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Education in diplomacy as states set to deal separately

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THE federal government has moved to diffuse tensions over school funding by agreeing to negotiate separately with each state over what school improvements would be required to receive additional money.
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Victorian Education Minister Martin Dixon said he was assured not all states would be judged in the same way and that the Commonwealth would acknowledge some had school improvement reforms already in place.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard sparked anger among Liberal premiers on Monday when she said the government accepted that the cost of reforming the school system would be about $6.5 billion, but declined to say how much the states and territories should pay.

She said there would be ”no blank cheques” for the states, and any new funding would be contingent on principals having more autonomy, every school having a school improvement plan and teachers having annual performance assessments.

Victoria already has annual teacher performance reviews and principals have been able to select their own teachers and decide how their budgets are spent for 15 years.

Mr Dixon said he was relieved to learn at a phone hook-up of education ministers yesterday that the school improvement reforms would be negotiated on a state-by-state basis. ”I was pleased there was that recognition we are all at different points and have different goals,” he said.

”We didn’t want a whole new model of teacher performance reviews, cooked up nationally with a whole lot of compromises enforced on each state and territory.”

It was the first time all education ministers have spoken for more than a month.

Mr Dixon was also pleased to learn the Commonwealth had rejected a recommendation by the Gonski review to establish an independent body to determine the level of funding for schools.

Victoria had been highly critical of the establishment of an extra layer of bureaucracy, saying school funding was a decision for state governments.

Mr Dixon said he felt the federal government had finally listened to Victoria’s concerns.

”Following today’s discussions I am more than prepared to move forward,” he said.

He said there had been no discussion about what proportion of the additional $6.5 billion a year the states would be required to chip in, but discussions with each jurisdiction would start within weeks.

The government wants to introduce a new funding model for government, independent and Catholic schools that provides each with a base funding rate, with extra loadings to address underlying causes of students’ disadvantage, such as low socio-economic status or Aboriginality.

The committee will try to reach agreement on how those loadings should apply, and how high they should be.

The states agreed to form a school education reform committee, chaired by Western Australian Education Minister Peter Collier, to report to the Council of Australian Governments in March. The committee will meet at least three times in the next six months.

Dianne Giblin, the chief executive officer of the Australian Council of State School Organisations yesterday urged the governments to work constructively to agree on a new funding model.

”We as a nation owe it to our kids for the states and territories to come to an agreement with the federal government.”

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The Beeb leaves Aunty for death in paradise

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TWICE or thrice a year, having been slated to perform some chore or other at some event or other, I will be approached by a person from a TV production company asking for permission to film the talk or interview or panel discussion. This in itself is not unusual; what is unusual is what happens if the video is to be made for the ABC.
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In that case I will be told to expect nothing in the way of a fee. The explanation given is that the ABC is Australia’s national broadcaster and therefore does not pay. The production company will excuse itself by telling me that because it is a matter of ABC policy not to pay contributors of program material, its hands are tied. I reply that it is my policy never to work for nothing. That is usually the end of the matter, unless the person resorts to whingeing and badgering. One or two have turned up at speaking engagement after speaking engagement for months on end, demanding the right to appropriate my intellectual property. This is all the more galling at a time when Australia brags of being a boom economy that escaped the global financial crisis and thumbs its nose at Europe and America writhing in the grip of austerity. It may be the case that the production companies are misrepresenting the ABC; in that case the ABC should do something about it.

The ABC received about $1.18 billion from Australian taxpayers last year. This sounds like an awful lot of money and, for what consumers of ABC product can expect, it is. Midsomer Murders, New Tricks, Poirot and Marple are all very highly finished ITV dramas, which may be worth watching repeatedly. Run-of-the-mill BBC fodder like Who Do You Think You Are?, Grand Designs, Grand Designs Revisited and Antiques Master certainly is not, especially if it can be had on subscription from the BBC pay TV channel, UKTV. Australians overseas looking for Australian product have to plumb the depths of cable channels to find anything, and usually it’s all too obvious why it’s not featuring on terrestrial television at prime time. All the leading DVD titles in ABC shops are British: Doctor Who, Yes Minister, Absolutely Fabulous, Downton Abbey and now Death in Paradise.The Straits didn’t go around the world; Death in Paradise is doing the rounds instead. People all over the world watched Rumpole of the Bailey; they are not watching Rake. Nevertheless the ABC has commissioned a second series, which began airing on Thursday.

