Urban Task Force forum to discuss a Parramatta Road growth corridor, Thursday 14 June, Sydney

Development on steroids?

14 June 2012 ­ – Right now the NSW state cabinet is considering exactly what powers to hand its new development authority, announced in Tuesday’s budget, Urbangrowth NSW.

One consideration will be to hand the authority compulsory acquisition power. The other is the right to approve developments, ahead of local governments.

Both are important but the latter is a game changer.

The acquisition power will be a handy way to deal with pesky landowners in designated growth centres in the north-west and south-west of Sydney and finally open up the large tracts of land that make the big estates viable (read urban sprawl).

The other will be a handy way to deal with pesky local councils which are opposed to development.

Officially it’s all still under consideration.

But the reality is that Urbangrowth will be an amalgam of Landcom and the Sydney Metropolitan Development Agency and SMDA already comes with the acquisition powers. All that’s needed is to tweak the legislation with some amendments.

Development approval is the big one and our sources tell us there’s no doubt this is on the table.

And why not?

The development industry has been lobbying intensely for such power for several years now. There’s a new desire to catch up to Melbourne’s aggressive development rate; and in the face of little, to no, opposition there’s little to stop it.

Landcom on Wednesday was its usual conciliatory and reasonable self.

Rob Sullivan

The new body would work on the strengths of Landcom to bring parties together, to get things done, not bulldoze anything through, regardless of its powers, said general manager corporate marketing Rob Sullivan.

Sullivan told The Fifth Estate that Urbangrowth NSW would draw on what Landcom had always been good at, “solving issues and reaching agreement, negotiating between the agencies such as energy and roads”.

“It’s been an authority to bring people together,” he said.

“Landcom, through good relations, has been able to make things happen. What’s really changed is that instead of Landcom walking into a room as a participant Landcom will be leading the development.”

Compulsion was not in its lexicon.

But by Thursday planning minister Brad Hazzard was putting a different spin on events. The new body would be “Landcom on steroids”, he said.

Developers were tickled pink, but with anticipation rather than celebration.

The Urban Task force of NSW chief executive officer Chris Johnson, a former government architect, murmured approval of the Treasury announcement but told The Fifth Estate that the exercise would be pretty well useless if the body didn’t also have development approval rights.

The Task Force is currently trying to ignite interest in turning the 23-kilometre Parramatta Road into an urban growth corridor. But the road traverses nine separate councils  – a nightmare for any orderly and timely development in anyone’s view.

And a perfect project for the new authority.

Of course there are two prongs to “Landcom on steroids”.

One is to co-ordinate the ridiculously difficult job of infill development in places where it makes sense to increase density, such as above railway stations and where services already exist, and strips like Parramatta Road.

Left to righ: Michael Heenan, of architects AJC, Iwan Sunito of Crown International which owns a large landholding in Parramatta Road and Reg Smith of AJC at the Task Force breakfast forum

But thanks to a legacy of poor development in the past and an appalling track record of “build it, sell it and get-the-hell out of there” attitude, residents are scarred and scared and they have politicised the process. Rightfully.

But things can be different. Design can be good. Apartments can be “cool” places to live and most people love the cafes and activated street life that they bring, exemplified by New York and Europe.

The model of a development authority that can plan 30 or 50 years ahead for transport and services, outside of but still by responding to the political system, and one which can also raise money to pay for this work, create development ideas and approve them, is not new.

Planners such as Marcus Spiller of SGS Economics and Planning points https://thefifthestate.com.au/archives/19010 to the former Metropolitan Board of Works in Melbourne and the Cumberland County Council in Sydney which managed long-term planning for the cities, before planning became part of the political process.

The other prong to the new authority is its ability to fast track sprawl, in particular the 10,000 allotments that have been stalled at the growth centres’ gates, mired by landowners who refuse to sell and would rather hang on to their five-hectare farms and allotments as a retirement policy.

This trend has put a spanner in the works of what should be the easiest money to make in the property game.

Sadly it seems this is where Hazzard has been focusing attention with the new authority.

“Urbangrowth NSW will continue the government’s 10,000 housing lots program,” he said. It will “coordinate and deliver lead-in infrastructure and service provision to development areas, plan and fast-track urban renewal projects to unlock further private sector investment – providing more housing choice and affordability”, Hazzard said.

It’s possible that Sydney could learn to do greenfield development better.

Landcom has at least been trying to bring a level of sustainability to an industry woefully out of touch with pressing environmental concerns. It would rather worry about, and focus on, social issues. But keep building houses with black roofs and black roads “because that’s what the market wants”.

Landcom also placed apartments above the town centre at Rouse Hill, surprising even itself by how quickly they were snapped up.

But poor Sydney, if it’s worried about playing catch-up to Melbourne, it had better take a look at how Melbourne is building high density apartments in the ‘burbs.

Charter Keck Cramer say Melbourne’s appetite for apartments is spreading apace with as many as 5000 of the planned 30,000 units expected to start construction in the next two years slated for middle and outer ring suburbs.

And developers such as Boom Property Group are building more than 100 apartments at Caroline Springs, 30 kilometres north-east of Melbourne ­ ­– and been surprised by the interest.

Wouldn’t it be great for Hazzard and Co compete on that front?