Corinne Fisher

13 May 2013 — In response to Urbis consultant Tim Blythe’s comment that organisations like the Better Planning Network are scaremongering, I regret to say there is no need to scaremonger: the Planning White Paper and Draft Exposure Bills are suitably scary, taking us back to the 1960s rather than forward into the 21st century.

The NSW Government’s viewpoint is all about the economic implications of its planning system and conveniently leaves environmental and social consequences poorly examined in its white paper. We should all be relieved there are some in the community who care enough to fill this void. Indeed, anyone concerned about issues other than economic growth and developer profits should be deeply disturbed by what is being proposed. Here is why:

Objectives of the new planning system

The government states that the key objective of our new planning system will be “to promote and enable economic growth and positive development for the benefit of the entire community, while protecting the environment and enhancing people’s way of life”.

This is reflected in the Exposure Planning Bill 2013, which has for the first object of the Act “economic growth and environmental and social well-being through sustainable development”. The bill defines sustainable development as “the integration of economic, environmental and social considerations, having regard to present and future needs, in decision-making about planning and development”.

Identifying economic growth as the major driver of our planning system is deeply flawed.

Planning is about much more than economic growth – it governs the shape and feel of places where we live and work, our quality of life and the environment and heritage we will pass on to our children and grandchildren.

Planning is also about balancing competing interests and doing what is best for society as a whole. Economic considerations are certainly important but they should not be allowed to drive planning decisions. Yes, the government promises sustainable development but adopts a hollow definition that removes the key principles underpinning international best practice for sustainable development: biodiversity protection, the precautionary principle, intergenerational equity and the user pays principle. This is a major step backwards from our current legislation.

It is also concerning that climate change doesn’t rate a mention at a time when we know greenhouse gas concentrations have increased by about 40 per cent since the industrial revolution and carbon dioxide levels have recently reached their highest point in three million years, putting the planet on a path towards dangerous climate change.

  • See our article on carbon dioxide levels hitting 400ppm here

Should our planning system not seek to minimise climate change or, at the very least, mitigate its expected impacts? Planning systems in many other countries are actively tacking this issue, so why not ours?

Certainty, but for whom?

The government gives every certainty to developers but none to communities. Indeed, while communities can, in principle, comment on strategic plans, there is no guarantee that strategic planning decisions will reflect community aspirations and contributions in any way. And even if they do, strategic planning decisions can be contested every bit of the way by developers. For example, proponents can apply to exceed the agreed code requirements. They can also apply for spot rezonings. They can even apply for review of a decision not to approve a spot rezoning if they so wish, though others in the community do not have the equivalent right.

The system provides certainty indeed; it’s just one-sided certainty.

What about resources?

Despite its own admission that engaging communities at the strategic planning level will be a significant challenge, government does not propose to allocate additional resources to ensuring meaningful community engagement at this level and openly says it does not know how best to achieve this.

Interestingly, the Draft Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney, currently on exhibition until 31 May, has involved next to no community consultation, despite being identified by the government as the new Regional Growth Plan for Sydney (White Paper page 74).

Of course, some community engagement in strategic planning already occurs, particularly at the local level. So what else is the government proposing to do to convince us to give up our right to comment on up to 80 per cent of developments? A community participation charter, it seems, is the government’s answer. Unfortunately, a close look at the draft exposure bill quickly reveals this charter is not enforceable or reviewable, making it next to useless.

There are also no proposed additional resources to build up the evidence base the government says is needed to ensure evidence-based strategic planning. As it is, the “evidence” rests for the most part with local councils and communities. And what evidence are we talking about anyway? There seems to be no plan and no identified means of getting to where we need to be.

Removal of Environmental Zones

The government proposes to remove environmental zones (E3 and E4) and replace them with broad rural and residential zones. This could have dire consequences for our environment. On the far north coast, for example, many councils have used the fated E3 as the main protection for environmentally sensitive lands across their shires, including rainforest, wetlands and koala habitat. Under the proposed laws these shires will be largely stripped of their environmental protection zones, with Kyogle Shire estimated to lose over 99 per cent, Tweed Shire 83 per cent and Lismore 63 per cent of these zones.