As a budget for an Australian national broadcaster, $1.18 billion is entirely inadequate. The population of Australia, at about 23 million, is more than a third of the British population of about 62 million. The BBC raises its budget through the licence fee which is set by the government; its budget this year is £4.74 billion, which is about $7.3 billion; one-third of that is $2.4 billion, so when it comes to the investment in a national broadcaster, Australians are being seriously short-changed. Half-price doesn’t mean better value.

The difference is not simply one of scale. The BBC is run as a business; the ABC thinks of itself as a public service. The BBC seeks to generate programs that have a guaranteed world market and therefore goes all-out for co-production deals that make the impossible possible. Its natural history series are made in conjunction with the Discovery Channel; not only are they fabulous, they have a shelf life of generations. They have transformed cultural expression, inspiring ballets, opera and paintings. Australia meanwhile features in cut-price compilations of misleading drivel about the world’s most dangerous animals. Putting together the Life on Earth series took 30 years all told. That’s the difference. It’s the vision thing.

The ABC should not be sending people around the world scavenging for the rights to substandard material shot on a single frame by a single camera at a public event where the speaker isn’t even addressing the camera. A talk is not a TV show; where there are real participants in a real encounter the ABC has no licence to eavesdrop. Writers regularly contribute material to the BBC and they are paid for it – not much but something. Parsimony is to be expected but refusal to pay anything at all is contemptuous. Australians have less need to beg than any other nation on earth; they should be ashamed to be caught doing it.

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UrbanGrowth NSW will not sell or build homes

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The state government body charged with turbo-charging the state’s housing sector and replacing Landcom will not sell or build homes, it has been revealed, in a historic shift of responsibilities.
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UrbanGrowth NSW, which was earlier labelled “Landcom on steroids” by Planning Minister Brad Hazzard, will not perform many of the key functions of its predecessor, chairman John Brogden said on Friday.

“UrbanGrowth will withdraw from retailing land in competition with the property industry… if you can do it, we will not,” Mr Brogden pledged in a speech to the Property Council of Australia.

“UrbanGrowth’s role is not to compete with a market that can function and deliver housing.”

The pledge not

Instead, UrbanGrowth would focus on preparing land for the private sector to develop, he said.

“Once consolidated we will add value by – as needed – rezoning, master-planning and super lotting – wholesaling land into the market de-risked and ready for housing,” said Mr Brogden.

The creation of UrbanGrowth NSW, an amalgamation of Landcom and the Sydney Metropolitan Development Authority (SMDA), was a key aspect of the state budget and its focus on turning around the state’s sluggish housing market.

Other tasks it will perform include seeking surplus government land for housing, even if it meant relocating a public building.

“This might mean for example, relocating an existing Police Station to another appropriate site in the same suburb or district in order to release the original site for housing where it has a higher use,” he said.

The organisation will also take on the task of providing infrastructure for development sites that are not owned by the government.

UrbanGrowth will also take on the powers of compulsory acquisition granted to the SMDA by the former Labor government.

Mr Brogden said it was critical that such powers were available to his organisation but stressed they would be used sparingly.

“The power will only be used in exceptional cases where there is demonstrable public benefit, with proper safeguards, and a fully transparent process for landowners,” he said.

The organisation hoped to halve the time taken to deliver major housing projects like Green Square, he said.

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Sober city: literature and a decent stroll triumph over bars and boozing

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SYDNEY might have a reputation as a big-boozing town but it seems we might rather read than rage.
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We have more bookshops per head than the literary meccas of Paris or New York but fewer bars than Tokyo.

