By Tina Perinotto

3 February 2012 – Could John Brogden be the man to save Sydney?

The Urban Taskforce thinks so.

The developers’ lobby group leapt on this week’s appointment of the former Liberal Leader as chairman of Landcom to say this could be the time to reshape the state’s land development agency as a fully functioning urban developer, similar to Victoria’s.

Newly appointed chief executive of the Taskforce, Chris Johnson, says Brogden has the political connections and the interest in planning to make this happen.

“I recall having some quite good discussions with him on planning matters and he had a real interest in the area,” Johnson says.

“There is some real potential to build on his appointment.”

Johnson’s suggestion came amid the furore that accompanied revelations that the NSW Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, invited landowners to submit sites for fast tracking of housing proposals. And this for land that is outside of the designated growth areas, to be handled outside of normal council processes, and without the state paying a cent, which means the councils would likely foot the bill.

See locations and map for all 43 parcels of land on the fast track

The move was defended by the ongoing call for more housing in Sydney.

Then there’s the call for an urban development agency. Last year Hazzard flagged a merger between the Sydney Metropolitan Housing Authority and Landcom.

There has been debate about what form it should take, and soulful looks to the success of other land development agencies, such as those in WA and Victoria.

At the end of 2011 The Fifth Estate published an astounding ­– and, to NSW eyes – enviable, list of major property holdings owned by Places Victoria, formerly VicUrban. Enough to create whole new suburbs at Fishermen’s Bend, a stone’s throw from the CBD for instance, and enough to shift the planning and development momentum in other key nodes.

And, according to its nonplussed new chairman, Peter Clarke, no reason to think development and rezoning won’t be orderly and smooth.

By contrast, Sydney’s urban developers have thrown in the towel on medium-density, infill housing projects. They cite structural issues around site amalgamation, zoning problems and feisty resident action groups.

This confluence of factors pushes development out to the fringes where the environmental and social consequences are disastrous.

Except that it hasn’t happened much there, either, in recent years. In the north-west and south-west, earmarked for growth, owners of small acreages ­– mainly farmers –  won’t sell, or are holding out for prices higher than developers want to pay for site amalgamation.

That was probably the reasoning behind Hazzard’s ill-judged decision.

  • See the Sydney Morning Herald story

But in one fell swoop Hazzard managed to compromise a cornerstone of the O’Farrell Government’s election promise to hand decision-making back to local council.

The dreaded Part 3A of the Planning Act, which gives planning rights to the state, was scrapped, but the honeymoon of local councillors happily drumming fingers while development applications were put on the backburner, couldn’t last.

Last year the development industry was going quietly spare. It must have rallied to a man and woman when the minister opened the tuckshop doors for a free feast.

There’s another angle. Urban Taskforce’s Chris Johnson says much of the hoopla in Sydney newspapers this week about fast-tracking housing development is related to greenfield sites. But is this what the market really wants, he asks?

Johnson pointed to the Grattan Institute report released late last year that asked what type of housing Australians now want. It showed that preferences were swinging to better located property, close to existing services.

“We need more housing that is well-located, not on the fringe,” Johnson says.

“The newspaper material was all about the greenfield debate, but we believe a similar leadership role is required for infill land which is much harder [to develop].

“Councils are more risk-averse, and stronger leadership is required by the state government to encourage development along transport nodes and corridors.

“An ideal way to do that is to have a much stronger urban development authority.”

Johnson has called for Landcom’s new chairman, John Brogden, to lead the transformation of the agency into a metropolitan development authority, adding to calls from like-minded lobby groups such as the Urban Development Institute of Australia.

Interestingly, the Urban Task Force under Johnson looks like it will itself refocus attention away from greenfield development to more about infill projects.

Johnson, a former government architect for NSW, with a swathe of government design and property-related agency appointments under his belt, not to mention his contribution as an author, is well-placed to understand the nuances of the political and planning process that could help engineer the shift.

“The Government has demonstrated a strong commitment to Landcom by putting someone of Brogden’s calibre in as chairman of the board,” he says.

“There are a lot of people in the marketplace who see them as a bit of competition as they have an easier run at approvals, but there is a role [for Landcom] to help facilitate planning approvals, to amalgamate sites and help negotiate with communities.” Especially in infill areas, Johnson says.

In other words, all the hard stuff.

The Taskforce is working on several fronts, however. One of these is through a submission Johnson has prepared for a review of SEP 65, part of the Planning Act that relates to the quality of apartment design.

Johnson says that quality improvement has been achieved. Now it’s time to focus on the economic stimulus.

“SEP 65 remains, but it needs to readjust itself to lift the supply of housing, particularly in infill and particularly around transport nodes,” Johnson says. “And it also needs to be well-designed.”

In his view, SEP 65 can help speed development approval for apartments up to 25 metres, or eight storeys, beyond which fire safety and other costs dramatically escalate the cost of development.

It needs to be “skewed” towards economic feasibility to help get these projects through.

Johnson recently travelled to Queensland to examine that state’s “code assessable” development system, which speeds through approvals for projects of up to 25 metres (or eight storeys), if they comply with the development codes – without needing to advertise.

Let’s see how the residents like that one.