BY PAUL PAECH
From cab-fares to cabbages, there’s value in measuring.
Trapping mercury in a thin glass tube and measuring what it did tells us all that on January 6, Sydney had its hottest day in almost 80 years, and the autumnal sunburnt leaves on the streets confirm the harsh reality of that measure.
Politicians of course trot out endless measurements (past) and numerical predictions (future) to support incomprehensible policies.
Measuring is a tool of control too, as when employers identify specific benchmarks for workers, and then use their figures to assess performance.
But in a world where we assume that everything can be measured, it’s crucial to appreciate just how much awkward baggage comes with numbers.
When Britain’s NHS set benchmarks that required hospitals to measure certain activities, like reducing the length of stay of patients, targets were met by sending more patients home earlier. Inevitably, some were dispatched too early, resulting in much greater costs to the system when they required readmission.
Instead of being useful signposts along the way to improved health for their patients, those targets became goals in themselves. Ooops.
Fact is, figures always come with hidden values, with closet assumptions.
Some years back, Waverley Council under Sally Betts decided that elected Councillors weren’t doing the best job of assessing and determining Development Applications, so they passed the job over to the planning department.
In some larger or more controversial cases, they called in an “independent” committee. Because that committee required expertise in planning matters, its members were architects, town planners, and similar—plus one “community representative.”
Being professionally dependent on the property development industry, the committee members weren’t inclined to bite the hands that fed them by rejecting plans from developers that paid their salaries.
As a result, the developers are very happy.
Not so happy are the many thousands of residents whose homes are over-shadowed, whose views are blocked, and whose streets are clogged with cars from those new blocks of flats.
When time came for the planners to assess how well Betts’ system had worked, the report showed a wonderful and measurable improvement in Council’s building approvals system because developments were being approved more quickly, Council’s legal costs were greatly reduced, etc.
Not mentioned at all in the report was the fundamental purpose of Council’s involvement in development in the first place: ie, ensuring sensitive, high-quality, etc., real-life buildings. It totally ignored what was actually going on with new buildings.
This report about Mayor Betts’ great planning success in Waverley was then trumpeted by the State Government to support extension of this wretchedly destructive model throughout the state. It’s vital for the health of local communities that this and other development decision-making be returned to local councils and to local councillors
A couple of years earlier, property magnate Harry Tiguboff told the NSW Liberal Government that the very best thing it could do for NSW was to remove the power of Councils to determine property development.
It’s certainly been very good for Harry!
Harry of course has a very clear measure of the value of development approval, but he more or less side-steps the negative effects of those developments on long-established local communities.
To win the fight to keep our amenity, we need to identify the financial cost of over-development, to measure that loss. Some people have tried to put a price on the collective time that’s wasted when you’re sitting in traffic with, say, fifty other cars outside those clusters of towers that Sally’s delegation allowed, that all the local “Harries” have built.
But how do you put a price on a neighbourhood?
In short: what’s the value of “community”?
The idea of “social capital” attempts to do that, putting a monetary value of the networks of relationships among the people who live and work in a particular society and that enable their society to function effectively.
It’s a really compelling idea that highlights the productive benefits of getting along with each other. Alas, these days, it’s no match for the hard-nosed bottom-line power of property and finance.
Shopping at Hall Street’s Harris Farm may provide a local indicator of how much community cooperation is worth in Bondi.
Here, if you’re able to split your Savoy cabbage with just one other household, you will both have increased your cabbage-purchasing wealth by more than 60%. Sharing it with three more improves everyone’s wealth by 200%.
It’s much the same with celery, pumpkins, etc.
Even in a society that encourages us to out-display ridiculous high-consumption lifestyles on Instagram and Facebook, the alt.reality is that (at Harris Farm anyhow) real-life co-operation pays off handsomely.
The better we get along, the better all our lives will be.
Until Sydney-siders find a way to put a brake on this crazy competitive money-go-round, and start get along with each other, we might as well pack up and head out of town.
Because co-operation is what civilisation is all about.