Montefiore: Government Plans to Change Park Lands Forever

A key park lands masterplan only five years old that was written to protect and preserve the landscape typologies of Adelaide’s 727 ha of green belt is to be torn up as government plans gather pace to change the character of our unique park lands forever.

Sir Monty’s reading of history tells him that when power is consolidated in the hands of one person whose political bluster controls the will of many others, regrettable determinations can follow. When Deputy Premier John Rau retires, he will carry an unparalleled record for exercising more power over key Adelaide features than any previous minister in his portfolio. His record for pushing through major change across Adelaide’s built landscape shows more change in five years than the previous 25. Setting aside his highly controversial residential and commercial planning amendments – which have brought to the city and inner-city suburbs a new skyline of apartment towers unthinkable in scale five years ago – in 2013, state cabinet set sights on a revolutionary building plan for the city’s unique, open park lands. These world-renowned green vistas have been under the care and control of Town Hall for more than a century. That’s now set to change, as a government park lands takeover quietly progresses and Rau prepares to announce his first ‘Park Lands Demonstration Project’, to cost $5m, one quarter of a $20m piggy bank announced three years ago. In 2013, nothing specific was identified and until now firewalls of Town Hall policy protected and preserved the character of the park lands. But welcome to state administration in the 21st century. In Adelaide, state Labor wallows in confidence, as a state opposition flounders against a tactical, well-funded tribal party machine, supported by an embedded state public sector of bureaucratic allegiances, in every agency and board that matters. The future shaping of Adelaide’s park lands character by a new commercial development policy (badged as hubs of sport infrastructure) has taken time, because so many conventions have had to be overwhelmed. The Adelaide Park Lands Authority, set up by Labor legislation in 2005 (but still only a subsidiary of Town Hall, and thus easily infected by at-odds state policy), had sat quietly while the state’s Capital City Committee (CCC) drew up a radical new parks recreation building plan. It’s effectively a sub-committee of state cabinet whose minutes are secret. It disguised its parks plan as coming from a new Project Advisory Group within the Authority. Last year council policy documentation rigour was progressively stripped, lowering the status of existing Town Hall visitation and leasing and licensing policies to below that of the new CC Committee Strategy. This occurred silently, because the media understand nothing of procedural complexities and reported nothing. But as with any metaphorical serial murders, some bodies are more difficult to dispose of than others. The removal from the policy hierarchy of the expensive 2011 Adelaide Park Lands Landscape Master Plan, which took much expert work to finalise, is perhaps the most symbolic of the murders thus far. This is because it was written to complement a 2010 Park Lands Management Strategy but, as a February 2016 Adelaide Review Montefiore article observed, its proposed replacement by the new 2015 Strategy will introduce a policy virus infection featuring new, uncosted and poorly explained recreation development concepts across the park lands, adding new car parking sites and multiple kiosk opportunities. This ‘vision’ so contrasts the 2011 landscape document that it has to go. The 2011 policy said, “We honour and respect our parks’ landscapes”. The new Strategy says: “If we are to build new sports hubs on our parks, the landscape will and must change” – a profound difference. To quote the 2011 Landscape vision, now described as ‘redundant’: “The location, size and historic care and preservation of the Park Lands has provided present and future generations with a great landscape legacy…” So yesterday! Lest cynics suspect emotional claptrap in this scenario, consider these facts. The strategy – the policy blueprint that will define subsequent major changes to the city’s park lands development plan allowances – only weeks ago was still not endorsed by Town Hall, some six months after the Authority passed it on – a sure sign of a very hot potato. Public consultation attracted 75 written submissions and 46 Town Hall ‘Yoursay’ website responses. The dominant response (by non-private-sporting-interest observers who sought no advantage in extracting asset acquisition from the plan) was negative. Many reflected serious alarm. Moreover, no respondent knew that Town Hall had already begun budgeting for a ‘done deal’ ahead of the Authority’s and its own endorsement, allocating $200,000 for 2016–17 “to support the master concept planning for these projects as a first step towards implementation and securing external funding”. One of the Authority-related queries about the Strategy late in 2015 was that the seven building hub and car parking provision concepts tagged for completion by 2018 had emerged as randomly chosen, sport-linked recreational precincts (enthusiastically supported by private sports groups likely to benefit). This was opposed to ‘evidence-based policy’, that is, parks’ policy based on an articulated, costed and rational case for change. In finance papers, Town Hall also demanded same but its risk analysis people concluded there was none: “The absence of the proposed specific research and technical input results in assumption-based decision-making, rather than evidenced-based policy.” In other words, someone political is just making it up, is tagging public land to benefit fortunate private random parties, and may support their projects with public money. The pace recently quickened. The May 9 Authority agenda recommended immediate adoption of the new Strategy, crucial to legitimise the looming announcement by John Rau (this occurring before Town Hall – the custodian of the park lands – had debated or endorsed it or had been told what John Rau would announce). That bid was stalled. But it successfully moved to rescind a key sticking point – the 2011 Adelaide Park Lands Landscape Master Plan, whose contrasting policy focus remained a major spanner in the works. When bodies get thrown overboard – in a big hurry without transparent explanation – there is always a reason. Adelaide readers beware.