The Curious Business of Talking to Government

I attended a very bizarre meeting on the Coast yesterday with several members of Council.

The topic was Caloundra South (yes, again, I know). For those of you who are not aware of what that is let me give the 25 word rundown: the Sunshine Coast is getting a new city of 50 000 people, on vacant land south of Caloundra. Council was doing the town planning for the development but late last year State Government said they weren’t doing it fast enough and took it over through the Urban Land Development Authority (ULDA), an outfit with even less accountability than Council.

The meeting was an informal gathering of five people from Council, three Councillors and two Officers, and about fifty representatives of community groups. It had been called by Council to draw everyone’s attention to the narrow window we have been offered to even vaguely influence the development, now it’s gone to the UDLA.

Certainly there is evidence of unseemly haste. Despite the recent floods casting doubts about the whole site – and the proposed report on that not being released until next year – this whole thing is supposed to be put to bed by October, brought forward from an original plan to have it begin in 2017.

The problems are too many to mention, but the one major difficulty is that the development is both low-lying and adjacent to Pumicestone Passage. Those of you familiar with the district will know that the Passage runs between the mainland and Bribie Island from Caloundra in the north to Deception Bay in the south. That it is a fragile marine ecosystem already under significant stress. Building a city of that size in such a place is a disaster in the making.

So what was bizarre? Sounds pretty normal for this part of the world doesn’t it?

Well, the people from Council were there to help us, or at least to work with us, to draw up submissions to the ULDA (in the narrow time band available) to make sure State is apprised of the things we want for the development – like sustainability principles applied to water/sewerage/electricity, provision of the long promised public transport plan, good buffer zones, affordable housing etc.. The normal sort of stuff loony people want from government. The argument being that although State doesn’t really have much interest in this area (all the seats in this district are held by the opposition) it is an election year, and Pumicestone Passage has traction with Brisbane voters. Now that Council has no control over the development they figure that, working together with community groups, they can perhaps oblige the ULDA to still adopt the aforementioned principles of sustainability.

Which is all fine and dandy except that Council, when it was in charge of the process, didn’t spend an awful lot of time listening to those of us assembled in the room, in fact ignored the vast majority of the submissions they received, many of which questioned the viability of the whole project, not so much even within the parameters that were being analysed as within the whole region. That is to say, many of the submissions were asking if it was a good idea to build another satellite city on the coast. If, indeed, this region could absorb that number of people, or, if it could, if a sprawling city of free-standing houses was the best way to go about it; if, perhaps, medium density wasn’t a better idea, or, if making the provision of a railway as a starting point was not an essential prerequisite. Amongst other things.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s very probable that many of those questions appeared very naïve to a Council that had had the whole idea pressed upon them by State government in the first place. A State that was frankly unwilling to provide adequate infrastructure; but that doesn’t mean they were not valid questions and still shouldn’t be asked. The extraordinary thing from my point of view yesterday was the weird process whereby a group of people who’ve already had their painstaking work ignored by one level of government should now band with that same level of government to get their work ignored by another one.

The thing is, we’ll do it. We have no choice. We’re a sad bunch, whittling away at the edifices of our institutions, trying to make them more human, trying to get them to recognise we live in an environment that includes the occasional other species. Right this minute we have a limited opportunity to perhaps influence the shape of the largest single development many of us will see in our lives. We’ll take it. But let’s not pretend it isn’t odd.

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