Monday, November 24, 2014

How do we value parkland?

Tonight at Hobart City Council (24 November, 2014) we discussed a draft Management Plan for Queenborough Oval, that will be going out for community consultation in 2015.  The motion agreed at Council was amended to include information being given to Aldermen on the income and expenditure of running the Oval.

Now here’s the thing. 
How do we really value the cost to Councils of running recreation and parks premises? 
Do we stick to income/expenses/depreciation/maintenance accounting, or is it time for a new methodology that takes into account the real value to the City and its people?

As a bit of background to see what got me thinking on this, have a look at the draft Management Plan on the Council’s Parks committee agenda.  It’s not a long read, and much of it is in easy layman language.

Particularly, have a look at the map on page 35 of Agenda item 9.  You’ll note that there is a linkage between Bicentennial Park and the Queenborough Oval facility. 
Let me tell you, this is the first time we’ve had a set of consultants think outside the boundary in making such a connection– between a sports ground and a parkland in suggesting a draft management plan.  It really impressed me that these consultants were thinking not just inside the sports ground, but its value to the community surrounding it.
And, and this is the really exciting bit, they looked at it in the context of where it sat in the City and what it's connections were.

And this is a real change that reflects a connection between bushland use and sports recreation grounds.  It re-defines the value of Hobart’s parks and recreation grounds as not just stand alone facilities.  Sport, although a team effort, is also an individual pursuit.  Bushland, although a conservation space is also a recreation place.

The value of bushland linkages for sports grounds also flows into the surrounding suburbs in terms of residential amenity.  How, you might ask?  Well, here’s a story.

Cleaning around the council office prior to the election, I came across a panoramic photo of Hobart from Porter Hill to Mt Wellington and an itsy-bitsy copy of a Certificate of Merit from the Royal Australian Planning Institute. In the 8 November 2000 Tasmanian Awards for Planning Excellence, this certificate in the category of Community Based Planning was presented to the Regional Skyline Group for its “Draft Policy – Management of Landscapes of Natural and Cultural Significance”. 

Memory lane city!  Over fifteen years ago I was involved with a number of citizens across Tasmania in promoting the idea to the State Government of the importance of bushland and undeveloped skylines in planning matters.  (Kay McFarlane, now Alderman on Clarence City Council, was a key and keen driver of the group.  She faced a far worse situation in Clarence with insensitive subdivisions.) 

From this activity a significant document dated February 2000, Planning Guidelines: Urban Skylines and Hillfaces, was developed through the Urban Skylines and Hillfaces Committee in the old State Department of Primary Industry, Water and Environment.  Although alas, following governments saw fit it ignore it, it worked some magic in its day by providing a professional and technical set of arguments for keeping hillfaces, and especially in Hobart.

Fortunately, or not, depending how you look at it, around the same time the development of Tolman’s Hill subdivision provided the “Empress Towers” moment to argue for conserving Porter’s Hill (now Bicentennial Park) skyline when the Dorney family tried to develop most of it for suburban housing in 2001.

Here was me, still wet behind the ears as a new Aldermen, and trying to argue for some form of a Bushland Fund that would buy up the last remaining hillfaces and bushlands of Hobart that had yet to fall to the developer’s bulldozers and their architects’ penchant for stucco ghettos and MacMansions of the kind you see at Nicholas Drive in Sandy Bay. 

How to argue it? 

There was, given the makeup of Council at the time, very few people really au fait with the ideas and importance of biodiversity at the elected level, let alone simpatico.  Could they be convinced why keeping land for plants, insects, reptiles, birds and marsupials versus the possibilities of increased money in the coffers via subdivision was a good idea?  Based on arguing the case for nature in other development applications, no. 

Yet, based on arguing the case for aesthetics and how this translates in improved property prices, this curiously proved the way to get some good policy in place. 

In short, the confluence of the awfulness of Tolman’s Hill development on the skyline, with the policy work done by the community activists of the Regional Skyline Group, and being able to be around the table to argue sufficient support for keeping skylines via a Bushland Fund, all resulted in a largely uninterrupted bush skyline from Porters Hill to Mt Nelson.

You really don’t see this unless you’ve taken the odd ferry trip on the River Derwent, and then the full majesty of this policy outcome is revealed.  You only have to listen to the comments of visitors from overseas how impressed they are that Hobart has kept so much of its skylines as bushland.

