A Black Friday for New South Wales
Mark Friday 28 June in your diary as the day NSW planning was delivered into the hands of developers… This is the day that public submissions on the O’Farrell government’s Planning White Paper closed, the last day, in fact, that members of the public had any real say in the future of planning policy in the state of NSW. From now on, you are out of the picture. You won’t get a say on what developments happen within your suburb, let alone what developments occur next door to your home, for most of us the biggest single investment of our lives.
Don’t be led to believe this has been a fair process in the making, or even that this is the natural course of things. On the contrary, it has been rushed through the consultation phase giving us only a few weeks to get our collective heads around the plethora of heinous changes plotted within its pages, the stormfront of battery that’s been brewing behind fluffy clouds soon to come down and wreak havoc on an unsuspecting public…
To accommodate the planning needs of a growing state today and over the next 20 or 30 years, what we require is not a system that is exclusively developer-biased or economically focussed, but a system that strives to accomplish balance. Balance between the need for accommodating more people, growing families, and relentless levels of immigration. Balance between how we want our cities to look and feel, and how many people we can actually fit into these finite spaces without altering the look and feel of them beyond all recognition. Balance between how many cars we can fit onto our roads before they reach total gridlock; balance between how many children we can squeeze into our schools before one child’s education suffers; how many beds we can fit into our hospitals and nursing homes before they reach breaking point; how many commuters current and future transport systems can effectively deliver before the wheels fall off completely.
Balance is what we need. A sustainable balance of heritage values and new development, a balance that seeks to integrate and establish new and exciting modern architecture into the existing framework of our heritage streetscapes without detracting from how we have looked at our cities for generations. Adaptive re-use, sensitive reworking and extensions, while maintaining the fabric of heritage within the buildings. An overreaching system of solid heritage protection, maintained by heritage professionals, people with the necessary experience and knowledge in heritage matters – a strong Heritage Council.
The balance of how a building, how a new development sits within its surrounding environment, rather than simply allowing it to dominate and most probably ruin the sentiment of what was there, in many cases, for decades before. The balance of scale, of deciding how big it should be, how big it can be before totally overwhelming any sense of human scale on the site it occupies. The balance of maintaining healthy neighbourhoods where people live close to the ground, children have access to grassed areas, whether in backyards or public parks, where neighbours can meet and not feel totally alienated from one another.
The balance of building sustainable forward-thinking architecture. Environmentally Sustainable Development – there is a term for it – the government is dropping all reference to it in the White Paper as a principle. We need this as a foundation, we need this to build on and work towards a carbon neutral building future… it may not be achievable in the short or medium term but to drop it all together as a society is sinful. We need to gauge the state of the environment we live in and correct our ways of doing things to work towards a truly sustainable future.
The balance of beauty, function and form. We need development that attracts the eye rather than deters it and stands as testament to what is achievable by mankind in this day and age, not simply how many rectangular boxes we can fit onto one block and carve up for maximum profit. Quite simply we need architecture that is beautiful on many levels – cosmetically, physically, functionally, environmentally, adaptively… And to match this we need a planning system that will deliver these outcomes to the community, and does so in a way that involves the community holistically, integrates heritage and other critical non-financial factors, and goes beyond the simplistic goal to boost housing supply quotas and position the building industry as purely an instrument of the economy.
What we are getting is a substitute… A substitute that is poorly thought out, developer-biased and purposefully greed driven.
What we are getting is a recipe for complete disdain of heritage values, complete discard of Environmentally Sensitive building practice, and complete disregard for community input and relevance. Developers will be looked after from now on, they will have free run of the county fair. They will be able to build what they want, where they want, regardless of heritage, environmental or community requirements. That is what Barry O’Farrell and Brad Hazzard’s Liberal government is endorsing here. In essence they have sold off your rights and indeed your state to developers.
Some of the changes in the White paper are reckless – allowing quick publicity-free turnarounds for Code and Compliant developments of 10-25 days for example, or just 28 days for state significant developments – Some are plainly vindictive – like removing ESD or replacing the role of the Heritage Council on judging state significant items with the Department of Planning and Infrastructure. All of the measures are clearly pro-developer and geared towards opening up our cities and suburbs for a development boom, the likes of which we have never seen before. When you allow the markets to decide what happens in planning, you may be setting yourself up for a big fall. Think of what happened in Ireland when all those new apartments were rapidly built before the GFC, and now lay dormant, the real estate prices having crashed through the floor since.
