By Chris Johnson, NSW Urban Taskforce

13 February 2013 — [Comments open below] Community groups opposing proposed planning reforms have a different agenda to that of development and economic prosperity, argues Chris Johnson.

The Urban Taskforce totally agrees with the Better Planning Network’s call for the planning reforms in NSW to be based on Ecologically Sustainable Development principles. In our Urban Taskforce submission to the government on the proposed planning reforms we said environmentally sustainable design should be the main objective of the new planning act and went on to link this to the definition developed by the World Commission on Development of 1987. Its definition was “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The big difference between our two organisations is that the BPN’s focus is on the ecological and the UTF’s focus is on the development while we both want our areas to be sustainable.

These two different areas of focus are easily explained when we look at the membership of the two organisations. The Better Planning Network is mainly landscape groups, environment centres, bushland societies, conservation societies, the friends of the koala, heritage groups and the Nature Conservation Council. Their website certainly presents a very bushland image with all individuals photographed in a bushland setting and with images of kookaburras, mountains and trees.

The Urban Taskforce members are developers, financiers, architects and planners. Our website illustrates buildings and urban settings. The focus is on the built environment and the future while the BPN’s focus seems to be on the natural environment and the past.

In a democratic society it is good to have interest groups promoting issues to governments so that balanced decisions can be made.

There does, however, seem to me to be a core threshold issue that a planning system must be based on. This is the issue of growth. All the evidence points towards continuing significant growth of population in Australia through high immigration and our natural birth rate.

The UTF has called for the new planning system to be based on a presumption for growth while the BPN seems to query whether Sydney should have growth.

If we accept that growth is inevitable then we need to look at how NSW is handling this compared to other states. The statistics are not good for NSW as we are well behind most other states in the production of houses and buildings generally. The ABS data on a per capita basis puts NSW building production at half that of Victoria and Western Australia and well below Queensland. The result of this undersupply is to compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

NSW has far less housing for young families, higher house prices, higher rents as well as less construction jobs and less revenue to the state government than our neighbouring states. If NSW wants to be number one again, as the state government says, then we need more houses, more office buildings and more industrial and retail buildings. What we need is more development, a word that the BPN seems to be uncomfortable with.

A large part of the reason that NSW is so far behind other states in housing supply is the anti-development attitude that has developed in the state. This has flowed into the planning system to make it far more complex and far slower that other states. The Green Paper proposes to get NSW back onto a similar approach to planning for and encouraging growth that other states have. The UTF supports most of the proposals in the Green Paper while the BPN has raised significant concern. Three of these proposals are worth looking at in more detail.

Community rights

The BPN believes that the community should have a right to comment at all stages of the planning process including on specific detail. The Green Paper proposes, and the UTF supports this, that the community is involved at the strategic planning end where height, density and setbacks are determined and controls for appearance and environmental performance are determined. Approvals that conform to these rules and controls could then be approved by experts without further community input so speeding up the system and giving more certainty to land owners.

Essentially this acknowledges the landowner’s rights to be able to develop on their land. The UTF believes we need to give more rights and certainty to landowners while BPN believes that community rights should dominate.

Fast tracking

The BPN seems to be concerned about fast-tracking development as outlined in the Green Paper. The UTF believes that the current slow-tracking of planning applications that comply to the rules is driving investment out of NSW to other states. If NSW wants to be number one again it must encourage investment in new housing and other building types by having an efficient planning system.

Chris Johnson at a NSW Urban Taskforce event

Enterprise zones

The BPN is concerned at proposals having more flexible zonings yet the world is moving into new approaches to online shopping, new approaches to work and many younger people want to live and work in a more dynamic mixed use urban environment. The suburban areas of NSW that the BPN members seem to mainly come from are clearly important to retain and nurture but cities need to move on and accommodate different lifestyles. The Green Paper proposes a special zone to protect suburban neighbourhoods.


