A new AFL, junior cricket and soccer base surrounding North Adelaide’s Aquatic Centre, among a scatter of seven large new sport and recreation hubs – that’s the new government vision for Adelaide’s park lands. The Weatherill team is quietly assuming development control from Town Hall, pursuing a multi-million dollar park lands ‘sports focused’ growth agenda. But will South Australians cop such major policy change about land they want kept public open space? Only if they don’t scrutinise the prospectus.
Something profound has happened about who’s to control future development across Adelaide’s park lands. For over 150 years their custodian was Town Hall, but 2016 will go down as the year the paperwork keys passed to state control, without the need for major new legislation – and despite an 11-year-old Act that purports to thwart public land exploitation. It ends several decades during which major park lands development had been substantially stalled by a hierarchy of documents that ensured that the keys to big-shot sports development were kept away from the sports suits and other friends of government. Of course, government always has been the most powerful and destructive across Town Hall’s 727 hectares of green belt, via parliament, under cover of random sorties of jingoistic, ‘state development’ spin. Last year, a ministerial development plan amendment foreshadowed control of rules for erecting unprecedented major infrastructure across many parks precincts – plans that never were contemplated in the parks’ bible, the Park Lands Management Strategy, or the Community Land Management Plans that underscore it (see The Adelaide Review, August 2015). This took care of the government’s first major hurdle – the parks’ development plan. The next hurdle is to change the rules, working backwards, in a redraft of the Park Lands Management Strategy (now out for public comment, but already endorsed by the parks’ keepers, the Authority, which comprises a majority of ministerially nominated positions). The Strategy has suddenly morphed into a vast redevelopment and visitation growth plan, with new targets, master plans, ‘key moves’ projects and blueprints for at least seven large, mainly sport-focused, hubs. The vision is new. Previous versions contained cautious statements stressing protection and conservation of park land open-space, blocking potential bids for commercial buildings with long-term tenure on free land. The spin coming to a news bulletin near you is that this new version is actually all about bringing up to standard paths, signs, car parks and visitor amenities and making things better for visitors. But the sudden appearance of plans for seven new ‘large hubs’ with ‘highest’ prioritisation for completion within two years, reveals that very serious money is to be spent, quietly implementing major, long-term change to Adelaide’s park land character. With that come plans for expansion of car parking facilities, some within parks, some along roads adjacent to parks. These underscore a new theme – our park lands are set to morph into multiple-site development precincts – a kind of vast, city-encircling recreation plan, dense with parked cars, kiosks and other commercial food and recreation ventures, featuring new ‘shared uses’ for roads adjacent, new leases for new buildings, and new licences for new ovals and play areas whose new tenures would block 24/7 public access to that land, restricting it at busy times via signs and temporary fencing for the benefit of paid-up, tribal crowds. Early indications are that commercial parties also will seek club, or limited club, liquor licences. The paper-trail evidence for such public land carpetbagging began with agendas and minutes of the Authority last year. The ‘new’ Park Lands Management Strategy could have been written by a New York recreation planner coordinating Central Park on the basis that its original owner demanded creation of multiple sports and interpretation functions based on a business plan, a management plan, long-term financial forecasts and a fat budget. Except there is none of that for Adelaide’s plan. While bullish new visitor growth forecasts in the draft Strategy aim for 11.5 million visitors by 2020 (up 15 percent from now), with plans envisaging major building clusters for at least seven vistas, there is no budget; ‘precinct targets’ are unstated; and proposed ‘master plans/management plans’ aren’t revealed. Such a Strategy would be described as a prospectus in the commercial world (a product disclosure statement) enticing investment (or, in this case, endorsement) by the people who own the public land. Further, it would be proper for the people of South Australia to scrutinise it before the parks plunder commenced. Too late: it’s already begun. SACA’s proposed multimillion dollar pavilion west of the city, and Prince Alfred College’s $2.5 million pavilion application in a north west park are both proceeding smoothly, with most hurdles already jumped. These comprise two of the seven hubs. There’s much more implied in the new Strategy – but specifics are hazy. Moreover, in the public consultation paper nothing is said about whether any of the major hub proposals might – or might not – comply with just-revised, Authority-written long-term lease or licensing criteria. It appears enough to mention the project for that legal pathway to be smoothed. There was silence during the Christmas silly season (the first six weeks of public consultation about the Strategy, when everyone was on holidays). But a look at pre-Christmas records reveals some noise within the Parks Authority. Despite its ringing endorsement on October 22, its project advisory group people (observers, not formal Authority-elected members) on November 19 highlighted reservations about car parking “on the park lands and its impact on amenity, vistas and invitation” and “some concern that organised sport and recreation is overemphasised”, and “Increasing visitation should not be the driving objective of the strategy”. “Analytical and evidence-based approach required [for] decision-making”. Most disturbingly, there was no recorded response to the question: “Explain the criteria used to determine high-priority projects.” Silly question really – the Weatherill team has determined these in liaison with those private bodies that stand to gain, and the Strategy has been duly written to give the plans legal standing when tested against resistance. At the beginning of the agenda paper prefacing the Strategy, statements said: “Note that the … Strategy is not costed and does not represent a financial commitment” and “Notes that a detailed implementation plan that will address governance arrangements … and identifying partnerships and funding opportunities will be developed in 2016.” But only after it has been ‘consulted’ and signed off. Consultation ends February 26: to comment, go to yoursay.adelaidecitycouncil.com. South Australians are conservative people. They’ve witnessed years of dud government proposals spruiking use of public land based on fibs, promises and ‘creative’ statistics. A prospectus proposing a sudden growth plan on public land but which is bankrupt of crucial explanatory detail, governance arrangements, cost-benefit analysis, a proposed operating budget and long-term cost management forecasts – plus the all-important risk analyses – would usually get short shrift. This one will establish the legal guidelines for what is to follow across Adelaide’s most valuable city asset. Town Hall will almost certainly sign off soon. Only in Adelaide. And where is the state opposition? Still on the beach, it seems.