The sobering statistics are contained in an international report into the cultural life of 12 world cities.

The study found that while Paris has nine bookshops per 100,000 people, Sydney has 10.

And while Tokyo has 108 bars per 100,000, Sydney has just 14.

Not that we are wallflowers. We love a festival and have more than almost anywhere else. But if we want to dance, we’re better off kicking up our heels in Sao Paulo or Shanghai than Sydney.

The World Cities Culture Report looked at 60 cultural indicators, including the number of cinemas, art galleries, dance clubs and libraries.

It concluded that festivals were one of Sydney’s strengths, with more than London, New York or Berlin.

Sydney draws on its climate and natural beauty to create ”a relaxed, convivial, inclusive culture”, the report states.

When we are not at festivals, we like a walk in a park. Sydney has more parks and gardens than all other cities except Singapore.

The 12 cities, across the developed and developing world, included Mumbai, Istanbul and Johannesburg.

They were chosen because they are expected to shape the world’s future direction and are places interested in strengthening the role of culture.

The large number of art and design students in Sydney was particularly encouraging, said the executive manager of culture at the City of Sydney, Rachel Healy.

”Researchers say that in the next 20 years, specialist understanding of visual language and design thinking skills are the most important asset the community can have,” Ms Healy said.

The in-depth study, the first of its kind, was prepared by Britain’s BOP Consulting and initiated by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, before the London Olympics.

The report says culture is as important in a world city as trade and finance.

”Culture, in all its diverse forms, is central to what makes a city appealing to educated people and hence to the businesses which seek to employ them,” the report states.

”In the globalised knowledge economy, having a well-educated workforce is the key to success, and such workers demand a stimulating creative environment.”

Paris has the most art galleries, cinemas and public libraries, New York the most theatres while London is the place for a laugh with the most comedy performances.

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Roof on atrium of fatal fire block ‘not approved’ by council

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THE roof over the atrium of an apartment block in Bankstown, which might have contributed to the fire in which a woman died on Thursday, was not included in plans approved by the council. The private certifier who oversaw the development said he would not have approved the building had the roof been there. .
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The NSW fire services commissioner, Greg Mullins, has said an enclosed atrium in the centre of the building meant ”thick black smoke” amassed outside residents’ doors, hindering their access to internal fire escapes. But the building certifier, Barry Johnson, told the Herald that when he issued an occupancy certificate for the building in April 2009 there was no roof on the atrium.

”I did not approve a roof,” Mr Johnson said. ”If you look at my stamped plans it was an open pergola. If there’s a roof on that area it does affect the way I would have approved the building. I would have required other things to be done. I don’t know if I would have allowed the roof.”

One woman, known as Connie, died, and another, Yino Jiang, 27, is fighting for her life after they jumped from the fifth floor of the building to escape the inferno. Another 52 people were evacuated and 43 were treated for smoke inhalation.

The Herald understands the NSW Fire Brigade first raised the alarm over the roof and other fire safety matters in the building, the Euro Terraces, in December 2010.

Bankstown Council is believed to have investigated and issued an order in February last year – the first of a number of orders issued against the building by the council and the fire brigade.

The most recent correspondence to the building owners, raising continuing, serious concerns over fire safety, is understood to have been only a couple of months ago.

Mr Johnson said he had received a threatening phone

call on Thursday night saying, ”you know what you’ve done, we’re going to come to get you”. He reported the call to the police.

As police and fire authorities continue their investigations to prepare a report for the coroner, it has emerged that the building’s developer has previously been challenged over additions to at least one other building.

In 2002, Baulkham Hills council took a director of Silky Constructions to the Land and Environment Court over an apartment block at Northmead which was deemed to ”differ so substantially” to approved plans that it was a completely different development. He could not be reached for comment.

The tragedy has renewed calls for closer examination of the role of private certifiers in granting building approvals. The Greens MP David Shoebridge said the case illustrated how dysfunctional the system had become. ”The explosion in private certification in the last decade and a half has produced very questionable results for building standards,” he said.

