11 Sep, 2010 04:00 AMOn the night of the state election, after an 8 per cent swing against Labor and the loss of one of its key ministers, Premier Mike Rann promised a new path.
“We have to listen to the message of the people of this state and we will listen, and we will reconnect with the people of this state in an energised, positive way.”
That was in March. In August, Planning Minister Paul Holloway labelled as “misguided” people thinking he might reverse a hugely unpopular Government rezoning scheme to quadruple the size of their Adelaide Hills town.
“They might not like it but if they didn’t want it, perhaps they should have had this debate 30 years ago when Mt Barker was a little place of 2000 people,” he said.
Under Mr Holloway’s vision, Mt Barker could have up to 75,000 residents when farmland is rezoned from rural to residential.
Every day of every week, foundations are being poured for a new house. Every day, another house is finished and handed to its owners or put up for sale. And every day, yet more productive agricultural land is being bulldozed, the precious fertile topsoil stripped, and the city encroaches and swallows the country.
“Yes, it seems they take the topsoil away in some of these new housing developments,” says campaigner Carol Bailey. “Then when someone buys the house and wants to grow a garden, they have to go to a landscape supplier to buy it back.”
Mt Barker was once a picturesque little settlement – the township was laid out in 1840 – surrounded by undulating hills and plains which supported a rich wheat, sheep, beef and dairying industry. Its nickname was the “Cream Bowl”, and the annual Cream Bowl Festival culminated in the crowning of the winning bovine. Old-timers still tell the story of Adelaide writer Max Fatchen, who crowned the winner, kissed the cow and then the milk-maid, in that order.
But the dairying industry has dried up now. The housing industry has taken over, and it has done so at the request of developers. There was no call from the Mt Barker Council for such rapid growth, no pleas from local businesses or from existing residents. But 1,300 hectares of farmland will disappear under concrete slabs. That’s an area bigger than Adelaide’s CBD, including North Adelaide and the parklands.
Ancient barns packed with last year’s hay, farm sheds and dams, creeks meandering through eucalyptus and wattle forests are being replaced with bitumen and brick.
“That creek,” points Ms Bailey as she shows a visitor the district, “will be turned into a metropolitan concrete culvert. Then the water will be collected and sold to Hillgrove Resources for its mine at Strathalbyn. It’s being turned from a living creek into a saleable commodity.
“That’s not why people live in Mt Barker. This is a small town in a rural environment. Soon we’ll have to gas the corellas like they do down at Strathalbyn. They put food down for the corellas, then quickly cover them up with a huge tarp and inject gas under it. The corellas have been chewing on man-made buildings, so they’re killed.
“We’ve got sulphur-crested cockatoos, five species of parrots. Ring-tailed possums and brush-tailed ones. They all want to nest in the old gums. There’s a black mountain duck – they nest in tree hollows.”
The mountain duck feeds in pastures, cultivated crops and shallow water. The ducks will move out as the people move in.
How has it happened that a small township is being turned into one of SA’s biggest towns?
The Independent Weekly has a letter written by Mr Holloway in which it is clear that the idea came from the development industry – not the local community, government planners or parliamentarians.
“Following an approach from the consortia representing land-owner interests, I have agreed that they undertake finer-grained investigations into the merits and suitability of the subject land for residential and other complementary and supportive urban uses and prepare draft documentation including appropriate draft development plan policy and guide development for my consideration,” he wrote.
“The only reason this Mt Barker rezoning is going ahead is because a group of developers approached the minister and asked for it,” says Greens MLC Mark Parnell.
So now developers, with the Government’s imprimatur, are planning for people but not for the services that people need. The Mt Barker railway connection to Adelaide, which had served the community since 1886, was ripped up 15 years ago. There is still one line: the Steam Ranger, a coal-fired choo-choo which runs to Victor Harbor on winter weekends. Mt Barker’s public transport system is historic.
There are buses to the capital, but a town of 70,000 emptying its commuters into Adelaide’s urban road network through one keyhole, the Cross Road-Glen Osmond Road intersection, will create a bottleneck that will make a Stelvin Cap look capacious.
Instead of being an easy 40-minute drive from Adelaide, Mt Barker will be a traffic jam.
So who are these developers? In Parliament, Mr Holloway mentioned the five as being Dean Day/Day Corp, Walker Corporation, Fairmont Homes, Urban Pacific and Land Services Pty Ltd.
However, in a letter from developers’ lawyers sent to Mr Parnell, the five are listed was DayCorp Pty Ltd, Mount Barker Developments No.1 Pty Ltd, Calomba Pty Ltd, C & L Investments Pty Ltd and Fairmont Group Pty Ltd.
Holloway said Connor Holmes as “not a member of the consortium”, but he did reveal that it was doing all the planning consultancy work for the consortium.