But what concerns me, as a lifelong resident of NSW, is not the financial viability or market forces of overdevelopment. It is the loss of things I feel important for the community and the sheer recklessness with which this government has handled the job. Economics rise and fall, market forces surge and stabilize, but once heritage is gone, it doesn’t return. And once our heritage is gone, we as a nation are the poorer. We start to look like a people who don’t care, don’t value our heritage. A people who are more interested in making quick dollars and keeping our budgets balanced by sacrificing our treasures, our heritage, our very lifestyle, for the sake of short term profiteering. And our suburbs, that once held so much history and uniqueness, all start to look the same. Row after row of nondescript concrete building blocks without soul, the fibre of which has been sold. The Victorian and Federation shopfronts of our main streets, the cottages and houses with their ornate features and gardens, gone, sold to make way for ever more boxes. And it doesn’t help society, it is not healthy for a society to have houses go up for sale, and have first home buyers facing off with developers lining up at auction to decide who gets to carve up a property and sell back to multiple home buyers at the same price they should’ve paid for the house originally.
Supply is not the problem for our housing market, it is demand. The growth in population has to be sustainable, there is a limit to everything, and we can’t just allow growth at all costs any more. I liken it to a cafe or a bar…the doors are open and the tables fill up. Soon there are more patrons queuing at the door than there are tables available. Patrons keep filing in, standing and waiting, crowding around. If it was left to market forces (in this case, the bar or cafe owner) they would continue to serve more and more patrons, shuffling them into small unlit corners or having them spill out over the footpath, preferring to extract maximum profits rather than turn newcomers away in order to maintain the comfort level and expectations of their existing clientele. Pretty soon all floorspace is taken, civility is compromised, it’s getting harder to breathe, the atmosphere almost unbearable.
This is what Barry O’Farrell is condemning us to, when he hands all the cards in the planning deck from the citizens to developers, and throws these common regulations out the window… Environment, heritage protection, sustainable development, public consultation, all the things that should be expected in a good planning system. Remember we are the clientele here. We are the ones sitting in the crowded cafe or bar, watching it rapidly fill up to overcapacity. We have the right to expect certain levels of service and amenity. The same goes if you have bought a home in a nice area, an area you may have chosen because it is relatively low density, away for the city, in the suburban atmosphere. You have, in effect, made an investment, with all the terms and conditions that go with it. By Barry O’Farrell increasing the densities of that local area and rewriting the planning rules to suit developer interests, he is breaking the terms of that investment. You have a right to feel misled.
In the years to come I can foresee much conflict arising over the implications handed down in this undemocratic White Paper. I can see residents trying to minimize the damage to their suburbs en masse. I can see protesters asking “how were they allowed to build so close to that wetland?” or “how did they get permission to knock down that beautiful historic building?” or even “how were they allowed to build three level townhouses next to my house without me knowing?” But the damage is already done. The damage was done on Friday 28 June 2013, when submissions were closed on the details of the rushed and reckless Planning White Paper. When residents lost their right to be heard on matters of planning. When their rights, their voices, their state, were sold to developers by Barry O’Farrell, Premier of NSW.
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Recently I was fortunate enough to attend two separate forums dealing with the NSW Government’s proposed introduction of its Planning White Paper. The first was at Parliament House organized by the Better Planning Network, and the second at the Sydney Masonic Centre hosted by the Heritage Council of NSW.
There were a number of expert speakers at both events, including representatives of the State Government (Brad Hazzard was present at the first), community groups, the Heritage Council, and Nature Conservation Council of NSW. The talks involved in depth analysis of the White paper and its implications for the residents of NSW, and the news wasn’t good… What became clearer as the talks unfolded is just how biased and favourable to developers these new planning reforms really are.
With the government gunning to provide a platform that will pass 80 percent of developments within 10-25 days without any community consultation, it is becoming obvious that the rights and voices of residents are being radically swept aside in favour of economic development at any cost. The fact that there is such a short time frame for residents to digest not just the White Paper but also the Draft Metropolitan Strategy which dictates where future high rise growth corridors of Sydney will take shape, shows that our right of reply is not likely to be taken seriously by this government. The very idea that the Draft Metropolitan Strategy has been released before the White Paper submissions are heard almost defies logic.
