Better Planning Network Workshop

The public has until 31 March to comment on proposed changes to the Planning Act, and the BPN Workshop was designed to assist its 400-odd member organisations to get their thoughts in order. Before I comment on the two major presentations, I should make my position clear.

The State Government is under a lot of pressure to reduce the cost of housing. The proportion of persons owning their own home is falling, and first-home buyers are finding it particularly difficult. The main solution to the pressure of demand being touted by the Government is to increase supply. While this may seem orthodox economics it is not, as many such as Ross Gittins have pointed out, a problem of supply and demand. What is happening is that dwellings are being purchased for investment by those flush with superannuation funds, and this continues to drive up prices beyond the power of first home buyers to obtain finance. In other words, homes are bought by those who do not need them, and those who do need them cannot afford them. I have been through this situation with my own daughter, so I know it is the case.

The problem for both the Federal and State Governments is that these investors are their supporters, so there is reluctance to recognise the nature of the problem or do anything about it. It is in the State Government’s power to increase supply, and this is what the changes to the Act are primarily intended to achieve, even though it is not the answer. The former Minister, Bob Stokes, was a qualified planner, and actually understood what some of the problems were, so of course he had to go, and be replaced by a Minister who doesn’t ask awkward questions. Where there are positive aspects of the changes we can confidently attribute them to Bob Stokes.

Changes and Their Impacts

There is a new emphasis on Strategic Planning and preparation of Plans for future development. The new Commission for Greater Sydney is deeply involved in this. Authorities will be required to draw up Community Participation Plans (where they don’t have them). This is obviously a good thing, as well as providing more certainty for all concerned. Unfortunately, the provisions for consultation are not mandatory. This vagueness may well lead to a process that is inadequate, as has been the case so often in the past.

Independent Planning Commission

Control of State Significant Development and Infrastructure will no longer be through the completely discredited Part 3A, but through public inquiries conducted by the Commission. Unfortunately, such an inquiry extinguishes any right to appeal, even if the basis on which the decision was made is incorrect.

Code-based Approvals and Private Certification

Apart from the plans and Local Planning Panels, these are the main means for increasing supply. Again, these strongly favour developers, and their scope is increasing. They are also closely tied to the Government’s supporters. Developers also have review rights.

Environmental Protection

Emily Ryan, Outreach Director for the Environmental Defender’s Office, was particularly concerned about the lack of reference to Climate Change and the lack of independence in the preparation of Environmental Impact Statements. These matters are easily fixable, and again reflect a bias toward developers.

The persistence of these problems leads John Mant (who has a lengthy and intense involvement in planning matters, including as City of Sydney Councillor and author of planning legislation) to call for the entire history of planning legislation, based on British models dating from 1936 and earlier, to be abandoned.  His proposal is to replace this system by one in which all proposals have to obtain approval, but where their impact is more easily assessed using modern cadastral maps and computer-generated imaging. However, it would be difficult for people to give up the protections they currently enjoy, or to have confidence in such an assessment system. The full response to the Planning changes will be published on the Society’s website.