Mr Shoebridge called on the government to revisit a proposal to expand the role of private certifiers in a draft green paper on the system.

But the Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, said that last week he had indicated to the Building Professionals Board, which regulates building certifiers, that he wanted to see tougher penalties for councils and certifiers that did not fulfil their responsibilities properly.

”We will get a lot tougher with those who certify buildings if they don’t do the right thing,” he said, ”but at this point there is no indication that is necessarily an aspect of this particular fire.”

Residents of the apartment block told the Herald they had trouble reaching fire exits or had ignored the fire alarm at first. Haytham Wafa, who works at a restaurant in the bottom floor of the complex, estimated the alarm had gone off 150 times in the past year. Another worker, Eduardo Garcia, said it took more than 20 minutes for the smoke alarms to activate once smoke started billowing out.

”We went outside because I could smell smoke,” he said. ”We called police and then 10 minutes later the fire alarm started sounding.”

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Uproar at private school fee threat

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Adrian Piccoli … facing backbench revolt.THE NSW Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, is facing threats of no confidence and a backbench revolt as government MPs are inundated with complaints from furious constituents over plans to cut $67 million from Catholic and independent schools.
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There are warnings the cuts will translate into fee increases of up to 10 per cent for every student in non-government schools in NSW, larger class sizes and the loss of hundreds of teaching jobs.

News of the cuts has made its way to non-government schools and prompted the Catholic Education Commission to urge parents, principals, priests and teachers to contact MPs to decry what is being described as ”the biggest threat to NSW Catholic schools in decades”.

The Herald has spoken to a government MP who was told by the principal of an independent school in his electorate yesterday he was ”no longer welcome” as a result of the decision.

Government MPs spent yesterday afternoon fielding calls and emails from furious parents, teachers and principals lobbying them to do what they could to overturn Mr Piccoli’s plan.

One MP said the anger was so great there was talk of moving a no-confidence motion in Mr Piccoli at the joint party room meeting on Tuesday. MPs are also threatening to cross the floor if the opposition moves a no-confidence motion in Parliament next week.

”The entire party room is furious that the Minister for Education briefed the non-government school sector without giving even a whisper to the backbench,” an MP said.

Another Liberal MP said: ”It was Menzies who first provided state aid to Catholic and independent schools and today the party of Menzies is looking to take that away.”

And another MP said he had been inundated with calls that were ”full of vitriol and hatred”.

Many MPs feel the anger is so palpable it may affect the Coalition’s chances at today’s local government elections.

In a letter sent home with schoolchildren yesterday, the Catholic Education Commission urged parents to contact MPs demanding an explanation.

”NSW bishops call on the Premier of NSW, Barry O’Farrell, to intervene immediately to block the announcement of what amounts to being the biggest threat to NSW Catholic schools in decades,” the letter reads.

The letter warns the cuts will force Catholic independent schools to increase fees by up to $496 per student above planned increases. For Catholic systemic schools the increase would be $100 to compensate.

The NSW Parents’ Council, which represents independent schools, issued a statement warning that school fees ”may well be increased by the order of 10 per cent”. The council warned of the possible loss of hundreds of teaching positions, larger class sizes and reduced curriculum options.

A spokesman for Mr Piccoli refused to comment last night other than to say: ”No decision has been made about how savings will be achieved in the education portfolio.”

But the chief executive of Christian Schools Australia, Stephen O’Doherty, a former education spokesman for the Liberal Party, said the decision had gone to cabinet, which has decided to introduce legislation to lock in the funding cuts.

”The cuts approved by cabinet are not simply a flow-on of supposed cuts in public education,” Mr O’Doherty said. ”What has been approved is a change to the legislation that has provided a reasonable and predictable basis of funding for many years.”