I could go on but the above probably gives sufficient flavour.

So what does the future holds?

It is high time that discussions about planning that will shape the future of Sydney and NSW moves beyond name-calling. This name-calling of systems and people as “NIMBYs”, “tree huggers”, “red tape” or “scaremongers”, often by those who profit from weakened planning controls and fast-tracked development, simply derides the legitimate checks and balances that protect and enhance our quality of life, environment and heritage. The credibility of those who are using these names is a greater cause for concern, not the tireless work of the many community groups and individuals who seek better outcomes for our state.

And don’t be swayed by the housing affordability argument either. The concept that fast-tracking development will lead to improved housing affordability is a myth. The world’s highest density cities (including Vancouver, frequently cited by the NSW Government as an example of good planning) are also the world’s most expensive in terms of housing. If we are serious about housing affordability, we need to stop believing in fairy tales and look at what will really make a difference: property taxation reforms; improving accessibility in western Sydney; identifying targets for affordable housing as a subset of dwelling targets; and supporting not-for-profit housing developers to deliver affordable housing.

If you’re reading this, ask yourself: will what is being proposed benefit or take away from my children’s future? Will it lead to good urban design and a good place to live? Will it ensure that our environment is protected for future generations? Will it protect our agricultural lands and water resources so that we retain our capacity to produce food? And if you have doubts, get informed and make your voice heard.

And for those who really believe that fast-tracking development to grow our economy is the way to go: a planning system that approves development at any cost rarely sticks. History has shown that a loss of balance – favouring developers and economic outcomes over the public interest – just shifts the battles to a less orderly forum. Consider the 1970s green bans and recent political activism in response to Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. Unless the system is perceived as fair and promotes a genuine balance between environmental, social and economic outcomes – not just speed and quantity of development – the community risks rejecting it as failed planning.

Corinne Fisher is convenor of the Better Planning Network.

2 replies on “Planning reform: no need to scaremonger, there’s plenty to be scared about”

  1. Good on Corinne Fisher for highlighting the many weaknesses in the proposed planning system for NSW. The Planning Dept and Government seem very excited about cramming millions more people into Sydney and building thousands more houses per year. To them, these seem to be the true measures of the goodness of their plan, plus, of course, the speed at which development can be approved by ticking the right boxes.

    It’s almost as if the last 34 years of efforts in NSW to balance development with biodiversity conservation didn’t happen, and we’re being transported back to the swinging 60s to carry on with “business as usual”. But I said “almost”….

    The new planning system does actually recognise a need for environmental conservation, albeit in a fairly vague way, rather as if it’s an optional extra that some communities might want to apply. Can we expect strong leadership from the present Government on this issue? It looks unlikely. It’s up to people (in Sydney and throughout NSW) who don’t want to see our rich natural biodiversity dwindle away, to try and ensure that adequate habitat areas are retained in the rush for development.

    As a minimum, there needs to be a guarantee that existing NPWS parks and reserves, and local council bush reserves that have survived for many decades, are strictly retained intact. Scarce habitat types like coastal wetlands and littoral rainforests need to be strictly off-limits to development. I don’t know exactly what was the intent behind eliminating the E3 zone, but a concerted effort will be needed to turn current E3 areas with habitat value into the new E2 equivalent, probably at the local planning stage.

    Surely it’s not beyond the ability of this State to come up with a planning system that allows NSW thrive economically while genuinely protecting its biodiversity and natural places. If you also think this, then please tell the Government, the press, and anyone else loud and clear, that this is what we should be aiming towards. The planning system is not yet set in stone (or concrete).

  2. Thank goodness for the Better Planning Network that is all I can say. The fact that that the serious concerns of residents and over 380 affiliated groups is labelled as ‘scaremongering’ is pretty sad.

    This is the biggest backward step for community engagement and the environment since 1979. Im all for more strategic consultation, but not at the expense of having a say on 80% of future local developments, all for ‘quicker development approval turnaround times’. Making something faster dont always make it better.

    One has to also seriously question the influence of the Urban Taskforce, and why things like ecological sustainability was removed as an overarching principle, when it was one of the key findings of Dyer & Moores state-wide consultation process.

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