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  • Jim Betts, CEO of Infrastructure NSW.

An Independent View

Jim Betts and Shaun Carter talk health checks, urban transformation and infrastructure investment.

Jim Betts was appointed as CEO of Infrastructure NSW two years ago, following five years as the Secretary of the Victorian Department of Transport and four years as the Director of Public Transport at the Victorian Department of Infrastructure. He was responsible for the delivery of the $38 billion Victorian Transport Plan, the overhaul of Victoria’s legislative framework to integrate the planning of transport and land use, and overseeing construction of the $4.3 billion Regional Rail Link project.

Educated at Oxford, Betts’ 25 year career spans strategic transport planning, infrastructure delivery and structural reform. He explains the role of Infrastructure NSW in the re-making of Greater Sydney to NSW President Shaun Carter.

Jim Betts (JB): We’re a government agency, but we sit at arm’s length from the normal bureaucracies such as transport, which is one of the biggest capital spenders in this state, and we provide an independent view of what the infrastructure priorities for New South Wales should be over the medium and long term.

Our role is principally advisory. We provide a long term view to government on infrastructure priorities over a 20 year time frame, and we’re required to do that every five years. That enables us to look across all the different sectors of infrastructure delivery – transport, water, schools, hospitals, cultural infrastructure, sporting infrastructure – and advise the government on what the priority should be.

We also take projects which the government has decided it wants to pursue or explore and we provide independent health checks on those projects from their inception, through business case development, the procurement process, through delivery and beyond.

We also have a limited role at this stage around project delivery. The big project we’re delivering is the Darling Harbour redevelopment.

Shaun Carter (SC): And going at a pace also.

JB: It’s amazing the rate at which it’s going, it’s a transformative project, but one of the best things about it is it’s not a project that sits in isolation, it’s part of the transformation of the whole western flank of the CBD, including obviously Barangaroo, but also the light rail in George Street, the upgrades to the Wynyard precinct, so it’s great to be part of something which is creating a new place rather than just building a piece of infrastructure.

SC: When you say health checks, Jim, when you’re looking at a project at its inception, is that a cost benefit analysis or a triple bottom line approach?

JB: We’re making sure agencies remain accountable for developing projects, but we provide health checks on them in the sense that we’re making sure relevant considerations are taken into account, that there is a proper analysis of the cost and benefits and the risks associated with projects, that the agency understands what they’re proposing and then can go out and deliver it.

If you think about the infrastructure program in New South Wales – $15 billion plus per annum – that’s a lot of resources being deployed, so it’s important that projects are planned and delivered in the right way.

We work very collaboratively with agencies, we don’t operate like auditors, but we are able to give them, as much as anything, advice on where we think there might be areas that need more attention.

SC: I noticed on your website that there was that spend, $15 billion to $18 billion, but the forecast increase in revenue as a result of that was about $30 billion.

JB: There’s a big payback from it. What we try to identify are infrastructure investments which will provide an enduring dividend to the community.

Generally speaking, for public transport projects the benefit is felt through a more liveable city, better access for commuters into the CBD, more efficient rail services, whatever it might be. We don’t focus only on investments, like toll roads that tend to be self-financing, but we are looking for bigger economic returns to the state.

The bigger set piece exercise that we undertook last year was the updated State Infrastructure Strategy, which provided the government with advice on how it could best spend the proceeds from the electricity network long term lease, and that’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest, so it makes it doubly important that it’s invested in the right way.

SC: I noticed on the website that one of your priorities is to speed up the travel times on the Sydney to Parramatta rail corridor. I remember recently reading that once you get over an hour’s travel distance in one direction, the productivity of a city as a whole drops off dramatically.

JB: Yes. A lot of the story here is about providing better, more efficient infrastructure to connect the city. But an important consideration, from my point of view, is that infrastructure doesn’t just serve a city as it exists, it helps transform land use patterns, it helps transform places. It’s just as important as providing a fast connection between the CBD of Sydney and where people live in the west, as far as possible bringing jobs and people closer together, so that you obviate the need for people to travel those long distances.

