13 September 2013 – Comment: Is Corinne Fisher the NSW development industry’s worst nightmare? The bright young face of this environmental and community engagement consultant now heads an organisation of 251 other community organisations, the Better Planning Network. All have the NSW Government’s planning reforms in their crosshairs.

The proposed reforms, or changes for the worse, the BPN might say, take away the right for the community to comment on proposals except at the strategic stage. And everyone knows that community doesn’t engage until there’s a building proposed next door, Fisher says

They allow an explosion of code compliant development (meaning no specific approval is given) to industrial expansion of commercial and new residential projects.

And even more important is the omission of ecologically sustainable development as the overall driver of the planning system.

What the BPN is not trying to do, says an adamant Fisher, is to stop development altogether.

Try telling that to the developers.

Chris Johnson, chief executive of the NSW Urban Taskforce, which is at the receiving end of the crosshairs, reckons you only need to look at the membership to see these are organisations that primarily care about ecological issues (“greenies”) while his membership is concerned with providing the places to live and work that will precisely save the greenfields from ever expanding into the beautiful and food productive areas.

It’s a serious problem.

At a number of public industry lunches and addresses in the past 12 months, NSW’s O’Farrell Government has told the property industry that it recognises property as a key nugget in the state economy. If not the fulcrum.

The various ministers and heads of new agencies such as the rebadged/redesigned Landcom, now UrbanGrowth NSW, assured audience after audience that this government recognised years of neglect. There was a failure to provide enough regular homes, and enough affordable and even low cost homes so that people in low paying and even moderately earning jobs such as teachers and health staff didn’t have to travel two or three hours a day to work. Stockland declared it would do no more medium density housing in Sydney.

Not only was planning slow, resident action groups opposed to development were increasingly hostile and effective. The mood at the Property Council lunches in the CBD was not far short of the dejection during Kennett’s reign in Victoria during the 80s recession, before Melbourne got its mojo back.

Everybody blamed former premier Bob Carr for telling the world that Sydney was full.

But it wasn’t just a sentiment. And it wasn’t just the planning system. Sure, everyone exposed to the planning system in NSW developed the same tick of rolling their eyes every time it was mentioned.

But it’s unfair and highly unrealistic to think that a new planning regime can fix all the woes in Sydney. Sure you give the development a free for all but at what cost?

Most developers who commented at these events talked about the planning regime. But no so much about other structural issues. Such as the cost of building high rise, which jumps exponentially for more than eight stories. Not many mentioned big lugubrious development companies with massive overheads that needed to be kept afloat with equally massive projects.

Rob Adams did though. This much admired planner from the City of Melbourne, said you needed lithe and lean smaller developers that could quickly spot an infill opportunity, gather together a building team and churn out mid range and smaller properties to soak up demand. He did not think the big developers [maybe like Stockland] could compete in such a scene and this was the space where development could be quick and less imposing and less contentious.

Then it happened: in NSW the tide turned. The Labor Party was booted out and the “sensible” contingent, minded by O’Farrell, took its sweet time assessing and doing more assessments before finally launching its reform agenda for business.

This included pretty well giving developers everything they were asking for in order to make “NSW No 1 again”.

But will it work? Can giving developers open slather on greenfield or infill development work? [Because that has certainly been proposed in that whacky invitation a while back to all residential developers with plans and sites to submit their wish-list for fast track approvals.]

Can allowing industrial buildings or commercial expansions to be “code compliant”, that is, automatically approved, actually engender love – or at least a little appreciation – for the industry which it so badly needs (Valentine’s Day notwithstanding)?

Can riding roughshod over community engagement provide the kind of society anyone wants to actually live in?

A very respected and highly awarded commercial architect a few years ago said – strictly off the record – that it was strange that developers wanted approval granted in a few weeks. They certainly didn’t expect to find a site in a few weeks, nor to design the right project in a few weeks. These are enterprises that deserve long thoughtful processes and could take year. But with planning, they all want it next week.

Strategic consultation works in Vancouver…but there’s a budget

The property industry points to the way Vancouver works, getting community approval for the overall envelope or shape of the city, then allowing the individual projects to be automatically passed as long as they meed the code requirements.

Sounds good.

But according to Corinne Fisher, Vancouver has allocated a massive one third of its planning budget to community engagement.

In NSW? There’s not even the shadow of such a budget. And the most senior planning people in the department (very senior) have no problem saying they have no idea how the community engagement will occur.

We’re not saying the planning system in NSW doesn’t need reform. It does.

But don’t some of the proposals contained in this “silver bullet” half-cocked approach to rewriting the planning regime, look exactly like another one of the structural issues that really need fixing?