The Guardian 4 May, 2005

Massive profits from public land

The Howard government is clearing the way for approval of huge developments on airport land under Commonwealth control. The issue has been highlighted by plans put forward by the lessee of Sydney Airport, the Sydney Airport Corporation (SAC), and approved last week by federal Transport Minister John Anderson. The airport site is bigger than some local government areas, and development as planned would in effect encircle the airport proper with a privately-owned suburb.

Anderson approved a huge enlargement of the existing international terminal car park at the airport. The plan also envisages development of four areas within the airport boundaries, with construction of up to 240,000 square metres of extra office space, as well as massive new retail and accommodation facilities, over the next 20 years.

Even though the airport operations have been privatised, and the facilities leased to the companies concerned, the airport land is still government-owned.

As such it is a massive profit bonanza for developers from publicly-owned land. However, the proposal is dwarfed by the long-term plans of the SAC, which sees ultimate development up to 13 times its current size.

The approval process does not involve local councils, which means there are no open development hearings, and no opportunities for residents or interested parties to lodge objections.

The proposal has been bitterly attacked by both state and local governments as incompatible with the well-being of residents of most of inner Sydney.

Major developments have also been proposed for Brisbane airport, and doubtless similar plans are in the pipeline for other airports.

This situation has arisen firstly because of privatisation itself, which has handed to private interests huge tracts of airport land with the potential to make vast development profits. Most of the development currently envisaged is focused squarely on areas of profit maximisation and has little if anything to do with airline operations.

The legislation covering development on airport land predates airport privatisation, and was originally intended to apply to facilities built for, owned and operated by the government – in short, real public assets.

However, the legislation has never been altered to make prospective private developers subject to a rigorous approval process.

The Howard government often goes through the motions of seeking local government approval for non-leased areas, but when push comes to shove, under the legislation the federal government can use its overriding powers to approve development for both leased or non-leased government land.

And the Howard government has proved itself all too willing to accede to private developers’ requests. This is reflected in its master plan for Sydney airport, which blindly follows the dogma that infinitely bigger is infinitely better.

There appears to be virtually no acknowledgement of other issues of fundamental importance, e.g. that there should be a second airport. The current airport is far too close to heavily-populated areas and potentially highly dangerous industrial facilities, including the Kurnell oil refinery. There are other issues relating to noise and pollution for inner Sydney residents. And one major accident could cut Sydney off from most aviation contact with the rest of the world.

The airport development plans have been attacked by both local and state governments, and by community organisations. The NSW Minister for Planning, Craig Knowles, likened the airport, as envisaged in the 20-year plan, to a Vatican City.

This is, of course, a superb case of the pot calling the kettle black. The NSW government can already resume control of a development application, either at the request of the local government or the developer concerned.

Moreover, they can step in and take over, if they feel that a development is of state significance, or for a number of other reasons. They have already done so on a number of occasions, such as the notorious Fox Studios lease, at the housing development at the former Prince Henry Hospital site, and more recently in the megalomaniac plan for development of the Redfern area.

Knowles himself has recently held confidential talks with business leaders regarding bypassing local government in seeking approval for major developments. It would seem that the NSW government’s real concerns about the Federal government’s airport development plans are that the feds are muscling in on their territory, rather than that the community is under threat.

The Carr Labor government’s often highly secretive actions regarding development approvals have also come under fire from business. However, this in turn seems to be motivated by a belief that certain firms are not getting a fair slice of the action.

Local councils to mount challenge

Of far more genuine interest are moves by the Australian Mayoral Aviation Council (AMAC), a coalition of local governments whose municipalities border on major airports, to mount a constitutional challenge concerning current Commonwealth law and airport development.

AMAC believes that it is unconstitutional for the Commonwealth to protect developers under the existing legislation, which was intended to apply to the primary purpose of airports, i.e. aviation, and that the legislation should not enable the Commonwealth to effectively sell off its development “shield” to a private entity.

The Mayor of the Council of the City of Botany Bay, Ron Hoenig, recently told an AMAC gathering that “… an airport, like any other industry or piece of infrastructure, is part of its community. It has no special right, no entitlements.”

Let’s hope that view comes to prevail. Otherwise the protections won against unsympathetic development over decades will be lost, and it will be a case of the sky’s the limit for developers, beginning with the house next door to you.

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