SME renewal & Oxford St - Australia's very own 'ground-hog day'

SMEA was commissioned back in 2015 to assess the historical planning impact - ad hoc incremental approach to planning policy - on SMEs along one of Sydney's most iconic streets, Oxford St. At the time over 80 retail premises laid vacant from the CBD through to the SCG. The GFC had well gone and retail was back on it's feet, and yet, the main arterial route between Sydney's famous precincts and suburbs was uninspiring and dying a slow economic death.

We were asked to develop a methodology to analyse both micro and macro constraints and as part of the brief, devise a plan that would rejuvenate the entire stretch. We knew there were complex issues to address, but the plan we devised was an exceptional one. It made complete economic sense to many and the multiplier effect - potential to deliver serious economic benefit - was clearly evidenced. It was also 'sexy', easily understood and importantly, it focussed on and bolstered the community. As we know with planning policy, if we get public transport, retail and residential infill right, you can't lose.

The outcome - It was ironic to think that the changes needed and that we proposed to rejuvenate Oxford St would be curtailed by the very people they benefitted - finance institutions, developers, banks and wealthy land owners. Key Sydney Councillors loved our findings - one even said "... if we could get this right, you are looking at the next Sydney Lord Mayor". They agreed with the solutions, but failed to muster the political courage to start the conversation.

Summary - In our view pretty lights and transitory 'thrill seeker' type events that are linked to the electoral cycle are a poor substitute for well thought through policy that delivers long-term economic growth and community benefit. ( I could use the word 'sustainability' there but it's been done to death). Policy makers - when it comes to linking planning policy with SMEs - consistently fail to see the value of doing so for the local community. It's called policy substance and the lack therefore presents a very real 'ground hog day' moment for modern Australia (by Ground Hog I mean we keep revisiting the same mistakes day after day).

I say 'ground hog' because we've lost the art of long-term courageous policy thinking. The likes of Premier Eric Reece in Tasmania invested in Hydro not because he thought it was sexy and helped him in the polls, but because he knew it would benefit generations. John Bradfield was no different - a pioneer, instrumental in the design of Sydney's rail network and bridge. Bradfield built rail - billion dollar infrastructure in todays dollars - to vacant land, because he knew one day that would be Western Sydney. He's been proven right yet again with the State Government approving a billion tunnel under Middle Harbour to alleviate traffic congestion. Bradfield wanted a rail line to run from North Sydney right through the Northern Beaches, but they said no at the time.

Oxford St needs an integrated plan, but we doubt it will ever happen. Vivid is a spectacle, but it's not a solution to long term policy neglect. When the crowds leave, the problems remain. The answer rather resides with leaders who push aside the electoral cycle in favour of taking a long-term, selfless and courageous view. It's called substance and we are all crying out for it.

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