18 April 2013 – The architects like it. The development industry and its pals will eventually admit they love it. The community is getting set for war. And the environmentalists think it’s not too bad.

That’s the short view of the NSW planning reforms contained in the white paper released by Premier Barry O’Farrell and Planning Minister Brad Hazzard on Tuesday.

The long view is an entire story on its own, which will unfold over the next five years as the reforms make impact. In some ways the reforms propose an idealist concept of community participation in the world it wants to live in, which will fast track the approval process.  But will this work? How will it work? And where are the resources to enable the idea to move beyond a positive media release?

By Wednesday developers instead of celebrating their massive win on the thing they’ve been lobbying for for years – speedier approvals ­– were whining on about how much benefit they would or would not get from the changes in development levies.

The white paper proposes that charges for open space and drainage be shifted to regional areas and shared equally rather than allocated entirely and specifically to new projects. And local councils will be strictly controlled in what they can and can’t charge for.

But there’s another story, and that’s the planning minister himself.

It turns out he’s a listener and even prepared to stare down the developers to put the greenies at the table.

Jeff Angel

Jeff Angel, executive director of the Total Environment Centre and one of the most seasoned environmental campaigners in Australia, gives Hazzard some strong ticks as a minister and says the reforms are moving in the right direction.

“I’ve been impressed – and I’ve said this publicly – with the minister and the way he listens,” Angel said.

“I’ve never seen a minister stay for a full four hours of a conference or a consultation session. And he has certainly, against developers, defended the involvement of environment groups.

“On the one hand he’s not seeking to seduce us and on the other telling developers he’s taking a balanced approach.”

Angel has had years of working with the development and property industry, and has quite some sympathy for reforming the planning system. It’s a mess, he said.

In a meeting on Wednesday he told The Fifth Estate he was encouraged that the government had been prepared to listen and shift its position towards better environmental protection as negotiations moved forward on the planning reforms.

“Definitely this minister and by association the cabinet are taking on more of the community’s and environment protectionists’ viewpoint. I can’t say we are there yet, there are still some issues with vagueness and discretion.”

Angel seems sure of his ground. You can’t dismiss us as “greenies”, he said.

“As the minister said to us – and this is crucial political truth – if you can’t convince the community on the planning act, if you can’t bring the community with you, then you will lose not just politically on a balanced planning system that will give you sustainable decisions, in an environmental sense and politically.”

Angel said the discussions with the minister have been reasonable.

“It’s valid to stay in the process. We’re not going to put 100 per cent reliance on the process, but this is a complicated piece of planning and legislation architecture.”

On protection for farmland.

On the protection of farmland, on sea level rises, flooding and other hazards, and on biodiversity, Angel said the minister is doing OK.

Protection for biodiversity, for instance, will remain and there are assurances that work continues on strengthening other areas of environment protection. What still remains is how to restore degraded environmental areas.

“When you look at catchment action plans and the whole issue of restoring the environment … the recovery of the environment and landscape it is still very unclear about how strategic planning is going to achieve that,” he said.

The government also faltered on its legislation it pushed through last year that weakened environmental protection, ahead of the planning reforms that it said would involve the community.

“You can’t engage with the community in a fair dinkum way and pass legislation well before the community has a chance to engage.”

Angel said the development lobby had it wrong on community attitudes, claiming one advocate had said, “we’d better be careful that the strategic planning is isn’t captured by treehuggers”.

“Well, I’ve got news for him, when you go out into the community, the vast majority of the community agrees with us.”

Another cautious tick for the minister came from Better Planning Network’s Corinne Fisher who said Hazzard seemed a “very good minister”, “very engaged”.

Media conference to launch the NSW planning reforms white paper

However, he needed to walk the talk to convince her affiliated members, Fisher said. BPN now has more than 350 community groups affiliated with the movement that sprang directly in response to the white paper. And they are angry and very concerned about the loss of rights to object to specific proposals.

They say it sounds good in theory to involve community in decisions about the regional and sub-regional planning strategies but the reality is that people have busy lives and tend to not become involved until the issue arrives on the doorstep.

In BPN’s defence even professionals such as the architects and the planners think strategic planning is really tough. They’ve commenced analysis for the skills and training they will need and speaking to the NSW universities to start delivery of these skills.

So if the professionals will struggle, pity the poor mortgage owner, or renter, working long hours and maybe raising kids.

The Green Building Council of Australia backed the community groups.

“Better strategic planning which outlines a roadmap for growth, infrastructure and funding can help us to meet the challenges of population growth, demographic shifts and the effects of a changing climate,” GBCA chief executive Romilly Madew said.

“This approach provides the necessary power to prioritise growth and deliver infrastructure and jobs where they are most needed.

“Working with communities from the earliest stages is a departure from previous planning systems, which provided little opportunity for genuine engagement.”

Brad Hazzard, left with Barry O’Farrell at the white paper launch

Engagement

One thing that will make it easier for the community to engage is the new media channels now available, such as social media and new online technology and forums. And the government has promised to utilise all of the above depending on what’s appropriate for each area.

There’s also the new 3D modelling that can wrap up visions of the future in dazzling Sim City images. Perhaps happy shoppers chatting at the local farmers markets – the backdrop, their attractive medium apartments, the foreground their French shopping baskets brimming with healthy produce for Sunday lunch.

Jane-Frances Kelly, cities program director for the Grattan Institute, pointed out on Wednesday that the plans are ambitious, badly needed and modelled on living examples of good community engagement in places such as Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.

The emphasis will be on collective problem solving rather than on conflict. Design and mapping software will enable residents to visualise the ways their suburbs might change, and equip them to negotiate with government and developers. Residents might get a guarantee of better quality open space in return for accepting more houses in their area.

And

Critics will dismiss this as offering a fairy tale vision. Certainly it won’t put an end to disagreements on planning matters, but it could create a mechanism for resolving differences.

The new NSW approach is modelled on examples of community engagement in cities such as Vancouver, Seattle and Portland. These plans, and the process of dialogue and engagement that underpin them, provide a framework for negotiating the trade-offs that are an inevitable part of living together in a growing city.

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There’s no doubt better planning is badly needed. But not necessarily for all the reasons development industry has been pushing.

On speed of approvals, it’s true that slow approvals because of vexatious opposition to individual proposals is a silly waste of time. So is fear of modern architecture, which keeps out the excitement from our urban fabric. Equally bad is the urban planning equivalent of protectionism. Which is like shutting the gate and locking the docks on all immigrants once climate change, lack of food, lack of water, rising tides and crazy weather kick in: it’s neither humane nor feasible.

Onlookers at the media conference. Right: Barangaroo Delivery Authority chief executive John Tabbart

All of this leads to a nervous development industry and poor outcomes. Nobody likes to tangle with Leichhardt Council, for instance.

Fear of growth is understandable and all growth can be better managed. No one complains about density in New York and Paris, for instance.

And think of European style town clusters that are delightful to live in and almost completely pedestrian based: walk to work, back home for lunch, back to the job and out again at night after dinner for the gelato and the mingling.

Australian developers have been woeful at the delight factor. it’s all about a quick buck, in out and back again for the next onslaught.

What’s needed is new finance, building and development models that connect all the dots, from the developers to the people who live in the end product.