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All aboard for the Bankstown corridor – or just the lucky few?

Posted by on September 21st, 2016 · Affordability, Affordable housing, Cities, Construction, Demographics, Government, Housing supply, Planning, Public space, Transport, urban renewal

By Professor Bill Randolph, Director, City Futures Research Centre. This is an extended version of an article published by The Conversation.


It would be easy to assume that the new Sydney Metro Rail project will create something of an urban paradise along the new Sydenham to Bankstown Urban Renewal Corridor through which it will run.  New homes, peak hour Metro trains every four minutes, upgraded community facilities and green spaces and cycle paths for locals to enjoy are promised as well as new homes and jobs. The Department of Planning’s recent brochure shows a colourful mass of new density zones, with every town centre along the route in for a face-lift. In the cases of Bankstown, Campsie, Canterbury and Belmore town centres, it will be a high-rise face-lift indeed, with apartment towers rising to eight or more storeys.

While it is only a draft strategy, the Government’s intentions seem pretty clear – this area of Sydney is about to change and change dramatically. From a city-building point of view, this could be a very good thing. There will be a lot more people housed near transport links, making the daily commute into town easier. This in turn brings productivity benefits. The influx of new residents and the building activity will also create more local activity and jobs.

Given the age of housing stock in the suburbs along the route there is undoubtedly need for renewal. These suburbs were part of Sydney’s vast post-war expansion, as the city sprawled outwards to house the influx of migrants and young post-war families. But many of these detached homes, and the red-brick three storey walk-ups that followed in the 1960s and 70s, are now reaching the end of their lifecycle. Unlike in the more affluent parts of Sydney, however, this corridor offers no obvious financial bonanza for developers. Why?  Because it is one of the more socially and economically disadvantaged places in the city.  Gentrification, the driver for urban renewal across Sydney’s inner suburbs to the east, has not come knocking on these doors – yet.

The result is that the area, particularly between Canterbury and Bankstown, is home to a large population of ethnically-diverse families, three-quarters of whom survive on incomes below the Sydney median. These people often have insufficient income to improve their properties, if indeed they own them. Much of the apartment stock is owned by investors, largely uninterested in upgrading their property.  In fact, the suburbs of Belmore, Lakemba, Wiley Park and Punchbowl form one of the largest concentrations of lower income renters in Sydney, compounded by a large population of retirees on fixed and low incomes.

Given the social issues this corridor faces, government-led renewal is therefore to be welcomed.  However, there are very big questions to be answered as to what it will mean for the communities already there and as yet little evidence that the Government is even asking them.

Question One: what percentage of the intended 36,000 new apartments and other dwellings have been allocated for affordable housing? This is more than just a nice idea. It’s a very real concern for the functioning of the entire city. On current experience, we can be sure that the new apartment buildings will not be pitched at the pockets of those who currently live in these places.  Without a significant affordable housing component, the essential workers who live in the area now – the mechanics, nurses, shop workers, drivers and hospitality workers – will not be able to afford to live in the costlier dwellings that the renewed town centres will, on current evidence, inevitably provide.

Big urban renewal projects in comparable overseas cities like New York and London have set aside significant proportions of the new housing as affordable units to avoid the problems that arise when people are displaced.  In these cities, it’s accepted as completely reasonable that lower income working families should also benefit from new housing delivered as a result of public investment in major renewal projects.  The NSW government needs to make that percentage very clear from the outset for the Sydenham to Bankstown corridor, so that developers are under no illusion about what will need to be built – and how much they need to factor into site acquisition.

Question Two: we’ve seen the zoning map, but where are the services to meet the needs of the large number of additional people who’ll be living there? In Green Square, for instance, schools weren’t considered in the haste to erect the apartment towers and at present there is one footy field for 60,000 new residents!  Of course, we are promised a plan for such services for the new corridor. But with the government having already released the broad zoning map without these being indicated, land owners will rightly question any subsequent proposal that would diminish their rights to maximum value uplift from residential development by imposing a lower value land use such as a school or park.  And speculators are no doubt already buying up existing land parcels in the expectation that the draft zoning map will be fully implemented.

