In Search of the Elusive Triple Bottom Line: Turbulent Infrastructure Policy at the Sydney Water Board

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Conference Proceeding
State of Australian Cities (SOAC) Conference, 2007, pp. 99 - 109
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Potential conflicts between economic, social and environmental sustainability can cause turbulence in policy-making within infrastructure authorities as they seek to simultaneously accommodate the three sustainability dimensions. The paper explores this issue through an analysis of recent infrastructure policy in the Sydney water board. After 1988, neo-liberal policies were used to address water pollution problems caused by modernist hydraulic paradigm infrastructure provision. These involved a special remediation levy, higher developer and user charges, and private sector funding of infrastructure, as well as urban consolidation, to simultaneously address economic and environmental sustainability. But the failure to solve water pollution problems, plus national competition policy, led to increased state control over the triple bottom line via corporatisation and accountability to separate pricing, public health and environmental agencies. A public health crisis arising from the failure of a private sector filtration plant resulted in the establishment of a new catchment authority and increased powers for state ministerial and health department intervention. Construction of a new dam was avoided by tapping into a river catchment outside the Sydney region, but with environmental river flow costs. Then a drought-induced water supply crisis caused the government to propose, abandon, and re-propose a desalination plant that would meet its business goal of reliable water supply at purported lower cost and perceived health safety than recycling, but with potentially greater environmental costs than recycling alternatives. Overall, the state s needs to reduce expenditure and meet health standards have generally prevailed over environmental goals, but this has become increasingly contested, with correspondingly increased turbulence in policy outcomes.
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