The transformative impacts of infrastructure land use are a really important point of consideration for us. When you’re building really mega projects, like say the Sydney Metro or WestConnex, you judge them as much as anything, hard though it is, by the way they’ll reshape the city over a 20 to 30 year period and affect the choices that people make in a free market about where they want to live, and companies deciding where they want to set up business and therefore create jobs.

If you think about Parramatta, it stands as good a chance as any location in any capital city in Australia of becoming a functioning second CBD. It’s important that it does, because if Parramatta takes off in the way we think it will, it will create a big centre for employment that is far closer to where the population growth is going to be in the north-west and south-west, and it provides a hub from which Liverpool and Penrith and other regional centres can develop.

That’s why there is a lot riding on Parramatta and we have a lot to say about cultural infrastructure, transport infrastructure and hospital infrastructure in that location because it is a city-shaping proposition.

SC: I like that approach. A whole community approach to infrastructure – rather than just isolating different elements – which is critical in proper city making.

JB: Absolutely right. Government agencies tend to organise themselves into silos. I know that because I used to run the transport network in Victoria. The holy grail for me is always getting agencies to genuinely collaborate with each other and think about the place that they’re going to leave behind once they’ve gone in and built their infrastructure. It’s very hard to create fantastic places for people to live and work and relax unless you’ve got a genuinely joined-up approach.

Transport agencies, historically, build stuff without really caring about the place and so you need an integrated approach at the planning level, but you also need excellence in design, and design which is sympathetic to human amenity. Otherwise you end up with basically building ugly transport infrastructure, which is very functional and Sydney becomes an easy place to get around, but it’s not the kind of place where you want to live – and that’s what none of us want.

SC: It brings design out of that subjective into the objective. It’s fundamental to our experience as architects. That’s probably a nice little segue into the next question. What is your view of the potential integration of transport and infrastructure planning with land use planning?

JB: Absolutely essential. I believe that they are not just closely related, they are the same thing. As I mentioned, you can’t plan infrastructure unless you know where people are going to live and where people are going to work, because that determines their demand for fundamental things like travel and transport.

Similarly, you can’t shape the urban form effectively merely by beating people over the head with a planning system. If you provide people with high quality transport access they will make their own decisions about where they’re going to live and where they’re going to set up business and that can either be a very sustainable urban form or not. I think they need to be thought of as the same thing, two sides of the same coin, but you don’t necessarily achieve that merely by putting the transport planners and the land use planners in the same bureaucratic agency.

As much as anything, it’s a cultural thing, it’s a mindset about transport planners realising that they are part of a bigger picture and it’s about a long term legacy in terms of liveability and that in turn requires leadership which models collaboration. My experience, both here and in Victoria, is that it really does come down to personal commitment from people in senior positions to get this joined-up thinking really inculcated into the culture.

SC: You mentioned collaboration twice – that your department or your organisation ranges across a number of departments. Do you think the leadership comes from you and getting others in the senior levels to be part of that leadership?

JB: Yes. We’re in an interesting position because on the one hand we are independent, at arm’s length, so that requires us to stand back a bit from the day to day interactions with agencies and keep ourselves at a reasonable distance where we’re able to provide independent advice to ministers. On the other hand really great outcomes in terms of infrastructure planning in New South Wales rely on agencies working together and we want to be part of that and we want to provide a space in which agencies can have discussions about how they join forces and make somewhere like Parramatta a terrific place to live.

On the one hand we want to be independent, on the other hand we want to be collaborative and that’s a line which we walk on a regular basis.

SC: It’s a lovely fine line.

JB: It is. We can’t afford to be captured by the agencies, and indeed we would lose a lot of the value of our organisation if we were captured by those agencies. They value our coming in and casting a fresh pair of eyes over what they do. On the other hand, if we simply took a very stand-offish position and purist approach and said: ‘We’re only going to perform an assurance role and we won’t talk to you between times’, we wouldn’t get the knowledge and we wouldn’t have the networks and relationships that enable us to be influential.

