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NSW planning reform: Minor changes celebrated, but the system’s still broken

Last week’s update to NSW planning laws has been called the biggest overhaul of the system in its near 40-year history, but critics say it fails to tackle the big issues, including transport planning, affordable housing and climate change.

The bill sees a number of changes, including the introduction of three new objectives – promoting good design, the “sustainable management of heritage”, and “the proper construction and maintenance of buildings”.

There are also new rules around minimum exhibition periods, strengthening of compliance measures, the requirement that councils prepare a “local strategic planning statement”, as well as all planning authorities needing community participation plans.

“The changes reflect the government’s commitment to thriving, safe and well-designed communities with local character and heritage,” planning minister Anthony Roberts said.

“By focusing on community participation, strategic planning, clarity in decision making and simpler and faster processes, the bill will help strengthen community confidence in the planning system.”

Mr Roberts said the local strategic planning statement recognised the role of councils in strategic planning.

“These statements will see councils and communities formulate the vision for land use in the local area, capturing local character and what the community wants for the future. At the same time, the statements will translate the directions in regional and district plans into actions at the local level.”

Scathing attack on missed opportunities from Labor

However, not everyone is jubilant.

Opposition planning spokesman Michael Daley said Labor didn’t oppose the bill because it was “largely inoffensive”, but in a scathing speech to parliament attacked it as a missed opportunity to fix a deeply broken system.

“That is the great disappointment inherent in [this bill],” he said.

“There is nothing in this bill that assists people struggling with housing affordability. There is nothing in this bill that assists the development industry to progress approvals into completions, which is the great hurdle holding back supply. Priority precincts are still rampant, trampling over communities and councils. There is nothing in this bill to enhance community confidence in the planning system.”

He said planning was supposed to shape Sydney, but this was not happening, and the changes announced did nothing to rectify transport agencies’ “grandiose schemes that have turned planning on its head”.

Planners should be running the show but they remain on the outer

“Our great hope was that the Greater Sydney Commission would make planners ascendant; unfortunately, it has been thwarted in that proposal,” Mr Daley said.

“An example of this is the WestConnex, which is eating its way across the city. It is a motorway with exorbitant tolls, linked to nothing.”

Mr Daley said “planners should run the show”, but it was transport agencies calling the shots to the detriment of the city and community.

He also decried the “forests of high rises” the NSW government was pursuing to accommodate growth.

“There are better ways to do planning in NSW. This bill, though largely inoffensive and largely made up of machinery provisions, does not improve that situation at all.”

Affordable housing was another area he said had not been tackled.

“The Greater Sydney Commission is talking about the five to 10 per cent inclusionary zoning that has not been progressed. I know the Greater Sydney Commission and some people in the government want it to happen, but it has been prevented by this government – and shame on it.”

All in all, he said the changes were “stacked too far in [developers’] favour”.

Climate ignored

Environmentalists are also unhappy that no mention of climate change is included in the changes, though an environmentally sustainable development objective remains. The Greens had put in an amendment that called for the principal object of the act to be the promotion of environmentally sustainable development, though both Labor and the government voted against this.

The Greens this year even took the step of creating their own bill to put climate change and meeting the Paris agreement at the heart of the planning system.

“Development applications under the current law are decided with little or no reference to the greatest environmental and social challenge of our time,” Greens NSW planning spokesman David Shoebridge said. “By changing how planning accounts for climate change, we can take real steps to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Design clause welcomed

The NSW Government Architect, Peter Poulet, who recently released the Better Placed design guide, took the unusual steps of calling on parliament to pass the bill, arguing the addition of a “good design” objective in the bill was a “no-brainer”.

“Good design serves everyone,” he said.

NSW Department of Planning and Environment deputy secretary for policy, strategy & governance Alison Frame said design principles had until now been an afterthought.

“We now have the opportunity to create spaces that are functional, but also inspiring and attractive,” she said.

“The look and feel of a place is important to people and the best way to achieve that is with thoughtful and skillful design. With any new development, maintaining character and heritage is vital and having green, open spaces is a right for all.”

Australian Institute of Architect NSW executive director Joshua Morrin said the amendments gave “legislative weight” to the Better Placed design guide.

The Planning Institute of Australia also welcomed the changes.

“The planning reforms will help deliver the results that planners seek for better places and stronger communities,” PIA NSW president Jenny Rudolph said.

She said the institute had campaigned to have strategic planning to have a stronger role in the system.

“We look to local strategic planning statements to tie together the local and regional aspirations for a place.”

It also supported moves to have medium density housing as complying development, and the introduction of Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels in urban areas, though said they should be extended to regional areas.

Developers see red tape

Development lobbies were welcoming of the changes, though the Urban Taskforce said there was still the potential to add more “red tape”.

“The big picture reforms that have gone through the NSW Parliament sound like progressive moves to lift strategic planning and get communities on board with planning decisions but the detail could create more red tape rather that a more efficient system,” Urban Taskforce chief executive Chris Johnson said.

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