Media Release
Sydney Harbour could be sunk by poor governance and environmental degradation – New Report
30 August, 2019

Media contact

Matt Levinson

Australia’s iconic Sydney Harbour is being divided up and devalued by multiple stakeholders with conflicting interests, according to a new report published today by the Committee for Sydney.

The Committee for Sydney’s report, Sydney Harbour: Our Greatest Asset, warns that a failure to develop an overarching plan for the Harbour has meant that over 30 different Federal and State entities are now making competing planning decisions about what to do with the Harbour and its much loved foreshore.

The research identifies several existing and emerging challenges which are threatening to generate economic and social spill-over costs for both the state and the nation if an overarching strategy is not adopted to manage these competing interests. Threats identified include:

  • A serious decline in public access – Over the last decade, Sydney Harbour has been quietly and incrementally carved up for private exclusive use.
  • Environmental degradation – 92% of Harbour sediments are now contaminated, protected sea grass beds are being destroyed, and the levels of micro-plastics in the water exceed international averages by up to five times.
  • Extreme capacity constraints – Despite growth in cruise tourism, commercial and recreational boating, ferry operations, dry goods imports, and demand for berthing facilities, no plan exists to manage these interests on what is essentially finite and contested land.

The report argues that a unifying plan overseen by a single body with an assurance role is the only way that Sydney Harbour will be able to co-exist as an environmental asset, a tourist attractor, a working harbour, a transit route and a place for the public to live, congregate and enjoy – all at once.

The report has proposed a whole-of-government vision grounded in the following six principles:

  1. Prioritisation of the public interest and public access
  2. Protection of the longevity of the Harbour’s liveability
  3. Clearly defined environmental custodianship
  4. Maintaining the Harbour as a drawcard for tourism and talent
  5. Tapping into the Harbour’s potential as an efficient thoroughfare
  6. Acknowledging the Harbour’s role as the lifeblood of maritime businesses

To deliver on this, Sydney Harbour: Our Greatest Asset has made the following recommendations:

  • The Greater Sydney Commission to update the vision for Sydney Harbour and articulate principles for balancing the uses and needs of the harbour.
  • Fund and Legislate to give either the Greater Sydney Commission or Department of Planning, Industry and Environment an assurance role over Sydney Harbour, its assets, land and policy.

Gabriel Metcalf, CEO of the Committee for Sydney said:

“We have this fantastic asset and everybody realises its value, but nobody is steering the ship. This could be a big win for Sydney” 

“The benefits from getting this right are massive. There are over 100 hectares of the foreshore land owned by State Government that have the potential to be opened up for greater public access and enjoyment

“There are monumental costs if we get this wrong. Sydney Harbour is the international face of Australia. It is the first port of call for more than 90% of international cruise ship passengers to Australia. Economically, there’s over $70 billion of major infrastructure and urban renewal projects planned for the inner city, and the construction materials needed for those will be imported directly through the Harbour’s dry goods port. We need to plan for that”.

“What we are proposing isn’t revolutionary. The NSW Government developed a single plan back in 2000 called ‘Sharing Sydney’s Harbour’. Let’s dust that off and modernise it, and make sure that we give one organisation an assurance role to make sure that everybody else is playing by the new rules”

Beth Toon, CEO, Place Design Group said:

“We are thrilled to have collaborated with Committee for Sydney on this report that shines a spotlight on our great Harbour and the opportunities to safeguard its future.”

“Waterfronts are a critical component to Place Design Group’s footprint across Pan Asia.  As a leading international planning and design firm, we firmly believe public realms, such as Sydney Harbour, are the true anchors of our cities and must be given respect and prioritisation to ensure a city’s sustainability and growth.”

Note to editors:

  1. The Committee for Sydney is an independent think tank and champion for the whole of Sydney, providing thought leadership beyond the electoral cycle. The Committee aims to enhance the economic, social, cultural and environmental conditions that make Sydney a competitive, resilient and liveable global city. The Committee has a diverse membership with over 150 member organisations.