Before the NSW election in March, Premier Mike Baird’s election team was holding a head-bangers’ session at Governor Macquarie Tower when someone came up with the idea of establishing a Greater Sydney Commission.

The team leader wrote “GSC” on the GMT whiteboard and placed a tick after it. In that instant, another election slogan was born, and the participants closed the meeting by swooping like Bondi seagulls on a trolley of smoked salmon sandwiches and sushi from a CBD caterer.

OK, so it didn’t happen exactly as I’ve described, but the GSC has always seemed like a brainstorm rather than a practical policy.

Four months after the election, the much-vaunted commission to bring together 41 Sydney councils, state agencies, the community and other stakeholders to provide “strong governance and build vibrant communities” remains on the whiteboard.

This week, Crikey was told an announcement on its establishment would be issued after “ongoing” consultations with all the “stakeholders” (that word again) but no “timeline” had been set.

The Baird government’s model is based on Melbourne’s Metropolitan Planning Authority (MPA), which began life as the Growth Areas Authority. It will divide greater Sydney into six sub-regions to plan for housing, jobs, transport, education and other services.

Progress on the GSC has been slowed by the fact that Pru Goward is no longer planning minister. She has shuffled out of the government’s main strategic action, infrastructure-building.

The new minister is Dr Rob Stokes, an environmental scientist and MP for Pittwater, whose focus is on introducing procedures to speed up economically and environmentally sustainable development through the passage of a Sustainable Planning Act covering residential, commercial and industrial projects.

He has shown little or no interest in creating the GSC to reshape the country’s biggest metropolis as a space-age global city. Who can blame him? The place is an unsightly mess.

While the creation of a special commission to take charge of the development of Sydney left most voters cold, it excited competing think tanks and lobby groups representing private developers, construction companies and real estate interests.

They decided that if there were to be a GSC, they wanted part of the action. To Lesley Bull, a director of JBA, a high-profile firm of urban designers and planners, the addition of yet another set of initials to the planning process was a dumb idea.

As she pointed out, the bureaucratic landscape was already littered with DPE, TfNSW, INSW, RMS, OEH, HC, NoW, EA, RFS, LALC, DEC, EPA, DRP, SHFA. NPWS, DPC, DPI, PC, UGNSW, SES, SPC, SWC, IHAP, JRPP and PAC.

While acknowledging there was considerable promise in the Coalition government’s idea of a GSC with an independent board and a legislative framework “to give it credibility and teeth”, she asked: “When will it exist? What will its charter be? Will it have a clarity of purpose? Who will be involved? How will it be run? Will it add another layer of bureaucracy? Will it derail over time? Is it a political straw man?”

One person who’s sold on the idea is Opposition Leader Luke Foley, who welcomed the proposal in a speech to the Committee of Sydney on December 15 last year when he was shadow planning minister.

Foley told his audience: “I’ve long championed the creation of a single authority to plan the sustainable growth of Sydney. A single authority to co-ordinate the various government agencies and departments to ensure that consideration is given to all interests and needs, balancing economic, environmental and community interests.”

He favoured an act of Parliament to constitute the Greater Sydney Commission as an independent and accountable body “that reports daily to the Premier and annually to both houses of Parliament”. (My emphasis.)

However, there was a ripple of apprehension when he added: “The commission should establish a Congress of Mayors, bringing together all mayors from across Sydney’s local government areas.”

Those who are waiting for the imminent birth of the GSC should not hold their breath. All 41 councils across Sydney are in the midst of a massive re-organisation cutting their numbers by more than half. Until the dust has settled on local government amalgamations, there seems little point in inflicting an over-arching bureaucracy on the scale of the proposed Greater Sydney Commission.

Last year, the boys and girls in GMT ran the GSC concept up the flagpole to see if it would flutter. So far it hasn’t, and maybe it never will.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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