What does this mean in terms of the Queenborough Oval?  Well, without the work of past activism and all that flowed from it, it would mean that the linkage between bushland and sportsground would not be possible.  It would mean more of the Mt Nelson/Tolman’s Hill death by a thousand subdivision cuts.  If there were any remnant bushland, it would be way over there, up the hill, over the other side, out of reach other than by car and then only for the very fit.  It would mean that local residents would not be out working in the local Bushcare Groups and making connections with their local community.  The experience of walking this linkage, or mountain bike riding it, would have been lost. 

For the surrounding suburbs of Mt Nelson and Sandy Bay, their quality of living, their residential amenity, will be immeasurably improved by having access to both the Park and the sportsground in a single linkage. 

This is the sort of living environment that people pay very high prices for in Sydney and Melbourne, let alone other places in the world.  And consider this – this sort of living is ten to fifteen minutes by car (at most) to the centre of the City.

I argued years ago that people perceived access to bushland for recreation as valuable in their selection of a home for raising their families.  Having such access would make Mt Nelson and Sandy Bay more desirable, and therefore would improve property prices – and from there, improve the AAV and therefore more rates to be gained for Hobart.  Adding this linkage will again improve the perception of the quality of life for local residents.  Those in Sandy Bay will now have access to bushland via the sports ground linkage that previously would only be possible by negotiating a complicated series of roads by car.

So how to value this in our Annual Report? 

Purchasing Porter Hill is listed as a debt to be paid off, an asset to be managed and depreciated.  Queenborough Oval is listed as a community sports ground whose maintenance appears to exceed its income (like so many recreational facilities).  Arguing the case on old financial methodology means either descending into gated parks and sportsgrounds for the elite few who could pay for entry or accepting running at a financial loss as a bad thing.  If both had to be run at a financial breakeven, first of all, how could you do it if the only value used is monetary, and secondly, would it mean that only those who could afford would have access?

I’d argue that it’s time for a new methodology in valuing parklands and sports grounds. 

The costs are financial and apparent.  The benefits are intangible, not easily quantified in financial terms.  How do we value amenity?  I’m talking about more than the old triple bottom line accounting here.  Access to facilities that improve mental and physical health can be measured in terms of less sick days and less demand for medical health facilities and services.  Access to walking means improved health outcomes, especially where there is a sense of adventure and wonder, a creation of mental contentment in the surrounds. 

And I believe that if we polled the community on the value of access to both sportsgrounds and bushland, with costs shared across all the municipality to ensure equity of access, we might find that it’s time to change the way we account to the community for managing their parklands and sports recreation grounds.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Planning and governance reform: Will someone have the courage?

For those of you who have any history of involvement in planning in Tasmania, you’ll remember the days when the PLUC came up with the RPDC, PT, state planning policies and the whole suite and box and dice of planning schemes.  Today, mired in the lack of state planning policies, multiple planning schemes and a building and approvals system that the Property Council’s members and others baulk at, seemingly at every turn, reform is once more under way.  Simpler, faster, cheaper...... you’ve picked up the rhetoric by now.

Unfortunately, once more, like the amalgamation debate, we’re going to get it wrong.  Once again, people have headed to the detail without thinking through the foundation of all our ills in Tasmania. 

Must I go over history again (we just do keep forgetting, don’t we) and point out how we’ve developed a system of government and governance that fails the test of a clear division of roles and responsibilities between State and Local Government?

If you follow the principle that difference grows when people are isolated, then it’s easy to understand how Tasmania’s system of government and governance has developed.

Today Tasmania and its many small towns and hamlets are no longer isolated.  Neither do people live and die in the same bark hut they were born in.

The model of local government imposed from the now defunct British Empire is no longer relevant for Tasmania’s aspirations of a place in global society.  It may have been in the early to mid 19th century, but hey! Time to innovate.  Neither is this model capable of moving quickly enough to accommodate change.  The same can be said for the current planning system.  And the futures of the two are intertwined in any governance debate.

Can I make some assumptions here?  That Tasmanians by and large would agree that a sustainable happy community where a people-focused economy respects and values both natural and built assets is a good place to be?  That renewal is welcomed with open debate is a given?  That local competitive advantages are worth leveraging to ensure a population has sound, if not excellent levels of education, social services, and business acumen?  That the economy and society share levels of resilience to enable surfing with edge and some degree of safety the global markets and waves of technology change?  Are these assumptions of what Tasmanians would like too wild?  Do they make an ass out of you and me?  I’ll be positive and say this is where I’m working towards, please feel free to join in at any time.