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City in a jam

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Too little too late? … Barry O’Farrell and Duncan Gay announce the work to start on the M5.If Barry O’Farrell and his ministers had arrived from Mars, never having seen Planet Earth, Australia, or the city of Sydney until March 2011, the transport plan they announced this week might be considered a reasonable first crack at conceptualising the needs of this city and state.
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But they did not and it is not. The draft transport master plan, released on Tuesday, was billed as a fresh direction for transport policy in Sydney and NSW over the next 20 years. But the plan offered little detail, and it’s defining feature was a loose commitment to a number of motorway schemes.

The lack of detail is frustrating and inadequate, and it is also an issue on which the Herald has an institutional position. In 2009, fed up with the inability of the previous administration to chart and stick to an agenda on Sydney’s transport needs, the paper commissioned its own inquiry.

The inquiry’s resulting plan asked, and tried to resolve, many of the questions the O’Farrell plan either ignores or sidesteps.

These questions still need answering.

WILL THE MOTORWAYS REDUCE CONGESTION?

There are two issues here. Are more motorways in Sydney a good idea? And will they go to the right areas?

More people drive in Sydney than use public transport. Almost 70 per cent of trips in Sydney are by car, and the percentage is higher in the Illawarra and Newcastle. The city needs good roads.

And if the O’Farrell government’s plan is to be believed, there will be a lot more of them built in the next 20 years.

Another M5 tunnel will link the south-west suburbs to the airport, making the M5 East an eight-lane motorway. The M4, which stops at Strathfield, will cut through the inner west to either Camperdown or the Anzac Bridge, and then in a tunnel down to the airport.

In the north, the F3 will be extended under Pennant Hills Road to meet the M2, and the unbuilt F6 will course through the Sutherland Shire and the southern suburbs to meet up with the airport and eventually the CBD.

There might also be new motorways from the M2 at Lane Cove to the M4 extension at Camperdown and down to the east of the airport.

In other words, most of these motorways will ostensibly make it much easier to drive to the centre of Sydney and the busy area around the airport.

”In most major North American cities, as in Europe, the idea of a new radial urban freeway towards the CBD would be met with near-universal ridicule,” said one transport planner, who is still working for the government and therefore does not want to be named.

”These freeways simply encourage vehicles to enter the inner city at a rate faster than city streets can absorb that traffic,” the planner said.

Where will the cars go once the motorways have deposited them in the inner city? Where will the new M4 traffic go once it gets to Camperdown or the Anzac Bridge? And where will

the traffic on the M6 motorway head once it gets to St Peters? The draft transport master plan is silent on these questions.

”Look at the number of people parking around Waterfall and Sutherland and catching trains into the city,” a former chief executive of the Roads and Traffic Authority, speaking anonymously, said this week.

”If you extend the F6 they will just use their cars – but what do you do with the cars when they get to areas with heavy traffic?”

Then there is the principle of induced traffic growth, or the idea that in a congested city like Sydney new motorways will fill up as soon as they are built.

When the M4 was widened from Mays Hill to Prospect in 1994, for instance, traffic volumes jumped 20 per cent in a year. Fewer people used public transport. When the M5 East opened, patronage on the East Hills line dropped 10 per cent.

On the other hand, when Sydney’s trains were in a state of perpetual chaos between 2003 and 2005, travel times on major roads got worse.

The government’s plan asserts its motorway proposals are the solution to Sydney’s transport gridlock. The Herald’s inquiry argued: ”Just building more roads does not reduce traffic congestion.”

WHAT SHOULD WE PAY FOR PUBLIC TRANSPORT?

If you want to get from Rouse Hill to Central on public transport, the quickest way is not the direct bus. The quickest way is to take a bus on the T-Way to Westmead, and then to change to a direct train. In the morning peak, this could save almost half an hour.

But unless you have a MyMulti transport ticket, this route would also cost an extra $3.

The extra cost is because of the antiquated manner in which Sydney’s transport fares are set, which penalises people for hopping off one mode of transport and onto another, or even from one bus to another.

Try another example from the inner west. If you want to get from Earlwood to Circular Quay, you could take one 423 bus the whole way.

