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A Fair Go For The West? Capital accumulation, urban planning, and the Greater Sydney Commission

by Riki Scanlan on March 22, 2018

How can we best account for the recent formation of Sydney’s metropolitan planning authority, the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC)?

This question guided my Honours research last year into the latest evolution of Sydney’s planning regime. My argument situates the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) as a strategic intervention by an urban class alliance with the objective of reproducing an accumulation strategy within Sydney. This urban class alliance is primarily composed from financial, knowledge-intensive, and property fractions of capital. To reproduce their conditions for accumulation, they need the GSC to reregulate urban planning with the objective of bolstering Sydney’s competitive advantage vis-à-vis global circuits of capital. In so doing, a fresh round of neoliberal logic is embedded into the Sydney planning regime. Two crucial features of this logic are the further de-democratisation of urban space and the subsumption of distributional and ecological outcomes into the accumulation process, where these outcomes are met only to the extent that it benefits urban fractions of capital.

I situated my research within the tradition of critical urban theory stemming from the neo-Marxist revival of urban political economy in the 1970s. I grounded my research on the spatial insights into the process of capital accumulation of David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre, and Neil Smith. They maintain that the process of urbanisation must be understood as internally related to the process of capitalism. This insight demands a recognition of the relation between urban politics and the urban economy: evolutions in the form and spaces of urban statehood occur within the conditioning situation of urban capital accumulation which, in turn, is conditioned by global uneven and combined development. To mobilise this account of urban statehood, I relied on the state-theoretical contributions of James O’Connor, Bob Jessop, and Neil Brenner. The state must be understood as constrained by two contradictory imperatives of accumulation and legitimation: these imperatives form the basic terrain of the state, upon which the historical evolution of its institutional geography develops through a contested process of political struggle.

‘The arc of capital’

I tested my theoretical position against the recent formation of the Greater Sydney Commission in the context of Sydney’s economic position relative to the global economy. The urban economy in the 21st Century is characterised by global interurban competition, where cities are understood to compete against each other for highly mobile and transnational flows of capital investment. While territorial competitiveness is arguably an ideological construction, it nonetheless plays a highly disciplining role over urban statehood. Sydney’s accumulation strategy is centred on the ‘Global Economic Corridor’ or what I termed the ‘Arc of Capital’. My research detailed widespread academic agreement, as well as empirical evidence, that shows Sydney’s economy has shifted in the last twenty years towards ‘knowledge-intensive’ sectors: finance, property, and business services sectors and related industries, which form the core of Sydney’s accumulation strategy.

I argued, however, that this accumulation strategy was producing spatial tensions within Sydney: particularly, the all-too-familiar housing crisis and the turmoil of road and public transport. These tensions are driven by the spatial centralisation of capital within a few sectors of the urban economy, located in the ‘Arc of Capital’. Since these problems threaten the competitive advantage of Sydney vis a vis global circuits of capital, there is a general incentive for fractions of capital to form an urban class alliance with the objective of strategically interceding in the regulation and production of urban space. I traced the mobilisation of this class alliance through a media campaign run by The Daily Telegraph, titled “A Fair Go For The West.” This media campaign posed Sydney’s problems against a set of demands on the state, including the formation of a metropolitan planning authority. By legitimating their proposals as means for ‘geographic justice’, but buttressed by a basic faith in market operations and business-as-usual, the range of acceptable policy solutions was constrained within a neoliberal logic.

I then turned my analysis directly to the production of state space through the spatial form of the GSC. I argued that its formation introduced a scalar hierarchy within Sydney’s planning regime, characterised by a de-democratisation of urban space: a classic example of neoliberal regulation. Introducing such a scalar hierarchy diminishes the capacity of local government to resist the reproduction of urban space in the image of capital, which was a long-standing objective of property developers. Moreover, it strategically privileges development that is attuned to the putative interests of Sydney, meaning the interests of its core accumulation strategy. This structural bias to the interests of capital is reinforced by another long-standing objective of the introduction of “impartial experts” in development assessment panels, the GSC itself, and advisory bodies to the GSC. Yet my thesis argued that urban economics and planning is always-already political – that the concept of impartial expertise is a smokescreen concealing an underlying normative stance.

I showed that this underlying normative stance of the GSC is defined through its triad of principles: productivity, liveability, and sustainability. I reframed these principles as a set of accumulation, distributional, and ecological outcomes. The GSC argues that maximising any given principle requires maximising each of the others. However, my argument shows that the GSC operates to make ‘liveability’ and ‘sustainability’ functional for capital accumulation. The GSC conceives of distributional and ecological outcomes in terms of making (some) spaces liveable for (high-skill) workers, on the basis that ‘liveable’ places are required to attract labour (and capital investment), which is necessary to maintain Sydney’s accumulation strategy. This amounts to a policy of gentrification.

My analysis of the GSC, then, paints a dire portrait of future urban development in Sydney. My research allows us to recognise that the GSC is not a ‘Fair Go’ for the West. If anything, it is a ‘Fair Go’ for capital. Yet the possibilities of urban social movements as we have seen spark up across the globe across the last decade remind us that all is not lost, that progressive change is possible, even when the odds appear stacked against us. As Frank Stilwell reminds us: “Progress is possible, albeit not on a terrain of our own choosing.”

Riki Scanlan
Riki Scanlan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Economy. Their preferred pronouns are they/them/theirs. Their PhD research currently focusses on the intersection of debates around planetary urbanisation and housing.

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