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.
Related posts on this site:
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