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Redfern and social engineering - 30.11.2004

That a single body through which to control the redevelopment of the vast tract of land through Redfern, Waterloo and Alexandria is a sound idea is unarguable. The central business district is restricted geographically, and ambitious new plans are needed for its future expansion and growth.

When looked at closely, the new plan is much more than providing room for the CBD to grow. Rather, the Redfern Waterloo Authority is a grand plan in social engineering, to boost the population of the area south of Redfern, change the mix, tear down the Waterloo housing commission towers and bring in jobs.

Apart from the breathtaking ambition of the scheme, this is a natural evolution for an area which has excellent infrastructure and service links, that lies between the CBD and the airport, which also has ready access to the eastern suburbs and to much of the inner west.

But the State Government is going about this the wrong way. In its initial public statements just over a fortnight ago, it highlighted the job-making role of the proposed makeover, with the new authority to have responsibility to develop the policies and plans needed to revitalise the area.
Yet much of the detail of the plan looks to be a fait accompli, with considerable effort already completed into finalising policy detail. Of perhaps greater importance, the new authority is to have absolute planning control over the area if, indeed, that is the correct word, since it seems that there will be precious few planning controls at all. Rather, control will reside with Frank Sartor, the Minister for Utilities, and not with the Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, where final consent for such a major undertaking should lie.

It is the social engineering aspect of the revamp that is the immediate lightning rod for much of the public debate. Bringing in many more people may help improve the socio-economic mix of the area, but what will happen to the large numbers living in the Waterloo housing commission towers that are to be demolished, for example? They will have to be moved somewhere, and they need to be consulted.

Suspending planning controls opens the Government to immediate criticism from those redeveloping the neighbouring area of the old glass works and the Reschs brewery site. What is so different about the area they are working on from what is just over the road?

A revamp of the scale proposed for Redfern-Waterloo is not unusual, especially as a growing city seeks to maximise the use of scarce resources - the stock of land and buildings. But traditionally we have had open discussion and debate, rather than ceding control to a private cabal before the public is fully aware of what is going on.

For reasons best known to itself, the Government has decided the public is not to be trusted in discussing the issues involved with such an ambitious plan, which will feed concerns, possibly ill-founded, that the Government does in fact have a secret agenda - to force out many of the socially disadvantaged living in the area.

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald November 30, 2004 Editorial