There are facets of the Planning White Paper that will have far-reaching consequences to the state and the people that reside in it. Many of these can be seen as contentious in their nature, and the government criticized for not allowing the scope of public investigation they deserve. The planning reforms read like a Christmas wishlist for developers, many of whom would now be greedily lining up for their slice of the turkey, knife and fork in hand. For the purposes of compression, and so you don’t get bored too quickly (as I know it’s a painful subject) I have summarized the main points as I see them below.
Key issues of the White Paper that need to be addressed
- As mentioned, 80 percent of developments passed as ‘Code’ or ‘Complying’, without any community involvement or consultation, including units, industrial, mixed use, retail and commercial. These will all be passed in certain areas within 10-25 days without neighbours’ consent or knowledge.
- Other regional or state-significant developments will have only 14 or 28 days public notice/consultation, far from adequate for developments of such magnitude.
- Environmental protection zones including E1 (National Parks) and E2 (conservation areas) merged; E3 and E4 removed and replaced by general rural and residential zones. Some of the state’s most environmentally sensitive lands will lose all protection.
- The concept of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) completely removed from the White Paper. Under the current Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, ESD has been encouraged as standard principle, now it has been deliberately removed.
- Climate change totally excluded from the Paper. This is particularly worrying in drought prone areas as well as coastal fringes where beach and river erosion is increasing.
- Strategic planning principles will now be worded as ‘having regard to environment and social considerations.’ This means nothing.
- Subregional planning boards will be introduced to pass regional plans. These will be made up of a local council representative, up to four state representatives appointed by the Minister and an ‘independent’ chair appointed by the Minister.
- Role of local councils greatly diminished in planning policy and approvals.
- Simultaneously, many councils are being forced to amalgamate and cut back staff, reducing the level of service available to ratepayers.
- Neither infrastructure nor housing affordability are properly addressed in the White Paper. In fact there can be up to a three year lag on new development levies going to provide local infrastructure.
- The Minister has power to overrule any LEP or local zonings and amend strategic plans. There are risks of corruption when so much power is handled by so few, and this makes the whole idea of ‘community consultation’ laughable and void.
- Developers have rights of appeal and the right to request spot rezoning, whereas the public don’t. In essence, it is becoming much harder to knock back development and easier to allow it.
- Expansion in the use of private certifiers in assessment roles of new developments. This is fundamentally flawed because certifiers are paid and employed by the developer, not independently.
- Strategic Compatibility Certificates will allow developers now to override existing local controls until the new plans are introduced and possibly after.
- The utter lack of protection of cultural and architectural heritage (References to ‘heritage’ only mentioned three times in the White Paper). Key decision making on the 1,600 state significant listed heritage items passed out of the hands of Heritage Council to the Department of Planning with little or no knowledge of heritage issues and a pro-development bias.
- Similarly the role of assessing Aboriginal culture and heritage will be passed to the Department of Planning.
What the experts say…
David Logan, who was a key speaker at both events as a representative of the Heritage Council of NSW, stated in his speech that “Environment and heritage are two of the things that need to be balanced with development and growth. Planning is all about balancing. To get a look in heritage needs to be mentioned at the highest level, it needs to be very clearly articulated in the Act, in the state planning policies aswell… it’s not proposed to be… unless that happens there’s the real risk it won’t be taken into account adequately when those plans are made.”
The Nature Conservation Council of NSW states “These changes represent the most significant backward step on public participation and environmental protection in more than a generation, placing our natural areas and resources, and communities at risk.” In its assessment, the Nature Conservation Council rated the White Paper’s performance as only 3.5 out of 15.
The Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO NSW) states in its Parliamentary Briefing Note and Key Summary that “the White Paper’s strategic planning principles do not deal with improving or maintaining environmental outcomes, assessing cumulative impacts or preparing for climate change,” and that “The combined effect of broader zoning, greater code assessment (including the 80% target, ‘mandatory’ approvals, and compartmentalised merit assessments), and new review and appeal options for developers, will tip the balance further away from community involvement, environment protection, and local influence in decision-making.” It also notes the “lack of any real detail about how Aboriginal cultural heritage will be protected under the new planning system,” and that “The continued imbalance of appeal rights between developers and community members will continue to undermine community confidence in the proposed system.”
