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Sydney sets a sustainable future in draft district plans

There is a wide range of reaction to the Greater Sydney Commission’s draft district plans, much of it positive. Key to sustainability is the objective to enable net zero emissions by 2050, and a circular economy.

Mandatory affordable housing, interconnected green space and pathways to net zero emissions are just some of the priorities set in draft district plans for the next 20 years of Sydney’s growth released by the Greater Sydney Commission on Monday. And, according to GSC chief commissioner Lucy Turnbull, the plans will have teeth.

The release of the district plans represent the first time planning outcomes have been set at a district level, with six plans setting priorities for Central, North, West Central, West, South West and South areas.

Launching the plans at a stakeholder briefing on Monday morning, Ms Turnbull said they represented the missing link between metropolitan and local planning, and would help work towards a goal of syncing land use, transport and infrastructure plans by early 2018.

Councils will be required to amend their local environment plans to align with the district plans, which will also become a consideration for planning authorities in regards to planning proposals put forward from today onwards.

Long-term thinking is back – more than a nod to the historic Cumberland Plan

The district plans are also accompanied by a draft amendment to the state government’s metropolitan plan, which will now look out to 2056, representing the first time a 40-year plan has been developed since the historic Cumberland Plan was released in 1948, almost 70 years ago.

In a dramatic shift from past metropolitan plans, it reconceptualises Sydney as three cities – the “global Sydney” of the east, the Central Sydney with Parramatta as its core, and Western Sydney, which will be anchored by the new airport at Badgerys Creek, forming what economic commissioner Geoff Roberts termed an “aerotropolis”.

Affordable housing – on the right track when no stakeholder agrees

They say you’re on the right track in strategic planning when no stakeholder’s happy with the outcomes.  So it looks like the GSC’s got affordable housing spot on, with the Property Council slamming the 5-10 per cent mandatory affordable housing on upzoned land as a risk to housing supply, and community housing groups saying it’s simply not enough.

The 5-10 per cent affordable housing target will be set during the rezoning stage in areas where there’s current or future affordable housing needs; on land within new urban renewal or greenfield areas; and to all new floor space above existing permissible floor space.

In a potential boon to developers, GSC chief executive Sarah Hill stressed the targets were “subject to viability”, as continued supply of housing needed to be ensured. How viability is determined will have to be carefully managed, though, to avoid problems that have been seen in the UK where developers have repeatedly and successfully argued for substantially reduced affordable housing targets.

Overall five-year housing targets have also been set, with Ms Hill telling the stakeholder briefing there was “increased capacity” to meet the targets due to the strength of the market. All up, the GSC foresees close to 200,000 new dwellings over the next five years, and 725,000 over the next 20 years.

The Property Council of Australia, however, called the Affordable Rental Housing Target a “risk” to this new supply, with NSW executive director Jane Fitzgerald saying the target could work to dampen supply if additional height and density were not provided to developers.

“If the AHRT operates as a disincentive to residential development, the ambitious housing targets outlined in the plans will never be met,” she said.

“Unless the proposed new AHRT is compensated for by 10 per cent more height or density for individual developments, affordable rental housing for some will mean less affordable housing for the rest.”

In response to the viability test, she said neither the GSC nor councils were well placed to determine project viability.

We need much higher targets for affordable housing – try 50 per cent

The NSW Federation of Housing Associations’ chief executive Wendy Hayhurst, meanwhile, said the targets needed to be higher, particularly on government land.

Shelter NSW executive officer Mary Perkins said the 5-10 per cent target was “inadequate”, and that a target of 50 per cent affordable housing would be fairer to the community regarding gains to private developers made because of government action.

Another point of difference is that the GSC has tightened the eligibility for affordable housing, with only very low and low income residents able to secure the discounted rental properties.

Other government affordable housing schemes have tended to extend eligibility to those on moderate incomes (up to 120 per cent of the median household income) in order to capture the “essential worker” market – jobs like nurses, teachers and ambulance officers that may not be able to afford to live near their place of employment.

Ms Hill said while the GSC was mindful of moderate income households, they were “starting first and foremost with the most vulnerable”.

Sustainability key to the three cities concept

Whether it will play out in practice is another story, but the concepts of sustainability and liveability have been given strong weight in the draft plans, and are considered crucial for the viability of the GSC’s three cities concept, with plans to boost Sydney’s “green and blue grids”.

The stakeholder briefing heard from environment commissioner Rod Simpson that the city needed ”to accept our role as custodians, just as Aboriginal people have [been] for 40,000 years and continue to do so”.

Net zero and circular economy

Key to this would be enacting the government’s net zero by 2050 agenda on a district scale and integrating the NSW Climate Change Policy Framework into local planning decisions.

He said this would involve “aiming to become a circular economy”.

For the new Central City, the restoration of the “river city” was important for liveability, which included protecting waterways, improving water quality, enabling access to Parramatta River and Sydney Harbour foreshore, and making the Parramatta River swimmable by 2025.

For the new Western city, the idea is to create a “garden city” full of interconnected green spaces and walking and cycling tracks.

“Canberra had a bit of a go at it, but I think we can do this a lot better,” Mr Simpson said.

“This is not going to be urban sprawl, let’s be absolutely clear.”

The Total Environment Centre

The release of the plans were tentatively welcomed by Total Environment Centre, with executive director Jeff Angel saying it marked a potential new direction that could see Sydney become more liveable and environmentally sustainable.

“The structure and culture of the GSC are distinctly different to past agencies and they have engaged in new research and community engagement techniques, including sponsoring an independent Environment Panel to provide a detailed analysis of Sydney’s environmental problems and solutions,” Mr Angel said.

“Critical issue like adequate green spaces, tree canopy, dangerous urban heat and climate change are major challenges for Sydney.”

He said the draft district plans were an important part of balancing liveability, sustainability and economic considerations.

It will be a while before the plans are finalised, as Ms Hill said the GSC was mindful of recent local council amalgamations and wanted to wait until elected representatives had the chance to contribute, after September this year.

The draft plans will be on public exhibition until March 2017 and all stakeholders are invited to make a submission at www.greater.sydney.

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