SC: You need that buy in, don’t you?

JB: You do. On the one had we want to be independent, on the other hand we want to be influential. I think we’re succeeding in putting ticks in both boxes at the moment.

SC: Do you find initially that the concept of change is difficult but as they get into it they start to realise the potential?

JB: Yes.

SC: Because they’re great transformative projects, all of these projects.

JB: Yes they are. Smart people out there in these agencies who are taking on major commitments, like the Sydney Metro, often come to us and say: “We value the collaborative relationship with Infrastructure New South Wales and one thing we would like you to do is give us some independent advice, check on whether we’re doing the right thing, are our assumptions sound?” They get it, they realise we’re evaluating them.

SC: That’s your true value. They start seeing your ability to help them do their job.

JB: We also find there are other government agencies that are equally keen to promote a joined-up approach. The Government Architect’s Office is one, they’re passionate about making sure that government’s interventions through infrastructure are really well designed and produce great outcomes. The Department of Planning & Environment has a blueprint for land use in Greater Sydney and realises that it can only make that a reality if it’s supported by good infrastructure planning.

There are a number of agencies out there, not just us, who are very keen to pursue a collaborative approach.

SC: I think that’s going right into the next question. What agencies do you think have a role in strategic planning for the Sydney Metropolitan Area?

JB: I think the easy answer is to say virtually every agency in government has a role to do that, whether it’s in water or cultural infrastructure or in transport. All of them need to realise that the vision for the city Is relevant to them in the exercise of their functions, and sometimes that’s a hard vision to see when you’re focused on managing the day to day and managing the expectations of an increasingly demanding community. But looking up and seeing that big picture is really important.

Clearly the Department of Planning has a key role to play as the stewards of land use, they critically depend particularly on Transport for NSW and we and other agencies and the Government Architect have the opportunity, which is sometimes unavailable to other agencies, to see the whole picture and identify where the gaps are emerging.

SC: Because you can see across different agencies. We talk about Sydney being a global city and about our competitiveness with other global cities. There’s this great thirst for skilled labour. Your education is in Oxford. We’re very fortunate to have you here, this is obviously the traction that brings you to Sydney. But if we don’t have the best housing, the best infrastructure and nice places to live in the smart people we’re trying to attract might think, “Yeah, I might go to Melbourne or I might go to San Francisco.” So that’s the competitiveness we’re up against.

JB: ‘Competitive’ is in a sense an aggressive term, but in fact the competitiveness of Sydney comes from Sydney being a great place, which is something that we all want and that comes down especially to the things that you’ve described, but also for instance to cultural infrastructure, to having a fantastic world class art gallery, a fantastic library. Obviously we’ve got an opera house which is absolutely iconic on the global level, but there’s more to Sydney, and there needs to be more to Sydney than the harbour and the opera house.

Sometimes I feel that we’ve relied on those huge natural assets and maybe neglected some other important parts of the jigsaw. I look for instance at our competitor city in Melbourne, which I obviously know very, very well, and the work that they’ve done, through successive governments over a quarter of a century, to build up their cultural assets and build up their sports precinct, immediately adjacent to the CBD in both cases. If you are visiting Melbourne on business and you’re flying in and you’re thinking about where you want to locate or set up business as a company or as an individual it’s staring you in your face.

Whereas Sydney I think has more to do to bring its cultural institutions and maybe its sporting facilities up to that level. You can never stand still.

SC: No. It’s very easy to love Melbourne. You go down there and you do get a sense that it has the advantage of being a gridded city rather than a geographical city. There’s so much theatre, food and walking to enjoy in the centre of the city.

Philip Thalis and Peter John Cantrill published Public Sydney a couple of years ago, in which they actually drew Sydney from the perspective of its public buildings and public spaces. Which really goes to the core of what you were saying Jim, that if you just develop without any sense of what you’re trying to make you don’t necessarily make a great place.

