Australias's airport privatisations have put profit before public safety and good planning

Essendon Airport, Melbourne. Image: Getty.

February's plane crash at Essendon Airport, in Melbourne, shows the folly of allowing runways to co-exist with commercial development. Tullamarine Airport opened in 1970 partly because of the risk to housing from aircraft at Essendon. Why, then, have authorities allowed extensive new development within Essendon Airport’s boundaries between housing and runways? The Conversation

Between 1997 and 2003, Australia's federal government provided 99-year airport leases to private consortia, raising A$8.5 billion. This process illustrates how privatisation can lead to unaccountable incremental actions and impacts that public authorities didn’t anticipate.

Since then, in effect, lessees have enjoyed the privileged position in Australian planning law of being able to decide their own futures. The exclusion of such large areas as airports from broader metropolitan planning threatens orderly planning on a grand scale.

Planning academics Robert Freestone and Douglas Baker have argued:

The prospect of market opportunities from property development and commercial initiatives was a key factor in the high prices secured for airport leases.

This process was compromised if higher prices than those justified by leases were reciprocated by commercial approvals. Any future development assessment would be predetermined towards approval. This would prevent fair consideration of objections, resulting in a lack of proper scrutiny in the public interest.

Airport business is booming

Commercial development is now integrated with traditional airport operations across Australia. But aside from possible reciprocal financial expectations, privatisation has provided extraordinary bargains to lessees through large capital and operational returns.

Linfox Group and Beck Corporation, for example, made a reported payment in 2001 of $22mn for a lease on 305 hectares of prime inner-urban land at Essendon Airport. They have turned this into a projected $1bn enterprise over the next decade. One-quarter of the airport is leased to commercial tenants.

Essendon is now the largest corporate jet base in Australia. Image: Alec Wilson/flickr/creative commons.

Business zones adjoin or wrap around runways. The plane crashed into a large retail DFO complex. An eight-storey 150-bed hotel, conference centre, a five-storey office block, private hospital, supermarket, auto centre and much else have also been built or are planned. Projected employment in the precinct is 18,000.

Air traffic has expanded significantly too. Essendon is home to executive air, charter, freight, media and regional air services, air ambulance, police and private aircraft. Essendon is Australia’s largest corporate jet base.

All this activity reinforces the public danger from the incompatibility of air and commercial land uses under privatised governance arrangements.


Operators bypass state planning rules

Under the Airports Act, Essendon Airports Pty Ltd must prepare a management plan outlining airport development for 20 years. The privatised management of airports inherited the Commonwealth’s constitutional overriding of state and territory land-use planning provisions. Master plans must only address “consistency” with state and local planning schemes.

However, airport lessees are not required to act on submissions. Essendon Airport Pty Ltd gave “due regard to all written comments”, then forwarded submissions and its master plan to the federal government. The Commonwealth approved the plan in 2014 regardless of broader urban planning considerations.

Victorian government planning policy has attempted to concentrate commercial development in mixed-use centres well served by public transport. Essendon Airport is a classic road-based, out-of-centre location. It was not identified as an activity centre in Melbourne metropolitan planning. But, for 30 years, no Victorian government has shown an appetite for curbing out-of-centre development.

The 2014 metropolitan plan, Plan Melbourne, proposed to “investigate opportunities for... increased development and employment” at Essendon. Airport management submitted a case to the revised metropolitan strategy process for recognition as an activity centre.

State and local authorities originally expressed concern at the proposal to construct the DFO at Essendon Airport. However, more recently, local and state attitudes have changed.

In 2014, the Liberal planning minister, Matthew Guy, announced a new airport employment precinct and a partnership between the developers, Metropolitan Planning Authority and state and local governments. The airport was identified as both a key transport gateway and important commercial area.

Labor Niddrie MP Ben Carroll also welcomed the expansion of commercial activities. Moonee Valley Council expressed concerns but did not oppose the major proposed land uses. Councillors expressed the view that Essendon Fields is “an important economic hub” and a “vibrant business precinct”.

The then federal infrastructure minister, Warren Truss, said in 2015 that:

Airports are now business destinations in their own right and provide a powerful economic engine for their home region and local communities.

In similar language, Essendon Airport chief executive Chris Cowan said that:

Essendon Airport [provides] a unique opportunity to reinforce its activity centre function by realising non-aviation development potential.

Everybody is now speaking from the same script. State and local policy has increasingly become aligned with the Commonwealth helping to further the private interests of airport operators at increasing risk to the public.

Instead, airport governance should redefine Commonwealth responsibilities to its citizens and be integrated with broader metropolitan planning. This ultimately may mean closing down airport operations at Essendon.

Michael Buxton is professor of environment & planning at RMIT University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”