Now if you follow the principle that values shared is a community created, then the revamping of the Tasmanian planning system is an opportunity to re-imagine Tasmanian governance.

For too long the State has been be-devilled by multiplicity and central neglect as a consequence of financial deficits (and I’m talking from colonial days on, here).  Yes, brought about by historical circumstances but does it have to continue?  Tasmania was only settled to stop the Napoleonic French – dumping the convicts and growing sheep was an afterthought.  The Colonial Chest was stretched by ambitions of Empire and once Buonaparte was safely installed on St Helena, the lid dropped shut and VDL Governors were told to be more financially self-sufficient. 

What followed since has been a litany of economic woes, of overseas loans, of unfunded depreciation of state assets and too-free spending of windfall GST gains.  And in all that time, Tasmania’s response to the population’s demands for services and infrastructure has been to devolve responsibility locally. 

Cost-shifting has created, even with the 1993 amalgamations, 31 sets of governance rules for Tasmania (29 Councils, one State, one Federal government).  And within those 31 sets are multiple, beyond belief multiple, boards and statutory authorities and interpretations of what set of rules and regulations mean what.  And at the local government level we see the creation of three regional bodies based on geography and not a commonality of purpose that creates and implements real innovative change.

Seriously.  This can’t go on.  In any management structure, multiple layers of hierarchy in an organisation create seriously siloing and continual fragmentation.

In planning alone, there are 29 planning authorities with 29 local interpretations and no cohesive overall State planning (other than attempts to get a Statewide Planning Scheme that risks as much fragmentation in application as with the present system).  Our current planning system lack consistency on development, heritage, agricultural land, business and professional services, residential areas, industry, tourism, parking, disability, CBD provisions...must I go on?  With only a 15% commonality between planning schemes, this is totally unsustainable.

And this is where it really hurts us all.  Twenty nine Councils acting as three regions means inevitably 29 different ways of pushing economic, social, environmental and developmental policies.  I have to ask the State government (as it downsizes the newly created State Growth Department) on the matter of a single statewide development policy, just what are you thinking?

So here’s the thing.  If you’re serious about getting governance sorted in Tasmania, start to have some policy balls and think about the table below with some sketch ideas.  The outcome is a cohesive approach across Tasmania of policy development, interpretation, application and review. 

And you know what, if this happened, why, we might then start to dismantle the local government empire that evolved like topsy since the 1820s, and start to have a mature conversation about what local communities and cities really want.

Imagine, a space to have the conversation about reform.  It's not mergers as we know them, that will make a difference for Tasmania’s governance and government. It's the State and local government sitting down to sort out a new way of working and better shared responsibilities.

If we had a State Government that resolved planning into a Statewide Authority, why not also whole of State economic development, waste, roads, stormwater, bridges authorities - it was done for water and sewerage. Get rid of the multiple boards and get a streamline structure in place. Policy and leadership from the top.

So what will local government be left to do?

Implementation and feedback consultation between top and bottom.

Promoting local (business internodes, festivals, tourism, local streetscape programs, bushcare, etc.)

Caring local (elderly, young, disabled, LGBTI, multicultural programs, etc.)

Sharing local (parks, gardens, recreation facilities, etc.)

And yes, keep the local elected people, but seriously, define their roles and functions in the Local Government Act more succinctly.

At least then we won’t have 29 miniature State governments pulling this State apart in 29 different directions after every local government election.  And who knows, then the Feds might find they can’t divide and conquer this island’s people so easily either!





Policy setting, scheme development, review and amendment

Implementation and consultation with local communities to feed back into policy setting and Scheme amendments

Division of functions

Single Planning Authority, with associated Tribunal functions for appeals.

Building and plumbing approvals, local streetscape/landscape reviews as needed.  Councils no longer acting as planning authorities.  Compliance and consultation role only.  Planning consultancy to deal with exceptions or by delegation to ensure compliance.

Particular issues as examples:

Environment: Statewide policies with planning linked to EPA and enforcement processes

Heritage: Planning authority, subsumes Tasmanian Heritage Council functions for policy consistency, Minister with call in powers as safeguard.

Agriculture: Planning authority with policies aligned to Statewide economic agricultural policies

Environment: local councils responsible for monitoring and enforcement of health and safety

Heritage: Listings and rates raised for local maintenance of heritage (aligned to heritage and tourism policies)

Agriculture: manages the interface between local communities and rural areas


Authorised by Alderman Eva Ruzicka, Town Hall, Hobart.