The classic case is in New York City where a great bit of neglected public infrastructure has been imaginatively re-purposed as the Highline, and embraced by both locals and visitors. Far from New York City being built out we get that whole lower west side being totally revitalised off a very simple and whimsical public space. These are extraordinary cultural benefits that generate something that’s far greater than you can ever imagine.

JB: Right, and we’re very cautious of that as we think about the Darling Harbour redevelopment. Obviously there’s some big public buildings there in terms of an exhibition space, in terms of a convention centre, in terms of an entertainment centre, but it’s also obviously adjacent to University of Technology Sydney, to the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo. You’ve got Tumbalong Park, you’ve got all the other big developments going on in the western side of the CBD.

SC: And The Goods Line that’s about to open is going to link all those buildings together.

JB: Absolutely, and it’s got to be an active precinct, it can’t just simply have large apartment blocks providing passive residential development, it has to be alive. Ultimo has got the highest density of technology start-ups anywhere in Australia. There’s young people coming out of the university, big synergies there, it’s walkable and capable of being navigated on bicycle, and great cultural facilities are just around the corner.

The mentality which says that we sit within our own individual silos and just plan and deliver infrastructure in isolation is just not good enough for the contemporary era and it’s just not good enough for Sydney in that global competitive context that you described.

  • View of construction at Darling Harbour. Courtesy: Infrastructure NSW.
  • View of construction at Darling Harbour. Courtesy: Infrastructure NSW.

SC: Next question. What do you see is the remit for the proposed Greater Sydney Commission?

JB: I think that’s something which is being worked through at the moment. But certainly from where I sit I think there is a gap at the tactical level, if I can call it that, and I’ll try and explain what that means.

At one level, at the highest level, the government through its plan for growing Sydney has a strategic view of how it wants Sydney to shape up. It wants a CBD which is growing upwards and outwards in a sustainable fashion.

It wants to see the densification of established suburbs but supported by proper infrastructure. It wants to see the growth of Parramatta, it wants to see the growth of the regional centres. That’s sort of a grand strategic vision.

Then you drop down to the local government level and you see a bunch of councils dealing with growing populations that might be anxious about some of those proposed strategic directions. They’re dealing with increased numbers of development applications and doing it hard and not having control or the budgets to make sure that the infrastructure is delivered in such a way that they can assuage community concerns.

I think between that strategic level and that operational level, a day to day level, there is a gap which is the tactical, which is saying, over a three to five year time frame, state government, this is how we need to order our priorities to make these changes acceptable to the community. It’s also inducing local governments to think more strategically and think beyond the parochial municipal boundary – but that’s a relatively easy thing to say.

If you’re a councillor standing for election in a local municipality that can get a lot harder than perhaps it does for state government politicians. My view is that there’s a significant value to be added from an intermediate tier which is brokering satisfactory outcomes between the strategic and the operational levels.

That sounds a bit theoretical but then when you go to somewhere like Parramatta. Parramatta’s success depends on more than the city of Parramatta as a local government entity. That’s really important, but there are also adjacent councils that need to be part of the picture in order to plan holistically.

It’s not obvious to me which government agency is responsible for doing that job. The Department of Planning itself has enough on its plate right now trying to respond efficiently to the regulatory approvals that are coming its way. The Greater Sydney Commission can play a significant role in helping to negotiate the shape of places at local level which go beyond the municipal boundaries of major councils.

SC: It sounds like it’s almost joining up the growth in the small urban hubs and the big more strategic hubs of government.

JB: That’s where I think you can add significant value and we’ll see how it can actually evolve over time. That’s something for government to decide, obviously not within my gift, but that’s where I think there’s significant value to be added.

I think you can show thought leadership, if nothing else, to lift the sights of local government beyond their municipal boundaries – but also encourage state government to approach these issues with a degree of sensitivity and humility, recognising that the people who are concerned about the potential impacts of densification need to be taken on a journey because we live in a democracy and that democracy needs to work at the local level.

