7 October 2011 – OK, we are going on a bit about density and planning, but wow, it’s a hot topic and should be hotter.

Former NSW Government architect Chris Johnson this week stepped into the role of chief executive of the Urban Taskforce in NSW. His promise was to tackle exactly this issue, and to bring a greater understanding of development into the community. He has a big job ahead of him.

How big? The Fifth Estate had a conversation with Johnson’s predecessor, Aaron Gadiel, as he stepped down from the role to see what his take on the issue is. Gadiel has been a highly influential agitator on the developers’ side, with a media savvy rarely seen in the property industry. Within hours of the release of a government report or mention of housing, and Gadiel would have a measured and intelligent response in journos’ inboxes, complete with references and extracts from reports to prove his point, all neatly wrapped with quotable quotes.

Our conversation came about because Gadiel objected to The Fifth Estate’s view that most of his efforts were on behalf of greenfield development, largely viewed as highly unsustainable. (Let’s not mention the Taskforce’s argument to deregulate zoning) Gadiel, in exemplary lawyerly style, shot through a list of lobbying positions on the urban infill side and claimed his efforts were evenly split.

Gadiel says 50:50 is exactly the ratio of development ­– infill versus greenfield – that has occurred in Sydney in recent years. A far cry from the 70:30 promised by the last Metropolitan Plan.

Developers – and their representative lobbying organisations – seem to have given up on urban infill. Some, such as Stockland, declaring that they will not build any more apartments in Sydney because it’s just too hard.

Gadiel agrees. “The reality is that developers have absolutely lost interest in large urban infill developments.”

But he says it’s no easier in the greenfields.

The army is marching

In the infill areas, an “army of objectors” has created “teams of bureaucrats”, whether from state or local government, who address the “ostensible” reasons for objections, Gadiel says.

“So you have design competitions galore that can delay things, and you introduce massive costs and risk, in order to demonstrate to objectors it’s good design, [and the residents] can still object at the end anyway.”

Sarah Hill of Hill PDA, who will step into the president’s role at the NSW Planning Institute of Australia, is not so sure stalled urban development is always a planning issue.

She believes that in many cases there are economic reasons for development not going ahead, and planning simply becomes the fall guy, blamed because it’s the “last straw” https://thefifthestate.com.au/archives/28373 in a litany of barriers.

Not all major residential development has been abandoned, she says, pointing to Mirvac’s Harold Park project in Glebe, among others.

Gadiel says this is one of the exceptions that prove the rule. The big projects that get underway are precisely those that already have development approval. Otherwise, developers are not interested.

Sense of stagnation

In the Sydney development scene, he says, right now there is a sense of stagnation, especially since the election of the O’Farrell Government earlier this year on a platform of handing power back to local councils.

This has made local councils feel quite relaxed; they now have a “sense of resolution” and feel empowered to do little on development, Gadiel says.

There is no sense of pressure, and he says this is sometimes necessary. For instance, when St Leonards needed to be densified – it is close to transport, hospitals and the city – there were three local councils with jurisdiction that had to agree. The State Government (then Labor) insisted there be a resolution or they faced a call up by the state.

The councils complied.

“That ultimatum is not being issued now,” Gadiel says.

“Local councils see no threat of intervention. There is nothing going on.”

In theory, there is power for the state government to intervene, but, “it’s a matter of clear intent … the state government is clearly telegraphing to the industry and local government, that its instinct is to not intervene.”

[Since our conversation the O’Farrell Government removed the hated Part 3a of the planning act (as promised) which previously sent most developments of more than $10 million to the state government for approval, and says most projects will be sent back to local councils to assess. Projects of more than $20 million will be handed to regional planning panels.]

So we have no significant new pipeline of sites for residential development in urban areas. And greenfield isn’t moving either, Gadiel says.

For Gadiel’s former members in the house and land game, that’s a big problem. It’s bad for the community too, he says, because you cannot substitute inner-city developments for outer suburban house and land. The buyers are different, he says: “the markets are not substitutable.”

When this supply of housing contracted Gadiel says a lot of those buyers migrated out of Sydney and even interstate.

But isn’t that what you do in most major cities of the world? If you want a house and land package in France you don’t expect to buy it in Paris.

Gadiel’s point, though, is that “you won’t see a rise in greenfield development in response to less infill.” Or vice versa.

Comes down to zoning
He says the issue with planning in the greenfields comes down to zoning, with authorities “refusing to release land where landholders want to sell” because of the idea of sequencing, or ordered planned release.

In urban areas, he says: “We have zoning problems because we have perfectly good sites which are sterilised because the zoning doesn’t provide the required height or uses.”

So, he says, you end up in a situation in which it’s more profitable to retain the site as a used car yard instead of redeveloping it as housing.

“And when you get the zoning – you might have the land zoned and approved and have the appropriate floor space ratio or height –you’re not entitled to any of that because approval is completely discretionary. Residents can say not a permissible development.”

The problem is that Sydney’s brownfield sites, where residents are unlikely to object to redevelopment, have nearly run out.

You don’t get objectors to subdivision, Gadiel emphasises.

Strategic planning. Not.

On the Metropolitan Plan, he says, “it’s not complete. The plan is never complete.” Because once you have the metropolitan plan, Gadiel says you need the regional plan and the local environment plan.

“I can’t think of one local council that has now implemented the Metropolitan Plan in full or even partly since 2005 and now we’ve got a new one, released in December,” he says.

“So we have all this strategic planning that isn’t taking us anywhere.”

But Gadiel doubts it will be an electoral problem, “because 80 per cent of the electorate will be untouched anyway.”

But then planning was precisely a major platform in the O’Farrell Government’s rise to power.