But on many mornings it would be quicker to get out and change at either Newtown or Marrickville to a train, avoiding the morning crawl down King Street and George Street.

Again, you would need to have a MyMulti weekly ticket or a $21 MyMulti day pass to make the faster route worth your while.

This is not just a question of technology, or the lack of a smart card in Sydney that can be used across buses, trains and ferries.

Sydney’s ill-fated T-Card project collapsed the smart card dream for more than a decade, and the new card, called the Opal, will not be available on all forms of public transport until 2014.

But there is also the question of fares policy. What types of fares will Sydney residents need to pay, even when the Opal card is introduced?

For a well-functioning transport system, the key is not penalising people for getting off one mode of transport – a bus, say – and getting on another – say, a train. There are myriad ways of doing this.

Some cities use flat fares. Some cities use pure distance-based fares, where you are charged per kilometre over the length of your trip. Some cities use zones, where you are charged depending on how many geographical zones you pass through on your journey.

This is a question of policy, not infrastructure – flat fares with time-based caps have worked in other Australian cities since the 1960s.

The Transport Minister, Gladys Berejiklian, has done some good things here. She has allowed MyMulti and Pensioner Excursion holders free use on Sydney’s light rail line.

But what is the broader fares policy of Berejiklian, who has been either the shadow minister or transport minister for the past six years?

Her transport plan says the Opal card will include ”a simpler system, reducing the complexity of existing ticketing types and helping passengers find the best value fares for particular journeys”.

The answer, in other words, is TBA.

HOW WILL EVERYTHING BE FUNDED?

Big question, this. If money were no object, there’s a good chance Sydney would have a pretty decent transport system by now.

But money’s tough.

Tuesday’s plan put the onus on the ability of Berejiklian and her department to reduce recurrent costs in operating Sydney’s public transport system.

It also flagged the possibility of higher charges for CBD parking, distance-based tolling on motorways, heavier levies on big trucks, as well as vague commitments such as ”identifying future funding opportunities” and ”whole-of-Government efficiency improvements”.

It offered no forecast of how much these initiatives could bring in.

The Herald inquiry commissioned research into how much more money the public would be prepared to pay if they were guaranteed a better public transport system. The research found a small majority would be prepared to pay a 38¢ fare increase per trip, a $7.46 congestion charge for driving to the city, a $7.19 per day parking space increase, 8¢ a litre more petrol, and an additional yearly household tax of $157.70.

These levies would bring in almost $900 million a year.

But the key to the idea was absolute transparency about what transport initiatives would be built and when and how much was being spent on them. It also said the priority of public transport projects should be enshrined in legislation.

The draft transport master plan included no precise detail on when initiatives will start, let alone how much they would cost.

WHAT ABOUT TRAINS, FERRIES, BUSES, PLANES?

Sydney’s ferries are on average more than 22 years old, and they will be economically worthless in about two years. When the NSW government privatised the running of Sydney Ferries this year, it also deferred a decision on a new fleet.

Tuesday’s transport plan puts a new fleet in the ”medium to long-term” category.

Most of CountryLink’s XPT trains were bought 30 years ago with a design life of 27 years and 6.25 million kilometres. They have now travelled more than 9.5 million kilometres, and some will start to be unworkable in about four years.

But the only plan for replacing the fleet, despite the fact the government is sitting on detailed reports showing the options, is for a ”Country Passenger Rail Services Strategy”, yet to be developed, to start a ”program to acquire new rolling stock”.

There are similar vague commitments to new bus interchanges in and around the CBD, new intercity trains, and apart from a promise of a new ferry wharf at Barangaroo, similarly vague talk of new ferry wharves in Sydney Harbour.

There is the acknowledgement of the need for major upgrades to at least Wynyard and Town Hall train stations, but nothing about when or how this might occur. Plans for an upgrade of Wynyard station, which is already at capacity, have been in development for years.

And there is nothing on the future long-distance transport needs of the state – either a second Sydney airport or high-speed rail.

O’Farrell says he opposes a second airport in Sydney, but the plan makes no provision for any alternative rail services.

