Current Issue #488

Helen Dyer: 'At the end of the day, we’re not planning for houses and cars, we’re planning for people'

From working the Holden factory line to becoming one of South Australia’s most quietly influential voices on planning policy, Helen Dyer is far removed from stereotypes of the average Adelaide power broker.

Helen Dyer’s career is – by almost any measure – very successful. The town planner has worked across private consultancies and public service; she’s held ministerial advisory roles, headed two local councils, and founded multiple successful businesses.

The list leaves little undone, but she still felt compelled to wade into the murky waters surrounding the creation of South Australia’s new planning system – a position Dyer admits is fraught with danger.

“You see that with any planning policy that goes out – you put it out for consultation and people say it’s fabulous, people say it’s dreadful, and then you have a whole lot of people who don’t say anything,” she says.

The parties at the extreme ends of that spectrum are particularly vocal at the moment. South Australia is undergoing a once-in-a-lifetime overhaul of its planning system, which includes the introduction of a new Planning and Design Code. Critics of the code, including the Protect Our Heritage Alliance, contend that the new system waters down safeguards for heritage and local character.

The flames of these fears have been fanned by the State Commission Assessment Panel’s (SCAP) recent decision to green light two hotel developments that will see locally heritage-listed buildings on Wright Street and Pirie Street partially demolished.

Dyer is one of five members on the State Planning Commission – the independent advisory body that appoints the SCAP. Dyer and her fellow commissioners are also charged with providing advice to the Minister and the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure on the design and implementation of the planning system overhaul, including the code.

While she may sit quietly amid the storm, Dyer is very much at its centre.

“The Commission is an independent body providing advice – so decision-makers will get advice from a range of people,” Dyer says. “It is super responsible – we are potentially making decisions that will leave a legacy for our city for a long time… It’s trying to look at our city through the eyes of as many people as you can.”

The new planning system is undoubtedly important – it could either protect or sacrifice our food bowls, bolster or diminish housing affordability, determine the fortunes of the construction industry, and seal the fate of the state’s many heritage structures.

Dyer understands this impact, but approaches her job with a trademark realism.

“Sometimes I think planning systems are designed to be the panacea of everything, and they’re not good at it,” Dyer says. “Heritage is controlled by heritage legislation, fundamentally. I think by putting local heritage places and historic zones into the planning system we have an intersect.

“I think the heritage debate is not necessarily a well-informed debate. Heritage is important and we need to maintain some of it. Then I think it comes back to the equity questions of ‘Why are we saving these things and who is going to pay for them?’ How does that community good balance against, well, someone needs to live there and stop it cracking and pay for that.

“I think it’s about the public versus the private good and rights, and it’s about balancing that.

“I do not have the answer. I just work to try and get the right balance with the inherent view that heritage is important.”

These even-handed comments are exactly the sort that might lead to appointment on an advisory board. In South Australia, there are many bodies like the Commission that are filled with professionals asked to offer insight on everything from innovation to climate change. This network has direct access to and influence on decision-makers, but the members are rarely known to the public.

Their advice is not binding. Still, there’s something a little surprising about finding a voice like Dyer’s in the mix.

“The Commission at the moment, I think we probably have quite different backgrounds. I’ve worked on the line at Holden and I went to school at Elizabeth,” she says. “I have a view of my city coming from that background… Hopefully I can bring some of that experience.”

Dyer grew up in One Tree Hill, the child of a mum forced to leave her job at the General Post Office after getting married and a dad who worked as a metallurgist for Holden. After attending the local primary school, where just 28 children were enrolled, she studied at Craigmore High School.

“I can remember vividly sitting around in Year 8, talking about career choices,” says Dyer. “I said, ‘Well, I’d like to be a doctor’ and I can remember my entire class just laughing out loud at me.

“Because you came from Elizabeth, you didn’t become a doctor. By Year 11, I’d decided I wasn’t going to become a doctor, I’d decided I wasn’t very clever. I don’t know where that came from. I managed to fail my matriculation.”

It was only after returning for a successful go at finishing high school and then studying an advanced diploma in cartography that her confidence was enough restored to tackle a university degree in town planning. She chose it because it was the natural progression of cartography, but a change in thinking unlocked her passion for planning that remains to this day.

“I worked on the Holden line over Christmas,” she says. “I had to go and meet the foreman and he just looked at me and said, ‘I don’t agree with women working on the line’. I was terrified… and no-one would talk to me for the first fortnight.

“But it was interesting… the company that supplied the wheels went on strike. The men with families… if the line had to close down, there was nothing for them. Planning has a lot of psychology – it’s all about people really. I think to understand those situations is really important.

“At the end of the day, we’re not planning for houses and cars, we’re planning for people.”

Farrin Foster

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Farrin Foster is a journalist by trade, writer by ambition, and occasional film-maker by necessity. She lives and works on the sovereign lands of the Kaurna peoples.

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