It would appear that the BPN is mainly concerned about protecting the natural landscape rather than facilitating urban infill. By advocating an anti-growth and anti-development position they are likely to destroy far more natural bushland as the city spreads outwards. By not supporting a more streamlined planning system they are continuing a planning culture that drives investors in new development to other states. The real losers are our children, grandchildren and the future generations whose ability to meet their own needs is diminished.

Chris Johnson is chief executive officer of the NSW Urban Taskforce.

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  1. Okay – I realise I am going to be the lone voice approving of Chris Johnson, but here goes.
    The older generation of home owners [pre actual and post baby boomers] is sitting back saying we largely got what we want – the Sydney property – and we will eat our children’s future to ensure we keep it just as we like it. We pickle it in aspic so OUR views are maintained, we do not face more cars entering our streets if they had higher density, we enjoy all the benefits of decades of tax payers money spent on our infrastructure. We don’t care if those under 30 and those yet to be born have no where to live. We don’t care if they are banished to the other side of the Blue Mountains with no or little infrastructure and no services to live and have to commute to their CBD jobs 5 days a week. Just as long as everything stays the same for us where we are.
    Crocodiles at least pay their offspring the courtesy of eating them quickly when they turn cannibal. Humans? No – we are happy to condemn the under 30’s and yet to be born to renting, gross over crowding or homelessness, knowing the only way they will ever get a house in Sydney if when we die. Better hope they are an only child otherwise that won’t work either.
    Have any of you NIMBY’s wondered where the tens of thousands pouring into the city will end up living when the dwelling construction rate lags behind my many tens of thousands – every year.
    I sit amongst you and listen to your incessant self indulgent property whining – how your house is “only” worth $1.5mill this year when it was worth $2m a few years ago, how much “hard work” is to look after the holiday house down the coast/in Spain/France and how your tax payer subsidized negatively geared investment properties have only cost you $100 a week and you are about to raise the rent so its now cash flow positive. Heritage? Its mainly useful when you are putting pressure on Councillors to heritage list your neighbours place so they can’t put a second storey on, despite the fact your house is exactly the same you built your second storey a few years ago. Environment? You want to “protect” your local park so your dog can use it as a tax payer funded open air toilet. The ones that whinge the loudest about rights are the ones at the head of the queue to slash away at anyone whose desire for affordable accommodation runs the risk of reducing their property’s value by a few thousand. What an tight, self serving interpretation of rights, heritage and environment you operate from, where it is all about you.

  2. The idea that land owners have the “right” to develop their land is brand new concept for Australia. It is fundamentally an american concept, which it seems the Taskforce and others wish to see introduced here. In america, these rights emanate from their constitution, and thus have a legal basis. However, it must be noted that there are many other rights as well.

    There is no such basis here in Australia.

    And if such a “right” were to be introduced, then it must be accompanied by other rights, which are currently respected by the planning system historically:
    – the right to retain and share views;
    – the right to sunlight access and for this not to be significantly diminished;
    – the right to a reasonable degree of privacy in one’s rear yard;
    – the right to have a say about what is happening in the area around, especially where it may impact quality of life;
    – the right to a pleasant outlook;
    the right to not have your windows or decks/balconies directly overlooked, and for yours not to overlook;
    Therefore, if Mr Johnson and his Taskforce wish to push rights for developers, then all the other bundle of rights that come with living in an area must be acknowledged and not diminished.

  3. The role of the local community in development should not be reduced. The right of a developer to build is not questioned, but rarely do they then live in what they have created. I see my role as a protector of the rights of both the new occupants of any dwelling, but no less as a protector of the rights of the neighbours who, through no act on their part, can have their amenity (view, solar access, privacy, etc) affected. Don’t forget, Mr Johnson, that for most of us, our dwelling is STILL the biggest investment of our lives.
    As a Councillor, I have seen many occasions where a traffic report has been presented, which the locals would find laughable..There’s a lot to be said for ‘local knowledge’.
    I see the State Govt rightly ordering Councils to prepare Strategic plans that address the long term needs of the community (and the community of the future), yet the State does not set aside land in its long term plan for schools, parks, child care, etc (Wentworth Point is a local example.)
    Local communities (and Councils) are treated with contempt by the Planning process. There are many ways around local planning controls (a Part 3A, or a request to go to the PAC or an application under the Affordable Rental Housing SEPP are examples) and the fact that the BPN (to which I proudly belong) has grown to such impressive numbers in such a short time span is indicative of the community support that IS out there for its position
    Clr Irene Simms, Residents Action Group for Auburn Area

  4. Kate raises some good issues but still seems to question that growth in Sydney is inevitable and seems to think that developers are out there as a minority group bent on destroying suburbs.

