The Western Australian government has suspended work on its green growth plan and implemented a “critical review” after details of a revised draft were inadvertently released by a public servant, flagging the potential for significant curtailing of development to the south of the city.

The draft Perth and Peel Green Growth Plan for 3.5 million (Green Growth Plan), instigated by the former Liberal-National government, was designed to cater for an almost 70 per cent increase in the region’s population by 2050, by securing upfront Commonwealth environmental approvals and streamlining state approvals, while protecting high-value environmental land.

The government early this month said that it had committed to “a critical review of the ongoing costs, risks and benefits for Western Australia”.

“A lot of important and complex work has been completed as part of the [Strategic Assessment of the Perth and Peel Regions] process and some outcomes have been delivered – including helping inform the sub-regional planning frameworks which were recently endorsed by the state government,” a government statement said.

“However the project presents many policy, legal and financial challenges which have been proving difficult to resolve, amongst the competing priorities of the government. As a result a re-evaluation of the project is the responsible step forward.”

And while sections of the development industry and environmentalists have been calling for the plan to be reviewed for different reasons, it seems a slip-up – where major details of a work-in-progress revision were released at a seminar by a public servant a few weeks ago – was a major factor in the government suspending the plan and announcing its review.

The release of the sensitive information was witnessed by Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute director Professor Peter Newman, who told The Fifth Estate it was “a complete embarrassment” for the government to have such details revealed with no minister in sight, and this most likely contributed to the announcement of a review soon after.

The plan in its current public form recommends limiting development north of the city.

“[The plan] said the city should stop sprawling in that direction, which was a very good conclusion to make,” Professor Newman said. This was due to environmental concerns, though Professor Newman said there were also major economic and social benefits of limiting sprawl.

The revised draft revealed the government is now investigating similar restrictions on land in the south-west corridor, as well as plans to rezone the Roe 8 freeway site to parkland so it cannot be developed.

Professor Newman said the government was working to align the green growth plan with transport and land use plans, where previously there was no integration or co-ordination.

He said the plan had “good bones”, and there was potential for work on the document to continue.

“It’s an important plan, but clearly they’re not finished [refining it].”

Room for change

There’s wide agreement that the Green Growth Plan needs to be revised, but for different reasons.

The Urban Development Institute of Australia’s WA branch said the plan had implications for affordability and the potential for future development.

“While UDIA was supportive of the original intent of this project, we have raised major concerns about the GGP in recent years as the scope and implications have evolved,” UDIA’s Allison Hailes said.

“Whilst the plan seeks to secure environmental values in the region, there will also be a range of economic and social impacts for land development and new home buyers that need to be better understood before the plan goes further.”

Environmentalists haven’t been impressed either. Last year a coalition of environmental groups – including WWF, the Wilderness Society and Conservation Council of WA – made a joint statement calling on the incoming Labor government to commit to a major review, as it believed the current draft fell short or failed in a number of areas. 

“The process employed under the Barnett Government has lacked rigour and transparency and environment groups consider the plan’s projected impacts on the region’s biodiversity unacceptable and inconsistent with responsibilities under state and Commonwealth environmental legislation,” the statement said. 

It said the plan could be a “unique opportunity to turn the corner from unsustainable urban sprawl in the Perth Peel Region to develop into a series of compact, sustainable urban centres with connectivity by public transport”.

It called for the establishment of an urban growth boundary or similar growth constraint, for development to be aligned with transport and for improved building sustainability. 

The 2016 Design Perth report – a collaboration between the Property Council, Curtin University, Greens and architecture and design firm CODA – said the plan lacked “any effective action to reach its 47 per cent infill target”.

“There is an opportunity here for government to revise the targets set out in these planning frameworks to reflect the potential for dwelling and job creation highlighted in this report,” it said.

“Furthermore, government can introduce stronger measures to force councils to deliver on their infill targets.”

Fremantle and UDIA clash over density

The balance of greenfield and infill development has been a major concern in Perth, which is one of the most world’s most sprawled cities, costing the state an estimated $2.5 billion a year.

The City of Fremantle recently became embroiled in a stoush with the UDIA’s WA branch regarding the hidden costs of greenfield development.

The council last week fronted an inquiry into the federal government’s role in the development of cities, arguing that Perth’s continuing sprawl was costing the state government “$150,000 to provide infrastructure for every new lot in outer developments, against $55,000 for infill development”.

“By extension WA taxpayers are paying $94.5 million for every 1000 homes built on the fringe of Perth.” 

It called for a return to a 60 per cent infill target, up from the current rate of 47 per cent. Labor had previously committed to the 60 per cent target but revised it down to match the Liberal-Nationals prior to the election.

In response to Fremantle’s submission, the UDIA called the claims “unsubstantiated”.

“There has not been any independent research done to properly calculate the costs of infill versus greenfield infrastructure provision,” UDIA WA chief executive Allison Hailes said. 

“I don’t know where the figure of $150,000 per lot for infrastructure in new developments comes from, but I don’t think for one minute that the state government is footing that kind of bill.”

The figure, however, was mentioned in the Design Perth report, and based on previous research Professor Newman was involved with. 

A recent review of literature assessing infrastructure provision costs, conducted by SGS Economics and Planning in 2016, found that greenfield infrastructure costs were “approximately 2-4 times more than infill”.

Professor Newman told The Fifth Estate government insiders had told him the costs of greenfield development were a lot worse than had been reported. He said it was getting to the point where the federal government should seriously look at a public inquiry into the cost of sprawl in Australian cities, as it was part of ongoing population, transport and planning debates.