The Greens also have a bone to pick with Barry O’Farrell, claiming in their Putting Communities First document that “A new Planning Act must empower communities to deliver ecologically sustainable development. This means development that respects the precautionary principle and looks beyond the ‘market’ to balance the environment, the economy and social well-being.” The White Paper does none of this. And on the proposed quick turnarounds “Far from strengthening community participation rights, the government is proposing a scheme that will allow even less community notice than is currently required for any one state significant planning project.”
If you are reading this post there is a very good chance you are already familiar with many of the policies proposed under the White Paper and their disastrous consequences for communities, heritage and the environment. You would already be familiar with the Better Planning Network who are doing such a magnificent job in trying to represent the many and varied community groups around the state. And hopefully you will have penned your submission against this great mismanagement of our state’s assets, or be in the process of sending it in. You know how drastic and devastating these changes will be to your suburbs, towns and cities. You only have until 28 June. Go forth and spread the word.
If you have time on Wednesday 26 June, there will be a protest held by the BPN outside Governor Macquarie and Governor Phillip Towers, 1 Farrer Place at 12.15pm. Click here for map. If you are a responsible NSW resident who feels they are being misrepresented by an irresponsible government and you want to show your disapproval on matters of planning, the time has now come.
Send your submission to New Planning System, GPO Box 39, Sydney NSW 2001 or online here.
Alternatively, send your comments here whitepaper.planning.nsw.gov.au
Anyone who has been following the state of planning politics in NSW under the current O’Farrell Liberal government does so with a sense of dread and foreboding, especially after witnessing the recent disastrous handling of heritage items such as Thompson Square, Parramatta’s Lennox bridge and Griffith House Kogarah. Unfortunately these are only the tip of the iceberg… an iceberg that we are rapidly approaching and threatens to take down all sense of logical town planning, heritage value, and environmentally sensitive development with it. In its wake communities will be left reeling, as they lay scattered in the choppy waves of overdevelopment, clinging to some semblance of what they once knew and thought would remain solid forever, the state of the very surroundings that they held so dear.
Unfortunately this is no iceberg, if it was we could possibly steer around it… no, this is far worse. This is the reality of a government that came to power with the promise of returning planning powers to the people, the very people they now treat as third class passengers and are tossing overboard like used ballast, while the first class ranks of developer players stand proudly on the upper decks tapping to the tunes of the Liberal grand piano, watching the people below paddling for safety as their world comes crashing in around them.
If you think I’m over-exaggerating then think again. Under proposed changes to the planning system in NSW, the effects will be extreme and far reaching. There won’t be one citizen in this state who won’t feel the intrusive consequences of this ludicrous planning policy about to be laid down. Developers will be given a free ride on this ship of fools as Captain Barry and his First mate Hazzard steam off into uncharted murky waters with all of us in tow. The entire state will be altered beyond recognition and for such a titanic physically dizzying piece of legislation they have given residents only a few short weeks to comment and draw up submissions. June 28th is the cut off, after that you will have no say in how planning in your state evolves let alone what happens next door to your own front porch – you know, the one you just forked out half a million or a million dollars for because “you like the view.” Well guess what, don’t get used to the view too quickly because if a developer likes the view from the other side of the road you may just be looking into the balconies of a six story apartment block without even being consulted.
If you still think I’m exaggerating let’s break it down some more. Barry O’Farrell wants to fast track development in this state, and there are a number of tricks he’s planning to introduce or has introduced already that aim to get the ball rolling and go high with developing. As the mining investment boom slows down and China doesn’t seem to be wanting as much of all those expensive minerals we dig out of the ground and ship over at unsustainable levels, Barry is looking to capitalize on the next unsustainable boom – high density building. And what better way is there than to get all your developer buddies onside and rewrite the rules completely, claim to be representing the little people residents, wrangle their votes and support, then pull the wool over their eyes… what’s wrong with that?
