10/03/2011 - 00:00

Transparency needed for long-term vision

10/03/2011 - 00:00

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Planning ahead is one thing, making sure everyone knows about it is another.

MUCH of modern Perth was shaped by a 1953 report by Gordon Stephenson and Alistair Hepburn, which outlined the major transport corridors and growth patterns for the next 50 years. It was a very advanced concept for its time, recognising the unique opportunity to develop a major city almost from scratch.

It also accommodated a new element in the landscape – cars. While some might suggest it was too car-centric, the plan was right for a sparsely populated city like Perth.

The big positive from such planning ahead is the introduction of certainty, which allows business and the community to put their own plans in place. The problem is the lack of flexibility, especially if one party has relied on the plan and another seeks to change it.

A good example is the Bush Forever concept, in which the state government sought to retrofit a natural parks policy into the Perth urban landscape by restricting the ability to clear land that had been left in a natural or near-natural state.

No matter what the merits of this scheme, such as retaining linkages between properly created parks and the real bushland, it has not come without a cost. In many cases it has interrupted the plans of others.

A notable example has been the University of Western Australia’s fight to develop land in Shenton Park along Underwood Avenue.

There are plenty of other examples. The policy even impinges on the state’s own activities, such as providing cemeteries that meet the needs of a growing population.

There’s no doubt that planning 50 years in advance can’t allow for every contingency. The environment is important and it is a bigger issue for voters than when Perth’s land use rules were created.

But we need to be careful about just taking things on without due compensation, or the cost to others.

Another example was land designated for the Fremantle Eastern Bypass, which the previous state government rezoned for housing development. That totally altered 50 years of planning for transport.

Long planned as a link between the Port of Fremantle and Roe Highway; the Gallop government rezoned the land in White Gum Valley, Hamilton Hill and North Lake, among other suburbs, for urban development and to sell it off.

Bad luck if you had a business that needed that link or had bought industrial or commercial land to take advantage of it. Bad luck, too, if you lived on an existing freight route that now has to cater for far more traffic than intended in the longer term.

We also need to be more transparent.

When developers sell vacant land they often include a clause that demands the purchaser begins construction within a limited time period. The idea of ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ is commonplace in many transactions, including leases for minerals or petroleum exploration and development.

But Bush Forever retrospectively adopted that approach with the ‘you-didn’t-use-it-so-now-you-lose-it’ rule. If some property owner had a long-term plan that they wanted to keep secret for commercial or other reasons, such a rule makes life pretty difficult for them.

Last year, WA Business News unearthed a historical gem.

We revealed that the state government retained 234 hectares of land at Breton Bay, eight kilometres south of Ledge Point, which was bought specifically to house Western Australia’s first nuclear power station.

WA Business News confirmed that the site can still only be developed to house a power station and that a nuclear facility cannot be totally ruled out in the long term.

Planners in the 1970s also established provision for export facilities at that site and at nearby Wilbinga to potentially service the mineral sector.

Unfortunately the secrecy (whether intentional or not) of such plans means that, 40 years later, they will be hard to develop into real infrastructure because either the population has grown up around those areas unaware of the possibility of such change, or environmental processes make such projects near impossible.

In contrast, over the same period Yanchep has been talked about regularly as a major city centre of the future. Those plans are now coming to fruition with barely a whimper of opposition.

Planning ahead is a very valuable; just ask those nearing retirement.

Perhaps we ought to do more to tell people what is planned in areas of our state where development is due to occur. I know this might seem like a naive approach and inviting trouble, but, for example, a big billboard saying ‘Future Nuclear Power Plant’ would provide plenty of clarity to all who look at Breton Bay and think of it as a peaceful retreat.

Now that would be planning ahead.

At what cost, Kevin?

THE decision by long-term unionist Kevin Reynolds to step down as head of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union is something of a landmark.

Mr Reynolds was very successful as unionists go, both at gathering the headlines and intimidating his opponents, but his way of dealing with difficulties in the workplace should be consigned to the past.

In many ways, his achievement in making the CFMEU strong, in a relative sense, was at a cost to the union movement as a whole.

When the union movement was faced with a collapse in numbers as technology and deregulation liberalised the employment market, the CFMEU used its muscle to maintain itself as the gatekeeper on major construction sites in metropolitan Perth and on some developments in the north.

It could be argued that – tactics aside – doing its best to elevate the wages of its members was a big win for the union.

But at what cost? By increasing wages on building sites and dragging out construction times, unions made the price of developing new high-rise prohibitive. That meant fewer jobs in construction and less office space for companies that employ people in this state. What did that achieve for the community?

It really does seem like a prehistoric attitude to me.

No doubt there are some construction companies who play hardball too. Perhaps in the old days they needed a tough opponent like Mr Reynolds to keep them in check. But haven’t we moved on? There are laws to manage these things.

Efforts to regulate the building industry have been remarkably successful in taking some of this rogue behaviour away on both sides of the employee-employer divide.

Mr Reynolds ought to be aware too that by pushing up wages and conditions for his members beyond what the market can endure and, in reality, what his members deserve, he creates the temptation for a minority of rogue employers to circumvent the system.

It is simply supply and demand. I don’t agree with cheap labour being imported at ridiculously low wage levels but I also don’t agree with construction workers being paid scandalously high wage levels for less than a fair day’s work. In my view it is the latter creating the need for the former.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au.

 

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