    The national government controls immigration into Australia and both of the major parties have kept this at around 160,000 per year. If this continues and if our natural birth rate continues we will need at least 600,000 new houses or apartments in Sydney over the next 20 years. This is not a mantra of the development industry, it is the product of our democratic system.

    This growth requires new places for people to live, to work and to shop. Someone needs to provide the buildings and this is the development industry. All they are doing is responding to community needs.

    The developers are not deliberately out to destroy suburbs. They are about building new homes somewhere and in a big city like Sydney this means increasing densities in some areas where the planning system enables this. The other option is to build new houses on the fringes of the city but as this gets further and further away from the city centre many younger people don’t want to live there. It is of course the developers who build the new homes on the fringe and of course it was developers who built the homes in all of the existing suburbs of Sydney.

    Most of the community commentators in this blog seem very anti ‘developer’ yet they all live and work in buildings that were developed by a developer. All I am trying to do is explain that developers are middle players helping solve the communities growth problems by providing buildings for community members.

  5. “…this acknowledges the landowner’s rights to be able to develop on their land. The UTF believes we need to give more rights and certainty to landowners while BPN believes that community rights should dominate.”

    Oh Chris, that there should be such clarity. There are many problems with your entire thesis (not the least being the “growth is inevitable” mantra of the development industry). What offends some of us is the uneven application of principles. When an owner wants to ‘develop’ they apparently deserve more rights. When they want to, for example, stop development, let’s say the coal seam gas industry from taking over their property, then suddenly so-called community interests (access to a questionable resource) become paramount and the owner’s right to control their own land is removed.

    Last I checked we still live in a democracy. It’s messy. People have opinions. They are entitled to opinions and they’re entitled to try and influence others. It is a right you are exercising with your article. What is totally offensive is the proposed ‘lock down’ on the community’s right to have an opinion at any other than the most nascent point in change. What is appalling is your patronising assumption that developer ‘rights’ in some way transcend and are of greater merit than the community’s’ right to protect what they hold dear. … and Chris? I think an analysis of the population of NSW by employment category might reveal that ‘developers’ are a minority group, with influence way beyond their representation in ‘the community’.

    I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but personally, I don’t aspire to live in a NSW that is ‘number one’ at destroying suburbs, marginalising individuals, developing future slums of poorly thought out, ‘quick’ developments. I like living in a richly idiosyncratic, diverse, argumentative, opinionated and ‘slow’ community. It has charm.

  6. Chris Johnson is typical of what he and his peers are doing, they are running rough shod over the community and their concerns. The committees appointed by the NSW Government have been watered down to the extent they contain no one that represents history or heritage. The Heritage Council of NSW voted to allow portals through the 1836 Lennox Bridge at Parramatta, they did not consider alternatives to the destruction of the original fabric. The problem is they do not have a report done by a bonafide Heritage Engineer to state what problems there would be, that means if they go ahead and put the holes will that weaken the structure, they do not know, but yet they are going ahead. The rules of Code of Conduct have not been followed and they are steam rolling ahead. The GWSHAG have joined the BPN and so has the people at Windsor (CWAB) and many of our historical Societies who do not have the knowledge and the expertise to take on the Government heavies, that is who makes up the BPN, and we are glad to do so, if all the volunteers in the BPN pulled the volunteer hours that are performed each week, the government would be calling again for their commitment. Chris Johnson take notice of the BPN they are speaking for hundreds of people like us.

  7. Members and supporters of BPN writing in this forum have articulated the concerns of the community at large superbly. Those of us who advocate community involvement are not anti-development, generally speaking, but support well-designed and appropriate development which respects our natural and built heritage.