The plan does not even state a preference for where high-speed rail should enter the city.

The O’Farrell government is moving fast on the North West Rail Link. It has conceptually committed to another rail crossing for Sydney Harbour, but not where.

And on a host of other public transport questions it is still to declare its hand.

HOW SHOULD FREIGHT MOVE AROUND?

It is not true to say there is no plan for how to move freight around Sydney and NSW in Tuesday’s report. Because in the absence of any detailed alternative, the plan seems to be accommodating more and larger trucks heading through Sydney and our major roads and highways.

The O’Farrell government continues to claim this is the first transport plan to include freight.

But most of the recommendations about how to manage the movement of goods are recommendations for more plans.

The report calls for regional freight and local port plans, as well as ”better data collection, collation and forecasting”; ”detailed economic analysis”; and more ”road access reform”.

It does make firm a commitment, however, to a trial of B-Triples or road trains on the Hume Highway between Sydney and Melbourne.

And it does talk about a ”Bridges for the Bush” program, to upgrade local roads so they are strong enough to accommodate at least B-Double trucks.

However, as for shifting freight off trucks and onto rail lines, as governments always at least profess to want to do, the only real idea is a plan for a ”Western Sydney Freight line” to take containers by rail to the west.

There is no route mapped out, and the resolve is no stronger than to ”continue to work with the Australian Government to identify further opportunities to advance this corridor and look to protecting the corridor to ensure its viability into the future”.

The O’Farrell government has already said it will remove any restrictions on the number of containers passing through Port Botany as a condition of privatising the Port. Those containers will be heading through Sydney on the road.

There is still time for the O’Farrell government to answer some of these questions and more.

It is taking submissions on the draft transport master plan – go to haveyoursay.nsw.gov.au/transportmasterplan – ahead of a final report in November.

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Desperate jump as heat neared 1000 degrees

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The heat peeled concrete off walls … the apartment building in Bankstown.IT WAS a hot and windy afternoon when three young Chinese students got together to hang out and eat at their Bankstown apartment.
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Yino Jiang, Jianwei ”Jason” Zeng and their friend, known as Connie, were on the balcony when something exploded or caught alight.

The dry breeze quickly fanned the flames while an open front door created a lethal wind tunnel through the apartment. Within minutes, a vicious blaze had leapt inside and blocked off the front entrance to the fifth-floor apartment.

Suddenly, the two women were trapped.

Ms Jiang, 27, and Connie, 19, fled to a bedroom but the fire was burning out of control. They frantically climbed out a window and stood on the windowsill, desperately hanging on to the side of the building as smoke billowed out.

Down below, dozens of bystanders had gathered, yelling at the young nursing students to wait until the arrival of firefighters, who were only seconds away. Other residents had fled to the roof or were screaming for help from their balconies.

The fire in the apartment on Thursday was nudging 1000 degrees, peeling concrete off the walls and lifting tiles off the floor.

When fire investigators later went into the charred apartment, the aluminium window frame that Ms Jiang and Connie had clung to was completely melted and the apartment’s steel structures were exposed and warped.

”Everyone on the street was yelling ‘don’t jump, don’t jump’ but I don’t think they could stay there any longer because of the heat,” said Jama Wagad, 32, who lives on the seventh floor. ”That’s when they fell.”

The crowd screamed in horror as the women plummeted 15 metres, hitting a ledge on the first floor. Connie died on impact and Ms Jiang was rushed to hospital in a critical condition suffering burns, smoke inhalation and severe trauma. As she slowly stabilised yesterday afternoon, police advised the Herald that Mr Zeng had initially tried to put out the flames but later left the scene. He was on an expired visa.

Police urged him to come forward yesterday and he showed up at Surry Hills Police Station about

8.30 last night.

Eduardo Garcia, who works at a restaurant in the apartment complex and knew Mr Zeng, saw him run out of the apartment block screaming ”there’s two girls inside, there’s two girls inside”.

