youngman acknowledges the new local planning scheme will not be rolled back entirely, while stating his belief that tweaks can be made to prevent multi-storey developments from proceeding and significantly changing the city’s character.
“We’ve been banging our heads against a brick wall for some time now with our challenges to the new planning scheme, and coming up short on just about every occasion,” Mr McManus said.
“We now sit at a time when it needs to be a point of negotiation.
“We need to be able to approach the various departments in government, right up to the minister, and say that, obviously, the community is not very comfortable with where we’re at.”
Ms Argyle was forceful in repudiating the need for multi-storey developments in the inner suburbs, arguing they would have a significant impact on tree coverage and the potential for Perth to be a smart city in the future.
Ms Argyle said she would work to educate the council and community on what it could do to preserve character traits such as tree coverage.
“At the end of the day, the council is in charge of all the verges, the council’s got various control [over its assets] and the community has control over the land they own,” she said.
“There will be progress in the right direction … we will make progress, we will be informed, and we will move with the data.”
While the ongoing battle to wrest control of local planning from the state government will likely dominate the new mayor’s time over the next two years, so too will the battle to complete the city’s two-and-a-half-decade goal of undergrounding all overhead power lines.
Shifting power lines underground is generally seen as necessary for improving safety and amenity.
It’s also an expensive undertaking, with Western Power offering a cost-sharing program to help deliver underground transmission to select suburbs.
Attempts since have mostly fallen flat, with the last round of undergrounding taking place in 2019.
While about two-thirds of homes are now serviced with underground power, approximately 1,700 homes are still serviced by overhead transmission.
In comments attributed to Mr Herne, the city’s acting chief executive, detailed designs for underground power in those suburbs are expected to be completed by Western Power in August, with budgetary constraints preventing the city from providing a completion date for its installation.
“Underground power is the number one priority,” Mr McManus said.
“It’s been completed in the Dalkeith area for the past 24 years, it’s been completed in the Melvista area in parts of Hollywood, but in other parts of Hollywood, Floreat and Mount Claremont, [those areas have] certainly not benefited from underground power.
“We certainly want to make that a priority … but it’s getting the funding model right and getting Western Power onside to get on with it [that’s the issue].”
Mr Youngman called underground power a pressing issue for the city as it sought to retain its character amid increasing density.
“That’s an important amenity,” he said.
“One of the issues I’ve been picking up on … where we’ve got the power lines still, residents don’t have all these trees.
“As the developers come in … they take out all the trees.
“All we’re going to be left with is verge trees, so that’s why underground power becomes super important for the areas that don’t have it yet.”