By Paul Hemsley
City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has committed to an overhaul of the inner city’s streets and infrastructure by announcing that the council will embark on its largest ever capital spending program work worth $1.9 billion over the next decade.
A persistent advocate of urban renewal that favours people over cars, Ms Moore has pushed ahead with the latest investment while emphasising that the city is in a position to spend because of its $100 million operational surplus in its draft 2013/14 budget.
The City of Sydney’s swollen coffers are the envy of nearby councils that are facing amalgamations because of their tenuous financial sustainability that has become the focus of a state government plan to introduce sweeping reforms to how councils operate, ostensibly on a voluntary basis.
A hallmark of Ms Moore’s enduring time in office has been an unabashed push to change the aesthetic appeal of the streets of the city’s central business district, particularly that of the densely populated and congested George Street that have been sharply criticised by opponents, but largely supported by the usually conservative retail and business communities that remain core stakeholders.
Her proposed changes to create a pedestrian and light rail zone and purging cars from the area was initially rejected by the State Infrastructure Strategy from Infrastructure NSW in 2012 because it claimed that a high capacity light rail service on George St would likely be “incompatible” with the proposed pedestrian boulevard.
The Strategy instead recommended that a bus tunnel be built from the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Town Hall, but the Premier Barry O’Farrell and Minister for Transport Gladys Berejiklian ultimately rolled their own advisers and approved a light rail to be built through the Sydney CBD to Randwick and Kingsford via George Street to break worsening CBD gridlock.
The city’s commitments in its $1.9 billion plan include $400 million to revitalise Green Square, $220 million to transform Geroge Street, $180 million to upgrade footpaths and roadways, $100 million to upgrade parks, $55 million for six new childcare centres, and $37 million to integrate the Barangaroo development with Millers Point.
Also included is an investment for the city worth $200 million between now and June 2014 on projects including storm water harvesting at Sydney Park for $12.5 million; $7 million for public art; $17 million for bike links; $10 million to improve streetscapes and pedestrian access; and $10 million refurbishment of Heffron Hall and Albert Sloss Park in East Sydney.
However the hot-button issue of forced amalgamations by the state government has come about once more as Ms Moore has emerged as an opponent to potential forced mergers because of the financial risks it imposes on the City of Sydney’s infrastructure planning, although such a move has been continuously denied by Minister for Local Government Don Page.
Ms Moore criticised the latest report from the Independent Local Government Review Panel released in April 2012 because of its recommendation to the state government that it should encourage voluntary mergers because this would severely hamper the long term plans to overhaul infrastructure within the City of Sydney’s boundaries.
The Panel’s recommendations had come at a time when opponents of forced council amalgamations have been highly suspicious that the O’Farrell government may backflip on its promise that there will be no forced council amalgamations in New South Wales.
It is a controversial issue that has kindled distrust among opponents because of their fear that they could potentially be forced to go a similar path as Queensland councils that were force to amalgamate by the Anna Bligh government in 2008 but were given the option to de-amalgamate by the Campbell Newman government in early 2012.
Ms Moore said the Panel’s recommendation to manipulate boundaries puts the city’s strong financial position and long term capital works program at risk and is “dangerous and incredible reckless”.
“Evidence from other cities shows that the costs of mega amalgamations far outweigh any benefits – Queensland councils say the cost of their forced mergers was $185 million and reports say Auckland spent around $100 million just merging eight councils together,” Ms Moore said.
She said the city should continue its investment in long term infrastructure, “beautiful parks and open space,” affordable housing and high quality services for residents, business and visitors “rather than wasting money on boundaries”.
With Julian Bajkowski
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