”Minutes later they appeared in the window,” Mr Garcia said. ”After that, he tried to go inside the building but then the girls jumped and he disappeared.”

There was speculation he was seen smoking on the balcony just before the fire. Forensic investigators will continue to examine the property today to determine how the fire started and whether it was deliberately lit.

Among the 51 residents rescued from the building, several said they had trouble reaching fire exits or had ignored the fire alarm at first because alarms were set off often in the apartment block.

Ms Jiang and Connie had arrived in Australia only months ago, excited about studying nursing at the University of Western Sydney and living with other students in the modern Bankstown complex.

Just last month, Ms Jiang celebrated her 27th birthday with coffee at Max Brenner and a birthday cake in the three-bedroom apartment.

Yesterday, however, her parents were rushing to Sydney from Harbin, in north-eastern China.

Connie’s Chinese parents, who were in Sydney, ”cried for the whole night”, a friend said, and were too distraught to talk to anyone but the police.

with Amy McNeilage, Lisa Davies and Nick Ralston

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Prestige suburbs on sale: market watchers pick deep discounts at top end

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THE suburbs where buyers will get the biggest savings this spring continue to be Sydney’s most exclusive.
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Top of the list is Palm Beach, where Australian Property Monitors says the average discount off the original asking price of a house for the year to July was 21.9 per cent.

Peter Robinson of LJ Hooker Palm Beach said there had been an increase in sales over the past six months.

”The new listings for spring are a week away, but there’s discounts and value in the property that we haven’t sold over winter,” Mr Robinson said.

The pride of the city and east region figure prominently, with Double Bay at a 17.5 per cent discount, Vaucluse 17.2 per cent, Rose Bay 15.9 per cent, and Bellevue Hill 15.2 per cent. But Clontarf (15.9 per cent) on the northern beaches, Castlecrag (13.3 per cent) and East Killara (13.2 per cent) are also in the top 10.

The senior economist at Australian Property Monitors, Andrew Wilson, said there was good value to be found in top-end suburbs.

”There’s been a lack of buyer activity since the global financial crisis … but at the end of the day, these are prestige suburbs,” he said. He nominated heavily discounted Vaucluse as being one of three prestige suburbs he considered to be good value. He also nominated Bronte and Mosman.

Dr Wilson said that as the market regenerated – ”as it will” – the opportunities in the market would be recognised as such.

The economist also nominated some middle-market suburbs as being good value: Hurstville, Hornsby Heights, Drummoyne and Castle Hill.

His criteria included relative affordability, level of sales and prices growth.

At the lower end of the market – below a $400,000 median house price – he chose Campbelltown, Marayong and Blacktown.

Rebecca and Paul Smith have recently bought their third house in Blacktown, a suburb they believe is on the up.

”We looked around our area and found that houses were selling like hot cakes and they weren’t even that great,” Ms Smith said.

A few years ago, the teacher and the carpenter started buying houses, renovating them and reselling them quickly for a profit.

They recently paid $328,000 for a two-bedroom weatherboard that they hope to resell in the ”high $400,000s”.

They plan to build a rear extension with extra bedroom and ensuite, another living room and a deck, as well as modernise the rest of the interior, including a new kitchen and bathroom.

”We’ve found that the growth in the area is increasing quite rapidly,” Ms Smith said. ”It’s a good time to buy while prices are still relatively affordable because they only seem to be going up.”

For apartments, APM says Edgecliff attracts an 11.4 per cent discount, Rose Bay 10.3 per cent, Cremorne Point 10.3 per cent, Leumeah 10 per cent, Killara 9.6 per cent, Bondi Beach 9.5 per cent, Darling Point 9.3 per cent, Bellevue Hill 9 per cent, Rosehill 8.7 per cent and Cabramatta 8.7 per cent.

APM also released their ”days-on-market” data, with houses in Church Point on the northern beaches taking the longest to sell at 362 days.

For apartments, The Rocks tops the list at 208 days, Rhodes is 184, Hunters Hill 170, and Woolloomooloo 145.

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