    For me, the proposed redevelopment of the Balmain Tigers site in Rozelle epitomises the why the community cannot trust the ‘development industry’, nor support a system where they have little or no say in how their communities grow. Here, a blatantly outrageous overdevelopment has been proposed, to the benefit of an individual property owner and a developer, with little or no consideration of the broader resident community which will be most adversely affected.

    The proposed new planning laws are strongly biased towards profit for some at the cost of many. The community will regret the passage of these laws and the irreversible damage which will be done to the places where we live.

  8. While there are many references to ‘community’ in this debate, I would like to see more explicit recognition of the necessity for ‘planning’ to include provision for social infrastructure – schools, health and community centres, sporting and recreational facilities – as well as transport infrastructure, etc. ‘Sustainability’ includes the maintenance of a healthy society as well as a healthy environnment, and this will not be possible if people are crammed together without any places where local communities can flourish.

  9. Less consultation is no consultation. What NSW (community groups, residents and developers alike) needs are clear planning strategies and firm development controls which mean what they say.
    We all know of cases where height, floorspace and other limits are traded off against other considerations behind closed doors during the approval process. And where plans are incrementally modified during and after the approval process without anyone being the wiser – until it’s too late to change anything.
    While ever development limits remain optional and tradable rather than predictable and mandatory, disclosure and continuing consultation is essential.
    Even more so since access to Land & Environment Court review has been taken away.
    For the South Paddington Community Group.

  10. One would have thought that an ex Government Architect would have had more insight into community concerns than is evident in Chris johnson’s article. He completely disparages BPN and its affiliates with no knowledge of the members that make up the 230 groups in the organisation.
    Worse still is his asumptions about the objectives of BPN. They are not anti-development but an organisation that wants appropriate development, that is appropriate for the community in which it is planned. As a previous correspondent said most development considers itself only and not the cumulative effects of that on the area, its amenity, character and infrastructure. This is where the community can give insight into what is appropriate for that precinct. Strategic planning is now carried out by most Local Councils and is in most cases appropriate for the community. To expect that this can be done without major financial and social input from the planning authority is a farce and would not work. Vancouver is quoted as an example but that city is only a small area compared to Sydney (and the new planning system covers the whole state so how can the vast areas of the inland be able to be involved in this strategic planning) so it is a no goer to say it worked there so therefore it will work in our state.
    BPN wants to keep the involvement of the community to comment and challenge development that does not comply with the existing strategic plans and which has detrimental effect on the precinct. Is this too much to ask of the development lobby?
    Chris get real and talk to the community, if necessary set up a meeting with BPN and see what our real agenda is and not make assumptions based on vague information.

  11. Contrary to what the NSW State Government may believe the NSW community are “not so dumb”. Mr Johnson missed noting that there are many resident action groups and progress associations affiliated with the BPN. Members occupy many professions.
    Depending whichever article one reads there are plans for a Sydney Metropolis of either 6 or 7 million, and yet Mr O’Farrell does not want a second airport. We are told we must have growth. The developers according to the Green Paper are not obliged to provide infrastructure. Sydney has a sewerage system built to cater for a population of 3 million. Currently Sydney has a population of 4.61 million. Where is “the extra” from the 6 or 7 mill going to go? This is fast tracking utter chaos.
    The images of our flora and fauna are what attract immigrants and tourists to Australia. I have talked to immigrants about the Green Paper, and they express concern that Sydney will be “turned into” what they left behind. We have also been “fed” that this efficient planning system will provide more affordable housing. How is this so when in addition to the mortgage and utilities the purchaser is faced with strata title levy and lift levy?

