What do you get for $2.5 million in Sydney? The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has been throwing this sort of money at Sydney councils to do some strategic planning, and is just about to learn how poor value-for-money Sydney can be.

As a follow-up to the semi-successful council amalgamation project of 2016, the NSW Department of Planning provided grants of $2.5 million to newly amalgamated councils to consolidate and harmonise their local environmental plans (LEPs). These are the base local planning policies that set zonings and core development controls.

In central Sydney, all the big new councils, the Inner West, Canterbury-Bankstown, Cumberland, Bayside and the Georges River, have what are being called consolidating LEPs either on or just about to go on public exhibition.

The timing is a consequence of the timeline in their funding agreement – if you don’t stay on track you don’t get the money!

The poor value-for-money proposition with these new LEPs arises out of the narrow brief allowed by the state government – it’s okay to just bring your current disparate LEPs together and harmonise the controls, nothing new or responsive is expected or required.  What’s to criticise about a steady-as-she-goes project?

Firstly, the recent history of land use planning in Sydney has been dominated by this approach. In the 1990s there was a push to consolidate disparate planning policies in individual local government areas. Councils were given exemptions from the requirement to undertake comprehensive environmental studies to consolidate their LEPs into one. Then, in the early 2000s, a template standard instrument LEP was introduced with common provisions, and again councils were given exemptions from undertaking comprehensive studies. The current group of LEPs in most of established Sydney are facsimiles of facsimiles, where the logic of zoning decisions and associated controls are lost in time and bureaucratic short cuts.

Secondly, the past 20 years in Sydney have been an economic boom within a very unresponsive planning system. The global and local trends are city focused. We should have had a brand new and consolidated Sydney, if economics and city ambition had ruled.

Instead, most planning controls in established Sydney buckled down on a status quo approach. Consent authorities listened too much to the noisiest voices that stated, “we like everything just the way it is”.

The real growth has been forced out to the places where it’s possible, that is some centres, industrial areas, ethnically diverse middle ring suburbs and otherwise out west – a move that is threatening our local food bowl.

And thirdly, why go through the complex technical task of making new comprehensive LEPs without some policy favour to them?

There is a wealth of studies, particularly in growth areas such as the Sydenham to Bankstown or Parramatta Road corridors suggesting policy responses, and there are examples of comparatively innovative policy, such as the City of Sydney’s restrictive parking policy, that are viable models for change.

Surely a little bit of policy movement is worthwhile in the areas of housing affordability and quality, transport/sustainability and a response to current infrastructure projects.

Housing

Sydney’s real estate market has boomed, in a good way for those old enough and/or lucky enough to own property, not so lucky for the rest. To borrow some of the more colourful phases from noted north American land economists and urbanists like Edward Glaeser and Richard Florida, Sydney is Australia’s “super star city” with all the attendant benefits and disadvantages, that flow from what these guys call “winner takes all urbanism”.

A new LEP could accommodate ambition and promote affordability for households increasingly squeezed. A response could be built-for-rent and small site provisions.

A built-for-rent provision in new LEPs could be a requirement that every housing development of 12 or more dwellings must dedicate at least 25 per cent of new housing as rental accommodation, that housing can only be subdivided in minimum groups of three dwellings and must be provided for rental.

Planning controls can foster smaller residential housing forms. More permissive zonings and a focus on maintaining the historic subdivision pattern of Sydney would be a good start. In general, the concept of conservation area type building listings is inefficient and unfair – if you like a place, heritage list the subdivision pattern and let it evolve.

A suitable historic vision for central Sydney could be townscapes of diverse and dense buildings hugging a quirky subdivision, instead of the current elitist, over restored Victorian or early Federation building model that seems to dominate.

Small buildings are better. A more diverse group of people build them and not just to sell, the accommodation is of higher quality and these building fit more lightly into existing urban spaces.

These approaches also address building quality issues. The root cause of every Opal or Mascot Tower building failure, is a build-to-sell culture and a developer taking on projects beyond their expertise. Further, provisions that encourage and often require significant site consolidations, disadvantage local owners, and small and medium sized builders and developers. This not only exacerbates the potential harm caused by larger building failures, but also obliterates the idiosyncrasies of the historic subdivision pattern.

If developers must retain a portion of the housing as build-for-rent or pass that housing onto an investor with some teeth, there is a structural reason to build better. And smaller buildings are less complex and prone to failure.

Transport/sustainability

The current group of consolidating LEPs lack a clear position on transport. This is an opportunity to encourage low energy transport modes, such as walking, cycling and public transport by actively resisting private car use.

This could be done by providing for a car parking maximum provision in each LEP not dissimilar to provisions already used in the City of Sydney LEP and then complement this provision with restrictive local parking policies, such as resident parking schemes.

One of the dire consequences of LEP shortcutting that has so dominated plan making in Sydney over the last 20 years is that most LEPs lack a transport policy. Transport, or rather car provision, is still seen as something generated by a building decision. Buildings must-have cars.

The strategic question of whether to provide or not is never tested.  Successful cities have risen above this and know buildings don’t need to sit on top of car parks. In the LEP shortcutting, this essential knowledge has been ignored in Sydney.

Even if there were just maximum car parking provisions near transport sites, that would be a start. The current round of consolidating LEPs seems like the right time to take that step out of the 1950s.

Infrastructure

The discussion about infrastructure and land use needs to go to efficiency and metropolitan fairness. It’s not fair for the state government to spend billions on Metro Rail for communities that still insist on not sharing that infrastructure with others.

The press love to gloat over cost blow outs on these projects – what about the communities that get that benefit and then refuse to share?