Question Three – and leading on from two:  who is going to benefit from the substantial value uplift the new Metro and the associated local amenity upgrades with generate?  There is no mention in the corridor plan of how much this value uplift might be, or how some will be captured to either help pay for the Metro itself, or for the other key infrastructure investments needed to turn these new station precincts into the liveable and vibrant places depicted in the brochure.  Indeed, the plan makes no mention at all of the likely outcome in terms of property prices or affordability – which is all the more odd given that the Urban Feasibility Model, which underpins all the Department’s planning proposals, will have clearly indicated the value likely to be created.

Question Four: how will those who live there now, many of whom have been there all their lives, be included in the decision-making process about the redevelopment? Will they have a say about what they want, and will it genuinely be listened to? The corridor is a massive project, but right now, the only opportunity to participate is via written feedback – presumably in English – to the draft strategy.  The NSW Planning Minister has recently announced his belief that the planning process should become much more inclusive in the way new decisions are made. This means local community input at the early stages of a development as well as involvement when major planning proposals come forward, so as not to ‘surprise’ anyone about what may follow.  This is both welcome and essential if local communities are to be brought along with the prospect of renewal.  The corridor plan needs to be linked into such a process as soon as possible.

Question Five: And finally, once the rezoning is in place, will it be a developer-led free for all, or will the government take a stake in the process?  This form of urban renewal in established town centres and communities offers a very different set of opportunities and constraints to that of the renewing derelict industrial sites or surplus public lands where ownership is already consolidated and where few people live. Here, the public sector needs to take a lead, not least to reduce redevelopment risk and prepare agreed master planned outcomes to speed action.   This calls for significant innovation in public leadership. We need to develop new publically accountable approaches to implement coordinated and integrated renewal across multiple local interests and stakeholders. The key here with be inclusion – inclusive renewal will mean a real engagement with the communities involved, not the usual tokenistic, top-down and highly controlled ‘consultation’ that usually prevails.

We need something new to achieve this.  There is a real opportunity to establish an arms-length non-profit renewal corporation or agency to work with local councils (with land holdings), local land owners and businesses, communities (particularly those in older strata properties), the development sector and community housing providers in consortia or joint ventures to re-plan and renew these town centres. Innovative funding for new infrastructure could come through hypothecated value capture mechanisms, both in the form of up-front levies on land and property sales, to ensure the value uplift they benefit from is appropriately shared, and longer term borrowing supported by the increased local rates that will be collected.  Why not target it towards these urban renewal centres?

Importantly, such an approach should be established with the principle of subsidiarity to the fore–i.e. devolving planning decisions to the appropriate level (something that Minister Stokes also champions).  The affordable housing would be the responsibility of local community housing providers working with the development industry and the new agency to ensure the best outcome from the renewal, so that those living there today will also benefit.  UrbanGrowth NSW, the State Government’s current urban renewal development arm, could play such a role, of course, although its focus and structure would need significant modification for this task.  But since we will eventually need such an agency in order to coordinate and manage the process of inclusive renewal, let’s start thinking about it now.  It could set a precedent for more widespread town centre renewal activity.

The new Sydney Metro promises a revolution in mass transit for the city. However, the accompanying renewal of this corridor will impact one of the most socially and economically disadvantaged communities in Sydney. Perpetuating – or indeed enhancing – that disadvantage through wide-scale displacement and unaffordable apartment building would be a disastrous outcome.  This new urban transit orientated paradise must not just be for those lucky enough to afford it.

One Comment so far ↓

  • Karen Campbell

    An excellent analysis of some of the areas of concern regarding the Sydenham to Bankstown Corridor Renewal Strategy. Other issues include respect for heritage homes/buildings, environmentally sustainable building, public housing and disruption to close knit communities. Also, not discussed is the impact on the important heritage suburbs of Marrickville, Dulwich Hill and Hurlstone Park. All of these issues have been raised by residents in submissions and meetings with representatives from the Dept of Planning. Their response is, “These issues are not the concern of the Dept.of Planning”.

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