With the introduction of the White Paper, Barry expects to get 80 percent of developments passed without any community consultation or merit assessment on a 10 to 25 day turnaround. That means the house next door to you can be bulldozed, every tree ripped out, a gaping hole dug, and three or four levels of townhouse or units ganged up a metre from your colorbond fence without you even knowing about it. If you’re not scared now, you should be… Heritage buildings will fair no better. We know already that just because a building is old and pretty doesn’t mean it will be spared. There are thousands of heritage buildings that aren’t listed at any level because the listings as they stand now are totally inadequate for a start. Rather than Barry taking this opportunity to regather listings and make a fresh start on increasing the levels of protection as well as (heaven forbid) adding more heritage stock to the lists, Barry is in fact doing nothing for unlisted properties and taking away the role of the Heritage Council in assessing controls for those properties that are listed, meaning heritage will become a by-product of planning in this state, leaving a trail of foreseeable destruction in his post-White Paper Brave New World.
Councils will lose much of their say in planning assessments, thereby directing absolute power to the state government, and scarily, often into the hands of just one minister. Councils, which can be seen as local representatives, will be stripped back and therefore we, as citizens, will lose our representation when it comes to planning. At present there is opportunity for councils to assess what developments take place within their local community and give residents the option to respond on a case by case basis, much of this will be lost, as it introduces too many variables as to whether a development will be approved and how long it will take to get through. Local knowledge will be lost, the councillors who were elected to make decisions because they have the necessary local familiarity with issues such as traffic and density – this will be compromised and hand the powers to faceless bureaucrats whose party is feeding off developer donations and whose only local knowledge comes from scanning Google maps of your area from behind a desk in a city office.
Bigger is better, according to Barry. Our village-like suburbs as they currently stand with their countless charming Victorian and Federation shopfronts will not be spared the hurricane forces of developer frenzy that this White Paper will unleash. But don’t take my word for it, have a look at what is already happening… Residents of low-rise Peakhurst, Riverwood and Penshurst have just been told their streets will be rezoned to allow highrise on the orders of the state government, despite Hurstville, the controlling council, trying to save these villages by instead funneling future areas of high density growth into its own central CBD. Both council and residents were ignored. Gosford is about to be lumbered with higher densities along the waterfront under what they classify as a ‘state significant’ development, Newcastle is at the mercy of the state government after Barry and co bought up a swathe of CBD shops and are going into a business partnership with the developer.
Thompson Square and historic Windsor Bridge are slated for an unsympathetic complete redesign as a ‘state significant project’ despite intense ongoing protests by local communities hopeful of retaining some of the picturesque and charming (not to mention historically significant) ambience that Windsor is renowned for. Griffith House in Kogarah, which was also recently fought and lost, can in fact be seen as a test case for the new planning system and how it can all go horribly wrong… Griffith House was a locally significant building, arguably the most important heritage building in the area, located on the grounds of the state owned St George Hospital. A public hospital is really a microcosm of society in general. Here you have all the issues that affect planning within the greater community – appropriate zoning and density, open space, commercial issues, traffic and congestion, population growth forecasts, heritage values, environment… So we saw what happened here when absolute power was given to the state government as it will be under this White Paper… Traffic and logistics issues were ignored and brushed over, public input and consultation was totally rejected, and the one heritage item that was there to be protected was tragically laid to waste.
This case in particular among many others proves that the current regime of Barry O’Farrell and his pro-developer lobby are blatantly incompetent when it comes to managing the issues of planning in NSW, so incompetent in fact, that they are now re-writing the rules to suit their own lack of capability. They are so far out of touch with the greater public that this planning paper they have announced, this so-called magic bullet to fix planning issues in NSW, has been roundly condemned and criticized by anyone who has a stake in the future of this state. Community groups, the Heritage Council, local councils, the Nature Conservation Council of NSW have all weighed in to the debate; the issue now is whether Barry O’Farrell and his dictatorship start to listen and realise there is so much more to good planning than just giving developer groups green lights to get the economy stimulated. That sets a dangerous path and one that you as a citizen shouldn’t just take for granted. We all have a say, so I hope you will use your own voice to challenge this government’s ridiculous and extremely developer-biased planning proposals.
Look into the Better planning Network, campaign your local MPs and councillors, advise people you know, get involved in local forums, and most importantly, get your submission in to protest the new planning reforms. Tell them you simply aren’t happy with the rights you are losing as a ratepaying citizen to decide what happens in your own area, and that by handing over all our rights to developers to decide how we will live is not morally justifiable in any way, shape or form.