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The “teal wave” that surged through Liberal heartland in May had three prongs – climate change, integrity and the treatment of women in politics. But at a state level, the teal agenda looks much simpler: it’s all about planning and development.
From opposition to the northern beaches tunnel to concerns about overpopulation in the east, fledgling independent campaigns are capitalising on communities’ angst about density and the feeling among some residents that they have been excluded from the decision-making process.
Karen Freyer, who used to work for Kerryn Phelps, will contest the state seat of Vaucluse as an independent.Credit:Louise Kennerley
Karen Freyer, a former staffer to ex-City of Sydney councillor Kerryn Phelps, has launched her bid for the seat of Vaucluse on a platform that prioritises “returning planning power to our local communities” and “championing sustainable planning”. But she also exudes an old-worldy nostalgia for the eastern suburbs of a bygone era.
“There doesn’t seem to be any town planning,” Freyer said. “I was in Double Bay with a resident whose watch had broken. I remember there used to be watchmaker in Double Bay. There’s no watchmaker now in Double Bay. What you have in Double Bay is you have a huge Woolworths. We don’t want Double Bay to become one huge Woolworths.”
The political community group North Sydney’s Independent, which delivered Kylea Tink into federal parliament, plans to support candidates in three Liberal-held state seats: North Shore, Willoughby and Lane Cove. The latter is held by Planning Minister Anthony Roberts, a right-winger perceived as overly friendly with developers.
Post-it notes from a North Sydney’s Independent event reveal the issues motivating its supporters.
At a launch event at the Crows Nest Hotel in August, organisers supplied a corkboard with Post-it notes for supporters to write down issues they cared about. One theme dominated: “I’m over over-development / Planning overhaul needed / Lower north planning is just for developers not people.”
NSI co-founder Kristen Lock said the issues resonated because they affect people’s everyday life: the length of their commute, the sunlight coming into their living room, their views.
“People don’t feel heard. No one’s said to them: ‘would you prefer a broader footprint [at] medium density, or would you prefer high rise?’,” Lock said. “The lack of control upsets people. [They] are seeing such significant disruption to what makes their communities good.”
Lock disputes any suggestion the group is unsympathetic to people priced out of Sydney’s property and rental markets. “It’s not that people don’t appreciate there’s a housing crisis on,” she said. “A lot of our supporters aren’t able to afford homes, or their kids aren’t able to afford homes anywhere near them. We all appreciate the problem.”
Through a spokesperson, Roberts said NSW needed to build nearly 1 million homes over 20 years to avoid locking an entire generation out of homeownership. But rezoning was led by local councils and the community, he said, and NSW had some of the strongest planning, building design and sustainability measures in Australia.
“I believe everyone in NSW has the right to a quality home that suits their lifestyle, and we can only achieve this if we increase supply,” Roberts said.
Last week, NSI hosted a webinar on planning and development with independent MP for Sydney Alex Greenwich, a disciple of Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore. Greenwich, who is fighting plans to increase the height of buildings at Central Barangaroo, said so-called NIMBYs played a vital role in stopping bad development.
“We need NIMBYs because NIMBYs make submissions to these planning panels and to the [development application] process that lead to improvements being made, that lead to local and state representatives taking action,” he said.
“I’m all for the NIMBYs and I learn a lot from it. It’s really a sign that people are just engaged in their local community and want the best for it.”
Greenwich said his inner-city electorate, taking in the CBD, Darlinghurst and Paddington, was adept at fighting back against developers. “It would be very hard for a development to catch us by surprise because we’re battle-hardened, suspicious and always on the watch,” he said.
Independent member for Sydney Alex Greenwich said NIMBYs play a vital role in opposing and reshaping unreasonable development proposals.Credit:James Brickwood
In each part of town, there are particular lightning rods for development angst: in the north, the planned Western Harbour Tunnel and Beaches Link have compounded concerns about congestion, overcrowding and lack of open space resulting from higher density.
Larissa Penn, the independent candidate who almost snatched Gladys Berejiklian’s former seat of Willoughby from the Liberals at February’s byelection, said she becomes more determined to run again each time the government doesn’t listen to the community.
“Willoughby has had a lot of development and we’ve tolerated a lot of development,” she said. “So I don’t think you could possibly claim that the people of Willoughby are NIMBYs. When our sewerage systems are overflowing, when our parks are bare, when our public transport is failing … that’s not NIMBYism, that’s just a community crying out for proper and sustainable planning.”
Freyer went to Ascham School, learnt sailing at Woollahra Sailing Club, earned an MBA from Harvard and founded a social enterprise in Britain. After working for Phelps, she also ran Yvonne Weldon’s council campaign last year.
An artist’s impression of potential development of the Edgecliff Commercial Centre along New South Head Road.Credit:Woollahra Municipal Council
A big development controversy is Woollahra Council’s draft strategy for the area around Edgecliff railway station, which would allow towers up to 89 metres.
In Freyer’s view, there should be no new development unless the appropriate infrastructure is in place. The eastern suburbs desperately needed another public high school, she said, and “it’s a bitch” to drive along New South Head Road because of the traffic. But she dislikes the NIMBY label.
“I’m not actually saying ‘don’t increase the density’. It’s slightly different,” Freyer says. “I’m saying ‘let’s allow some community input’. There’s density and then there’s density done well. I don’t think what’s been going on in Vaucluse is density done well.”
Freyer has proposed a target for 10 per cent of new homes in the seat being affordable for key workers. She is adamant residents should have more input on planning decisions affecting their area. But asked why, on principle, locals should have a say over planning in their suburb, she was baffled.
“It’s a really hard question to answer,” she said. “It’s really, really hard – it’s sort of stumped me. I don’t know. Why shouldn’t they have a say? It’s a very difficult question to answer.”
Freyer is unmoved by the suggestion that existing residents have a vested interest in keeping people out, whereas governments and planners ought to have regard for people who need homes.
“Everyone’s got an argument for everything. At the end of the day, I do think you should have a say in what goes on in your neighbourhood. Whether you live in affordable housing or whether you live in the richest house in the street, I think everyone deserves a say.”
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