A company search of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission shows
Mount Barker Developments No.1 Pty Ltd as an entity of Walker Corp and Calomba Pty Ltd associated with Panto Zekevich through his Land Services Proprietary Ltd, or Landser.
That leaves C & L Investments Pty Ltd. The most logical candidate on the ASIC register is a small scale property developer Colin Steinert, but it is not certain what link, if any, there is between him (if he is actually the C & L Investments mentioned in the lawyer’s letter to Mr Parnell) and Urban Pacific.
“We have heard a rumour that Urban Pacific may not be involved any longer in the consortium, but we simply don’t know,” Mr Parnell said.
Mr Parnell will return to court on Monday to fight developers who are trying to stop the release of their correspondence to Mr Holloway, requesting the Mt Barker development plan amendment.
The State Ombudsman has already ruled that the sensitive documents should not be kept hidden.
Since the middle of last year, Mr Parnell has been chasing under FOI correspondence from developers behind the Mt Barker re-zoning – the Mt Barker Consortium – to Mr Holloway.
The Department of Planning and Local Government rejected the FOI request and Mr Parnell eventually went to the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman found in Mr Parnell’s favour and ordered the department release the documents. The developers are now taking Mr Parnell to the District Court to over-turn the Ombudsman’s ruling.
“When the Government clearly goes against the wishes of the local council and residents, surely the community has a right to know why,” Mr Parnell said.
“Yet the developers behind the Mt Barker DPA are taking an elected member of parliament to court to stop crucial documents coming to light before the rezoning comes into operation.
“When it comes to highly unpopular planning decisions there needs to be much greater transparency, not less. That’s why these documents are so important.”
Mr Holloway agrees some people think the relationship between Government and developers can sometimes be seen as too close, but he believes that perception is wrong.
“This public perception is fuelled by anti-development groups whose objective is to stifle any growth,” Mr Holloway told The Independent Weekly.
“These people would like everyone to believe that rezonings are driven solely by developers as it suits their narrow world view. The 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide is fundamentally about strategic planning that delivers the best result for existing residents and future homeowners. Rezoning of land is demand driven by South Australians who are looking for affordable housing close to where they live and work. Developers have a crucial role to play as project managers, delivering affordable housing through well-serviced, master-planned developments.
“I have a limited but appropriate working relationship with individual developers. In fact, I have more contact with the development industry as represented by organisations such as the Property Council of Australia, the Urban Development Institute of Australia, Master Builders Association of SA and the Housing Industry Association. Similarly I have a cooperative relationship with the Local Government Association and local councils throughout SA. All rezonings go through an extensive and very transparent consultation process.”
Mt Barker Council is opposed to the Government’s mega-plan, but denies it is anti-development or that its objective is to “stifle any growth”.
Mt Barker mayor Ann Ferguson supports increasing the town’s population, but council has its own plan for medium density housing on a smaller area of land.
“I think it’s quite irresponsible of these people not to listen to what we’re saying,” she insisted.
What the Mt Barker population is saying is a loud “no”. More than nine in 10 people who responded to the Government’s plan did so in the negative.
“Already it’s caused social dislocation and made enemies of friends,” Ms Bailey said.
“Since the plan’s release properties that were worth $170,000 were overnight valued at over half a million dollars. Third and fourth-generation farmers are realising they can make more by selling their land than they can by growing food. Family inheritances are going, and that’s causing fights between brothers and sisters.
“Even people who don’t want to sell their farms to developers might be forced to, if their rates – now assessed as rural – go up to residential.
“This is now a community divided by enmity. The sense of loss is greater than the fast personal gain which might be made by developers, or people selling their land to developers.”
Mr Holloway is unrepentant. “It is a pace of growth that can accommodate additional homes and allow the Government and the private sector the time to invest in the required infrastructure as and when it is needed,” he said.
“The easiest thing to do in politics is to do nothing, to sit back and allow Adelaide to grow in an ad hoc way. To embark on a major exercise like the 30-Year Plan is a risky venture but it is one that needs to be done. To attempt major change of this scale is challenging and has no doubt drawn its fair share of critics. Without a 30-Year Plan, Adelaide’s growth would be subject to incremental creep, which is not in anyone’s interests. However much I may be attacked now and my motives questioned, at least the introduction of the 30-Year Plan has encouraged people to talk passionately about the options for the future of our city.”
And talk they do, but there is barely a skerrick of a suggestion that Mike Rann’s election night speech – “We have to listen to the message of the people” – is more than election night euphoria.
So the last word will go to Minister Holloway to critics of his plan. “I’m not going to be deterred by that. We just have to move forward. We can’t afford to do anything else and that’s what I’ll be doing anyway.”