Scuttlebutt: Vision splendid

Adelaide’s youngest Lord Mayor, Stephen Yarwood, this month celebrates the second anniversary of his rise to prominent public office.

Adelaide’s youngest Lord Mayor, Stephen Yarwood, this month celebrates the second anniversary of his rise to prominent public office.

Of the litany of jargon words favoured by Stephen Yarwood, ‘conversation’, ‘pedestrianisation’ and ‘game-changer’ have been the most reported.

Since winning the job in November 2010, Adelaide has seen much ‘conversation’ emerge from the city council under his name, much of which has been about reducing car congestion, redesigning streets to encourage pedestrians and cycles, and closing side streets to create New York-style daytime corner hubs and foster ‘the evening culture’. But whether any of the activity has been ‘game-changing’ for city ratepayers and workers remains in doubt. The juggernauts, the commercial, retail and hotel traders, still retain an iron grip on the city’s culture, with multi-storey car parks doing busy trade, new ones opening, and late-night or all-night liquor trading stressing police resources to the limit.

As the 2010 election loomed, Yarwood offered ‘new leadership’. “I have a vision for Adelaide’s future,” he announced. The vision actually belongs to a Copenhagen-based firm of architects, but he has embraced it fully. His first two years have featured much symbolism. His media people have excelled in advising him on the power of the political gesture. But his vision is not the same as that which is being pursued by the state government, so there’s a problem. Moreover, for any Adelaide Lord Mayor who professes to have a significant agenda for change, it cannot be made to occur quickly in a conservative city like Adelaide. A vision of a metropolis of cyclists and wired chatterers living and working in a sustainable, pedestrian-focused CBD is at odds with the current commercial reality dictated by the city’s CBD industries. It also heavily depends on a top-class public transport system, which Adelaide hasn’t got, and hasn’t got the money to significantly upgrade. Meanwhile, the city’s northern edge is being pumped with billions of dollars in a government infrastructure building spree, deeply committing Adelaide to a busy all-year schedule of tourism and sport-related events. Yarwood is discovering that, beyond the lunch circuit where everyone is courteously supportive, apart from strategic studies and glossy reports there’s actually not much room to move. If something radical is to happen, there must be a well-articulated plan of action backed by a big budget, and both must link to the specific vision that candidate Yarwood espoused when aspiring to office. A check of his 2010 brochure pledges reveals no such thing – no measureable 2014 targets or ‘key performance indicators’. In fact, many of his 2010 promises floated in a soup of fuzzy motherhood statements – reflecting tactical advice at the time.

Adelaide city has, however, seen substantial other ‘game changers’ during the past two years, most of them driven and funded by the state government, which has been very busy sidestepping traditional conventions, as well as traditional public realm ‘conversations’, in the determination of what gets done, and where. 

What has actually occurred during the Lord Mayor’s tenure is that the city program has been driven by state government priorities, and pursued far more brutally than its earlier, more consultative style. Bloodied by the 2007 rejection of a proposal for permanent infrastructure at the eastern parklands’ Victoria Park, State Cabinet learned its lesson, and recent political tactics reveal a winner-take-all drive. A decision to excise by statute a part of the park lands for a unique, licensed commercial enterprise on public land (Adelaide Oval and car parking acreage), a historical state accomplishment, went through in the early part of Yarwood’s term with barely a council whimper. The statute ended council’s 170-year period of full custodianship of the whole of Adelaide’s (remaining) parklands, and sets a precedent for future administrations. Later, a multi-million-dollar decision to extend the Convention Centre and associated cooling towers north west of the CBD became a harbinger of things to come along Torrens Lake edge, at what will become a $1 billion Riverside development. This will effectively take the city’s focus north, to the water’s edge, a policy vision foreign to the council until 2010. As with the cooling infrastructure, the proposal for a $40 million bridge to the oval was pushed through via a deft government sidestep of the traditional development application procedure that would otherwise have been subject to council assessment and wide public consultation before the decision.

More was to come. In March 2012, a major – and historically unprecedented – government revision of the city’s development plan effectively dismantled height restrictions across the city, allowing for commercial and residential high rise to be built in historic residential precincts as well as along North Adelaide’s O’Connell and Melbourne Streets. A key feature was a new ‘catalyst’ site definition whose declaration silences public participation in development assessment and blocks appeals. The ‘tall buildings’ approach fundamentally contradicts themes in the Yarwood vision, but the development plan revision was welcomed by the Lord Mayor until a councillor and resident backlash months later forced him to accept a majority decision to ask the government to reconsider key aspects of it. 

Yarwood’s position on Adelaide Oval was that it was foolhardy to fight the government. He preferred the ‘work with them rather than fight against them’ principle, popular with public figures keen to avoid a fight. On the major development plan revision, however, reflecting that principle hasn’t had the same public effect. The significant political challenges arising from it could now wedge the council as new developments are announced that are incompatible with the domain in which they are proposed, and the ‘open city’ vision. Placating local constituencies that voted for him in 2010 could prove to be challenging.

Now that the half-way mark has been reached, the gulf between what candidate Yarwood envisioned and what the Lord Mayor is appearing to endorse is becoming clearer. It also is a stage when ‘face saving’ strategies tend to emerge. Yarwood’s efforts have even included saving face for his predecessor by convincing a reluctant council to budget a staggering $24 million over two years for stage 1 of the rebuilding of Victoria Square – a project that his predecessor failed to begin in eight years’ incumbency. That the state government would not assist financially said much about contrasting priorities, especially given that another $75.85 million will be required to complete the task. But failure to convince his fellow councillors so early in his term would have been disastrous. Another challenge, finding another $30 million over four years to refurbish Rundle Mall, has been similarly complicated, but crucial to placate the retail fiefdoms. The city’s shopfront kings still hold a tight grip on city car parking policy and the revenue from nine council-owned multi-storey car parks remains crucial to balancing the $157 million annual budget. Both matters have features that are at odds with Yarwood’s vision about the place of the car in the city – but ironically have ended up becoming the city’s biggest budget items.

So far, questions of leadership and vision remain. Lord Mayors can only lead from the front if everyone is behind them. And they can only deliver a vision if everyone is focusing on it. Considering where the big money is being spent, which vision was it again?


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