SC: Initially it seems harder but once you get buy in by everybody, projects will provide so much more value, I’d imagine.

JB: Yes, it’s not a zero sum game, so you can have higher density, get the benefits of a growing population, real economic benefits, but do so in a way which doesn’t compromise liveability, but that requires us to think about new concepts and that’s a journey which the community is only beginning to embark on.

SC: There’s a potentially great conversation there, because when the dollar went up in the last couple of years most Australians travelled to London, or to Paris or to New York, and if you say to them, “How was the trip?” They say, “Oh, it was fantastic, I loved the place.” And they talk about all these cultural experiences in these very dense cities. If you said to them, “Well, the next step is that Sydney could be like that,” there’s almost a question mark, you can see that look in their eyes – “We can’t do it”. But we just have to understand what the principles are that make these great places and we can do it here – we can do it but we all have to be part of that conversation.

JB: Yes. I think there needs to be an understanding reached with the community that densification doesn’t necessary equal open slather. I think we need a more nuanced conversation about what densification actually means, those locations which will lend themselves more readily to densification and the infrastructure you can provide to enable that to happen.

If, for instance, we’re talking about urban renewal along Parramatta Road in the context of WestConnex, we’re directing a lot of traffic which is currently at the surface into tunnels. That provides you an opportunity for densification and urban renewal on the surface, but that would require higher grade public transport than is currently provided to ensure densification can occur without just replicating the congestion which currently exists.

SC: So you can see a quid pro quo. You do this but you get public transport, also slower and less dense traffic. You get much more activation of footpaths and streets and other public amenity.

JB: Exactly. One of my friends and heroes is Rob Adams in Melbourne and he and I did a lot of work together when I was in Victoria, around the way in which you could leverage the largest tram system in the world. You could accommodate a lot of population growth merely along those tram routes by building four to six storey development and preserve the integrity and the character of the back suburban streets and have improved storm water, more trees, that kind of stuff, and achieve all your densification objectives, but concentrated in a way which was actually not dissimilar to what Lygon Street and other city streets already have.

One aspects of Rob’s genius is he’s great at visualising stuff. He would actually go out with a camera on a weekend and photograph existing Melbourne streets and say, “How does this look?” And he’d put it in front of an audience and they’d say, “That looks fine.” That’s what densification means and it’s not that scary.

But when it’s talked of as an abstract concept and the community feels that it’s being asked to sign a blank cheque, that could be a difficult thing to ask of a community.

SC: That’s a great way to do it. That’s not even Paris density. People think that the choice is between either a single storey residence or attached dwellings or high-rise towers. But there’s all this gradation of different housing types in between, and that’s what makes great cities.

What opportunities do you foresee in your organisation’s connection and collaboration with the strategic function of the Government Architect’s Office?

JB: Huge. Not least in terms of making sure that we are in partnership with the Government Architect’s Office and are helping them carry the cause of good design into the agencies which are actually going to be doing the delivery of these projects on a day to day basis. I have a really strong belief that, notwithstanding this kind of inherited engineering culture in some agencies that tends to regard design and architecture with suspicion, that it’s not an expensive add-on, it’s absolutely fundamental to achieving value for money to have design expertise and architectural expertise in on the ground floor on these projects.

You can actually drive significantly better design outcomes and significant value for money by having your architects embedded in the process and regarded not as people who sit on one side but they’re actually in the room when the key decisions are taken.

Again going back to Victoria, we built a railway line in the northern suburbs which involved completely rebuilding three or four stations and adding some new stations, we got the Victorian Government Architects Office embedded right at the beginning. The best aspect of that project was not the day the train started running on that new railway line, it was the following Christmas when the local primary school held their carol service in the railway station – which would have been inconceivable had we not had excellence in design.

SC: That design thinking at that crucial phase?

JB: Yes, and design at the interface between traditional transport infrastructure at the wider end to make them sympathetic to each other.

