07/08/2007 - 22:00

Questions' simplicity belies solutions' complexity

07/08/2007 - 22:00

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Engagement, layering, connectivity. Apart from the obvious focus on some very big and very real projects, there was a subtext of language around the WA Business News boardroom.

Questions' simplicity belies solutions' complexity

Engagement, layering, connectivity.

Apart from the obvious focus on some very big and very real projects, there was a subtext of language around the WA Business News boardroom.

Some of that language helps distil complex issues into simple themes, but sometimes such words do the opposite, adding complexity where it’s not needed.

The foreshore development was viewed as an engagement between the city and the Swan River.

Public transport options were discussed in terms of connectivity.

Allowing small business the freedom to develop, and attracting young people back into the city were part of a much needed ‘layering’ the district needed, according to some members of the discussion.

Perhaps her background as a wine producer prompted hospitality, retail and tourism guru Kate Lamont to use that latter term.

She could have been critiquing a bottle of red and offering advice to her winemaker, suggesting that layering was needed to add depth to its character.

Ms Lamont believes the city lacks the small bars and outlets that would add another layer to the city, providing the vibrancy visitors demand.

“Get the private sector to build the infrastructure and small business can create the conviviality,” she said.

Mr Lamont bemoans the regulations that stop business having a go.

The steps required to open a bar in the city – notwithstanding that the City of Perth is one of the few councils welcoming new liquor licensing laws – make it too difficult, she said.

“No small bars have opened because of the number of toilets they need,” Ms Lamont told the luncheon roundtable.

Compare this with Paris, she says, which wouldn’t have its thousands of outlets if Western Australia’s restrictive rules applied.

“Where does this over-regulation come from?” asks Urban Design Centre of WA director  Ruth Durack.

WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry executive director policy Deidre Willmott also rails against the restrictions.

Among Ms Willmott’s current areas of concern is the over-regulation of small business, be it through trading hours or licensing, not to mention the need for big business to attract talent.

“We are not in sync with cities that are attracting these people,” she said.

“It is a real barrier to vibrancy in the city when the government tells business when to open and close.”

Ms Willmott also spoke of sharing – be it the collective experience of a sports crowd at a big new stadium or in areas devoted to other events in the central city.

“We need to provide spaces where young people share knowledge and ideas,” she said.

Perhaps one of the freshest ideas broached at last week’s forum was the desire to see a more obvious presence of indigenous culture in the city.

The language around this was in terms of embracing it, embedding it and engaging with it, giving Perth a differentiation from any other city in the world, and providing visitors exactly what they want and rarely get – an indigenous experience.

The Committee for Perth clearly has this on its agenda.

But just how much change can be driven by the City of Perth, which is governed by the same rules as any outback shire?

Town planner Max Hipkins, who used to work for the City of Perth, believes the district lacks the clout it deserves as a capital city.

“We need to end the rivalry between the city and the state,” Mr Hipkins said.

It’s an issue previously raised by city leaders, such as the Lord Mayor Peter Nattrass in this newspaper.

Instead of having capital city status, Perth is just another municipality, with a big budget and very low voter population base, which is jealously watched by state parliament.

There have been suggestions that the Liberal-leaning Dr Nattrass was unlikely to see eye to eye with a Labor state government, but there is little evidence that things were better when WA had a conservative premier in Richard Court.

In fact, it was during Mr Court’s time that the city’s vast residential areas were carved off into new smaller councils, leaving the CBD as a separate governed area, almost devoid of population.

Business leader Tony Howarth believes the definition of the city may well be too narrow, even if simply from a reference point of view.

For instance, several commentators pointed to the need for a university in the CBD.

“I think we define the city too tightly,” Mr Howarth said. “UWA is a university in the city.”

He was also concerned about how neglected the city had become from the state point of view.

“There is no city in the world that doesn’t think its heart is important,” he said.

Getting local people, especially young people, into the city was a key issue to many at the table.

The days when sport was played on Langley Park might be gone, but they could be brought back.

The city had to take risks. Mr Hipkins recalled that a plan of years ago to build a roller rink was opposed because it might attract undesirables.

“It’s the locals you have to look after,” he said.

“They will look after the tourists when they come.”

East Perth Redevelopment Authority chair Stuart Hicks also focused on people.

Perth needed to become somewhere people come to on a long weekend, not escaped from.

Mr Hicks talks also of layering and refers to a central activity area that could attract young people to play and live, because they are the opposite of the older tree and sea-changers.

“They bring energy, enthusiasm, creativity.”

FORM’s Mags Webster believes the citizens of Perth need to converse.

“It’s been interesting to see how the debate has moved on,” Ms Webster said.

“We seemed to meet resistance at first, but the message has moved on.

“We did a lot of groundwork in almost getting Perth ready to start having this conversation.”

Connectivity is one of the more frequently used words in the discussion.

Ms Webster thinks an expansion of the free CAT service would help Perth in this respect.

She is not the only one to focus on transport.

The concept of a light rail or tram-like system running the length of the city and extending east or west of the CBD has been bandied about for years.

The idea has gained more currency in recent times, with Planning and Infrastructure Minister Alannah MacTiernan raising the prospect of running such a system west out of the city to Subiaco and down to the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.

“Whatever the price tag is, $300 million or something along that level, we have to compare the benefit that we get out of that compared to the benefit we might have for example in extending the rail further north,” she said last month.

Mr Howarth was a supporter of this idea.

“We don’t have easy connectivity,” he said regarding some of the inner-city areas that could be better linked to the CBD.

But he wouldn’t get much joy from visiting public policy consultant Wendell Cox, an unashamed proponent of urban sprawl and a disbeliever when it comes to the benefits of public transport.

In Perth during the past week as a guest of the Property Institute of Australia, Mr Cox believes much of this type of infrastructure fails to live up to the hype pushed by its proponents – for instance, it isn’t more sustainable and it doesn’t relieve congestion, he says.

“Is there better value to be achieved?

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