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Fixing Sydney is a national priority that mustn’t be derailed

18 July 2011 961 views No Comment

SYDNEY Lord Mayor Clover Moore has offered a lesson to Australia’s other cities. Her campaign against traffic congestion, climate change and alcohol-fuelled violence is bold and commendable. She might not be popular with everyone, especially those with vested interests such as the big liquor industries, but her aim is true: to create a better-functioning, safer global city that is more attractive to residents, workers, visitors and tourists.

Moore has been rounded on by some media and by the new NSW Government for her outspokenness and for Sydney City Council’s recent decision to substitute, in all policy documents, the term ”invasion” for ”European arrival”. She has also been criticised for her twin roles as Lord Mayor and Independent MP for the state seat of Sydney. Yet even her fiercest critics cannot doubt she has the city’s best interests at heart.

In trying to deal with the huge problem of congestion, Moore is working with the state and federal governments to ensure Sydneysiders get the integrated traffic system they deserve. Sydney’s continued status as a global city depends on this. Moore and her council are trying to improve public transport and beef up more sustainable transport options such as walking and cycling. The NSW Government is responsible for public transport while Sydney Council is playing a supporting role with its bicycle network, which connects places where people live, work and enjoy entertainment through an ever-growing network of safe bike paths. Under Moore’s guidance, the council has also opened up the city’s nightlife to public scrutiny.

Moore wants to create a vibrant but safe night-time economy and open all parts of the city to people of all ages, seven nights a week. A two-month long public engagement process on that subject, with input from the community and industry, has recently finished.

And for the first time in Australia, a cost-benefit analysis to measure the economic value of a city’s nightlife, as well as the economic costs, is now under way.

Research on how many people use Sydney’s night-time areas, what attracts them, levels of economic diversity and transport use, as well as measurement of levels of anti-social behaviour is also being compiled. The final piece of research is a review by renowned night-time economy expert Phil Hadfield, of Leeds University in Britain. Hadfield will assess international evidence about what can make cities such as Sydney safe at night. This will range from liquor outlet density to economic diversity measures, public-space design and service, regulatory measures, and a cost-benefit assessment of the cultural, crime, and health effects of alcohol use in the city.

It’s a massive body of work supporting Moore’s vision of transforming the NSW capital’s future nightlife into one focused on so much more than drinking. It’s about increasing entertainment choices for everyone in a secure and safe environment. Presently, 8 per cent of Australia’s economic growth occurs in the City of Sydney’s jurisdiction, and the night-time economy is a key contributor. About 14 per cent of all businesses in Sydney are food and drink-related. Sydney has more than 1900 licensed premises; 20 per cent are hotels and clubs, 70 per cent are restaurants or cafes and 10 per cent are bottle shops and wholesale liquor outlets. If Sydney’s night-time economy is going to change for the better in the next 20 years, it must be asked how best to stop (or at least curtail) the anti-social behaviour associated with the concentration of 24/7 licensed premises in key parts of Sydney. These are the hard questions this new policy will address.

The consultation to date has included many of the big players in town: the owners and manager of pubs, clubs and bars; the retailers who work in the city; the transport providers; the police who are responsible for maintaining law and order, as well as our safety; plus the hospital workers who see first-hand the damaging effects of the misuse of alcohol and other drugs. The night-time economy is undoubtedly an economic boon to the city, but the huge costs of alcohol-related problems in terms of policing, hospital admissions, waste and cleansing, violence and anti-social behaviour cannot be ignored.

At each of the five community forums and the three focus groups conducted during the consultation process, participants called for significantly more non-alcohol related night-time activities.

Sydney residents wanted a diversity of events to attract them to the city including more late-night dining, and for existing facilities such as bookshops, hairdressers and galleries to open later at night. Improvements to the transport system are high on the wish list, too: participants called for shuttle buses, 24-hour train and bus services and better pedestrian paths in the Sydney of the future. The Council’s focus on sustainable transport has been applauded by most participants at the forums and online. The 5000 visitors to its online forum reinforced the workshop findings. They want more transport options, fewer alcohol-related activities, and new activities to attract more people to the city for longer periods. Support for more open spaces for people to sit, talk and relax in the CBD has also been popular. This is already on the cards.

Sydney Council wants to transform George Street into a world-class light rail, shopping and pedestrian boulevard linked to three new public squares at Circular Quay, Town Hall and Central Station. Calls for increased free community events and festivals have also been repeated throughout the consultation. Crucial to Moore’s vision for Sydney is to ensure that this bold new economic and cultural vision becomes a reality. Certainly, much of the need for regulatory reform falls outside the powers of the City of Sydney Council. But Moore is not hiding from the fact that achieving improvement in all crucial areas requires coordinated support from federal, state and municipal authorities.

The citizens of Sydney have spoken and they have found a relentless champion in Moore. Now it’s up to all levels of government to step up to the plate.

Ross Fitzgerald is an emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and the author of 34 books, most recently his memoir, My name is Ross: an alcoholic’s journey. The Canberra Times, 18 July 2011