SC: That’s where the process goes from a cost-based thing into a value-based thing. You get all this natural integration because you had this creative part of the process. It’s not the total process but it’s one part of the process that produces a much greater outcome.

We’d naturally support that of course. From your perspective, what are the opportunities for design in the strategic planning process and city making?

JB: I think it’s hard for design to get traction until you’ve got a certain level of strategic planning which is already marked out, so you need to mark out the territory within which you want the design to operate. But I’ve talked a bit about Parramatta and a bit about the western part of the CBD, you’ve got to the point there where you have a clear commitment of significant investment resources and a number of projects which need to be built in a way which sympathetic and which is clearly city making.

That’s the point I think early in the process, once those investment decisions have been taken up in principle – that good design can make a huge difference, integrating the whole project and making sure that the individual component parts are sympathetic to each other. Those two are absolutely critical examples, and we can see that playing out right now.

SC: One last question. What do you think is the best way to integrate new infrastructure with urban renewal?

JB: The critical thing is to plan early and ahead of time. A lot of the urban renewal projects that are on the government’s agenda at the moment, whether it’s The Bays Precinct, Central to Eveleigh, Parramatta North, Newcastle, these are absolutely critical projects but they’re projects which will be realised over a 10 to 15 year time frame. Government’s role is to identify the opportunities, to consolidate the leases, to do the decontamination and to take stuff to market in a way that enables the private sector to respond to it.

But the development community will only respond positively if the long-term supporting infrastructure is appropriately planned. For somewhere like South Randwick, we need to be thinking now about potential extensions of the light rail rather than in 15 to 20 years’ time. Similarly with North Parramatta, we need to be thinking about the light rail in Parramatta and how that could be supported by public transport infrastructure, whether it’s more buses, whatever.

But urban renewal will not occur, or not occur in the way we’d like it to, unless it takes transport and other infrastructure with it right through the planning process from inception. And you’ll see in our documents, across each of the major urban renewal set pieces including The Bays Precinct and a few of the others I’ve mentioned. We’re saying, “You don’t need to build these in the next five years but you need to think about them in the next five years so you can build them in the next 10 to 15 to 20.”

We kind of carry the torch for projects which aren’t immediately in prospect but which need to be kept alive and developed and refined over time.

SC: Transport is almost the enzyme, isn’t it? You bring transport and you create the potential around other things. Where typically I think what we’ve done in the past is build a satellite place and then after it gets a critical mass, and it’s part of this greater bigger congestion problem, you take transport out to it and then the whole place just changes, so it shapes the place.

JB: It does. When you think about The Bays Precinct and you think about getting decent residential development in there, people will choose to live in high density environments like that if they know there’s going to be a tram connecting them to the inner west light rail and the new CBD light rail, it makes it a highly attractive proposition for people who are thinking of living there, and by extension it provides a much more solid commercial basis for property developers to invest and to invest in the kinds of things we want, such as a heterogeneous mix of different types of housing.

All the things that we were talking about in the context of Melbourne, the things that we like about that city, that’s equally true of the new Sydney which is being created at the moment, at the back of the infrastructure opportunity that the government has opened up.

SC: It’s quite extraordinary how quickly big cities like Sydney change, it feels like it’s certainly changed in the last five years.

JB: Yes, and you ain’t seen nothing yet, the next five years is going to be totally transformative. The Premier made a speech recently where he pointed to the new paradigm that we’re in, where there is going to be congestion because we are being transformative.

The level of infrastructure investment is going to be immense in the next 5 to 10 years but it’s an opportunity to transform the city for the better, it’s not just taking what we have and adjusting it at the margin, it’s transformative.

SC: I saw that announcement as quite exciting because there’s a Premier that’s keen to lead and he’s willing to come out and say, “Look, there will be a bit of inconvenience but the opportunity cost is too great to ignore. We are making a great city here, we need to get on and do it.”

JB: That’s what leadership is. logo abdigital