A good example is the inner west area of Dulwich Hill. This is not the north shore or eastern suburbs; Dulwich Hill fancies itself as kind of a progressive place, yet come any kind of election the station precinct is covered in placards claiming, “Save Dully”.

The existential threat is change. The Save Dully crowd could cut a cucumber sandwich with the most precious NIMBY from the north shore.

The soon to be upgraded Dulwich Hill Metro Rail station is also the terminus of the Inner West Light Rail Line. This is a locality where soon there will be regular 10-20 minute trips into central Sydney, connections to the Bays Precinct via Light Rail and potentially the Metro West, yet the future of much of the near station land under the consolidating LEP is for heritage listed two-storey dwelling houses.

In those localities where the infrastructure is coming, some near station changes are warranted – here are my ideas for Dully.

Dulwich Hill Metro Rail Site Plan, Dickson Rothschild
Dulwich Hill Metro Rail Site Plan, Dickson Rothschild

If the do-nothing approach seems a bit lame, what about recent events such as bush fires and viral pandemics? Climate change and the need to adapt and become resilient has become real.

A climate change adapted and resilient society is going to be more urban and based on well-run infrastructure – probably a more shared and less private place.

Another reality bearing down on Sydney is the end of the last 20 years-plus of boom, where “make it hard to do anything” LEPs could work. The pandemic lockdown appears to be reshaping the economic environment in Sydney overnight, and perhaps these LEPs need to have some stimulus element to them.

The need to house and keep people in employment somewhere not exposed to urban heat and the other environmental risks emerging on the city fringe trumps retention of quaint one to two storey 19th century buildings.

The consolidating LEP program is a good piece of planning work, however, it could easily be so much better with a bit of policy flavour on some of the real issues facing our city. Smart, discrete, strategic interventions can make a real difference and set a policy agenda for future plan making.

The current burst of complacent consolidating LEPs seems to be hitting the deck just as real change and responsiveness is required.  Cynically, I suspect the blinkers will be pulled in just a little tighter.

9 replies on “Sydney’s complacent planning when we need resilience and urgent change”

  1. ‘In central Sydney, all the big new councils, the Inner West, Canterbury-Bankstown, Cumberland, Bayside and the Georges River’

    I googled Cumberland council and got ‘in the western suburbs of Sydney’

    I live in central Sydney – in the City of Sydney council area – this article rails against many other areas which are separate from and not controlled by City of Sydney – ignoring the one council which is most proactive and sustainable – while using its name as an insult – so is annoying in that respect

  2. Great response, Helen and Rachel. The greenest building is the one you don’t build, but instead adaptively reuse. Further, Sydney’s terrace dwellings are an obvious exemplar for dealing with the ‘missing middle’.

  3. ….Sydney’s real estate market has boomed, in a good way for those old enough and/or lucky enough to own property, not so lucky for the rest. ….well why call it a boom? We don’t celebrate increase in petrol or electric prices by calling their increase as a boom.

  4. This article contests that “The need to house and keep people in employment somewhere not exposed to urban heat and the other environmental risks emerging on the city fringe trumps retention of quaint one to two storey 19th century buildings”. This presents an inaccurate view of the role of historic buildings in the sustainability effort.
    Conserving and adapting heritage places allows for energy conservation by retaining the embodied energy of existing buildings and further reduces carbon emissions by minimising demolition and construction waste and the need for production and transportation of new materials. More particularly, conservation of heritage buildings often continues the utilisation of buildings designed to operate using passive environmental control. A heritage building is not a static thing – it has changed, and will continue to change and adapt to new uses and needs.
    Comparison of adaptive reuse vs demolition and rebuild options for a 19th century terrace in the UK shows that the construction of a new home of the same size produces up to 13 times more embodied carbon than refurbishment(i) (and operational emissions can be decreased by 60%). In another example from Finland, adaptive reuse of a former cotton spinning mill (to include residential use) resulted in a development with 55% less embodied energy expended than if everything within the complex had been built new.(ii) In France, the refurbishing of a 1959 apartment block (including adding balconies), with occupants living on-site during the works, produced 3-4 renovated apartments for the same money that would have been required to tear down and rebuild one new apartment.(iii)
    The science simply does not back up the assertion that razing historic places and building new buildings produces a beneficial environmental or socially responsible outcome. Net Zero requires that Australians half their 2018 emissions by 2030.(iv) The answer would seem to be in ensuring that any existing building that could be reused is sensitively adapted in addition to providing sustainable new development where necessary.
    _______________
    (i) Historic England, 2019
    (ii) Mark Watson, Historic Scotland
    (iii) Druot, Lacaton & Vassal Architects
    (iv) Patrick Sucking, NSW OEH, 2018

  5. Thanks Philip, a thoughtful and timely set of proposals. Sydney has a virus alright – the morbid fear of YIMBYitis. Councils ‘lock down’ accordingly.
    Build to rent, better build quality, parking provision reduced and smaller developments are on my wish list too, as well as affordable housing provision exceeding 5%, more co-ops and mandating food producing allotments to equitably embed resilience into Sydney

  6. All Railway stations in Sydney should be rezoned and have 3 circles drawn around them.
    1) 250 Metres, High density units to a height of 16 floors with commercial and retail space underneath. Zero Parking, Zero Street parking.
    2) 500 Metres, 3 Floor Walk up units, Zero Parking, Zero Street Parking.
    3) 1 Kilometre, Townhouses with block sizes of 150sqm, Zero Parking, Zero street Parking.
    Streets would be trimmed to only allow delivery, trades (plumbers, electricians etc) and emergency services.

    All roofing should be designed to fully use the roof for solar power

    No further funding for any road programs, no new exurban developments of agricultural or crown-lands.

    All transport funding used for Metro Rail programs to service areas without rail transit.

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