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NSW moves to fast-track low-rise medium density homes

Image: Salty Dingo
Image: Salty Dingo

It will be cheaper and easier to build low-rise medium density housing in NSW, following the adoption of a code that makes certain projects complying development.

One and two storey dual occupancies, manor houses and terraces are all included in the new Low Rise Medium Density Housing Code, which was first flagged back in 2016 and now set to come into effect on 6 July 2018.

According to the government, homeowners can save up to $15,000 by going down the complying development path, a fast-track assessment that can be determined by a private certifier without the need for a development application, and which can only be challenged on limited grounds.

NSW planning minister Anthony Roberts said the code would boost housing supply and lead to more affordable product in the “missing middle” between detached homes and strata apartments.

“The need for more high-quality medium-sized homes comes as population projections estimate metropolitan Sydney will need another 725,000 homes to accommodate an extra 1.7 million people by 2036,” Mr Roberts said.

“With the growing and ageing population in NSW, there is a need for a greater variety of houses to suit the range of needs and lifestyles including growing families and empty nesters.”

The code has been released alongside a Medium Density Design Guide, created with the Government Architect’s Office to make sure developments are of suitable quality.

“The Code and Design Guide will encourage the market to provide more diverse housing options by making it easier to build well-designed, quality medium density homes that respect existing neighbourhoods,” Mr Roberts said.

But whether homes will “respect existing neighbourhoods” is up for debate, with much disquiet in the community about a limited ability to challenge complying developments.

Local Government NSW, which has been a vocal critic in the past, remains opposed to the changes, and says medium density development should be open to a “merits-based assessment process, which enables residents to have ‘a say on development next door’”.

It is also sceptical of allowing private certifiers to sign off, noting that councils have had to investigate many complaints related to non-compliance on developments signed off on by private certifiers.

Following advocacy efforts, however, the code will only apply to areas where the particular medium-density forms are already permitted, rather than being allowed in areas that restrict development to, say, single-storey dwellings.

The code has received a warmer welcome from the development sector.

Housing Industry Association director David Bare said the code would help to increase supply and costs.

“Faster approvals of these types of homes will address both supply and affordability,” he said.

“They are typically built on smaller blocks of land than traditional free-standing homes, which helps improve affordability.”

Urban Taskforce chief executive Chris Johnson said complying development was a good way to simplify planning and reduce costs, though voiced concerns over the design guide.

“We do have some concerns at the level of detail contained in the 210-page Medium Density Design Guide, as many council planning officers often take guides as being formal standards required by the state government,” he said.

“The NSW Apartment Design Guide has been interpreted by many councils as a tick the box formal requirement and this is limiting innovation and adding to costs.”

The Australian Institute of Architects, however, praised the design requirements.

“Architectural design prioritises both quality of space and human amenity – qualities which our cities will need all the more as they continue to grow – the spaces that we live in need to work harder,” AIA NSW executive director Joshua Morrin said.

“The smaller homes that will increasingly be part of our cities, highlighting the need for good design principles and requirements, such as those in the Medium Density Design Guide. We need more quality design to future proof the liveability of our communities.”

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