    When Mr Greiner was Premier he dismantled NSW Rail and now he heads Infrastructure NSW along with Paul Broad. He is proposing more motorways (built from concrete equates to more Co 2 emissions). I suggest his depleted public transport system has created the situation for Sydney commuters of being stuck in gridlock on connecting roads on the way to the office.
    One needed squillions to venture to the Land & Environment Court but now it appears with the Green Paper “spot rezoning” and “enterprise zones” there is no justice at all for the community.
    Fast tracking development also leads to “shoddy workmanship”
    which the apartment purchasers are left to deal with having very
    little consumer protection. It appears to the NSW Community that this “efficient planning system” equates to removal of their community rights. One has to call into question the “special zone”.
    Is that where Mr O’Farrell lives? I note his shopping centre and suburb has not been developed like those surrounding Roseville.

    It seems, Mr Johnson, the “efficient planning system for NSW’ is actually ill conceived.

  12. Good to see the debate flowing from Corinne and my articles on the proposed reforms to the planning system. The headline for my text was not written by me and I am not saying the whole community is wrong. I think there is a misunderstanding in the media about just who represents the community. In the UK a group called ResPublica raised the whole issue of how to represent the community at large.

    ResPublica found that action groups represented a small percentage of the overall community. So I have asked that my headline say ön why the Better Planning Network is wrong”not the all encompassing word community. Even the “wrong” is not really what I said as I agreed with the BPN on issues like ESD but I guess editors are about getting punchy headlines.

    What the NSW planning system needs is a full involvement of all of the community which includes land owners, builders and shock horror developers. I also take the point that all of the 250 groups in the BPN are not all anti development but even the comments to my article give a flavour of anti development.

    My main point is that once we accept population growth the development will follow but it is essentially providing housing and places for people to work. Clearly it needs to be well designed….

    I didn’t dwell on heritage that some commentators raised but many of our members have preserved heritage buildings where appropriate. I guess I was focusing on how to get NSW moving again in terms of providing more homes for future generations.

  13. To claim “BPN’s focus is on … “the past” is blatantly untrue, possibly a lie.

    It is about our future.

    And it is about better planning, as its name declares.
    It is not about better financial outcomes, like Chris Johnson’s Taskforce.

    His risible attempt to distinguish between landowners and the community simply forgets that communities are, in fact, made up of landowners.

    He misunderstands who he represents.

    The real difference between the TaskForce and BPN is money.

    His developer/architect/financier TaskForce represents money-motivated developers who are like Vikings: they invade an area, trash it and leave with the loot.

    Like all developers TaskForce members think an empty block is a good block: they exploit opportunities, but at whose expence?

    All these groups rely on a symbiosis for their living and represent self-interested and selfish interests.

    Their ethos compromises and undermines aims to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”: Chris Johnson’s sustainability definition [see para 2].

    The TaskForce’s aims are therefore unsustainable according to Chris Johnson’s own definition.

    BPN represents communities who accept genuine improvement in their livability index rather than more money-driven development per se.

    We call on the government to disband this TaskForce,

    Thank you
    Andrew Woodhouse

    President Potts point & Kings Cross Heritage Conservation Society
    Ph 0415 949 506

  14. I am Convenor of Pyrmont Action Inc and an active member of BPN. I have never met with Chris Johnson, so I don’t know how he can possibly have any information about me or my organisation. Pyrmont is possibly one of the densest residential areas in Sydney with many high rise apartment buildings. Its redevelopment was planned over 20 years ago and the planning was on the assumption that there would be no children living in apartments – wrong! Our community has been battling to get the most basic social infrastructure for Pyrmont. The one public school at Ultimo is unable to cope with demand and its catchment has been reduced such that it is unable to take kids from most of Ultimo. We have 2 long day care childcare centres to serve 12,000+ residents. There are over 560 children living in Pyrmont in the 0-4 age bracket, plus around 15,000 workers many of whom have childcare needs. Planners can’t foresee the future so we need an opportunity for ongoing local involvement at the local level.

    Pyrmont Action, together with other local community groups have worked very successfully with two major developers, from the concept stage of developments. We have succeeded in getting major changes to developments through a cooperative approach. But we were only successful because there were approved Master Plans and planning rules and zonings that were understood and, ultimately, observed by the developers and the local Council which assessed these DAs.

    We are not anti-developer and we are apolitical (in the party sense). But we demand good planning and continued community consultation on development from the strategic to the local level. And this consultation should not be a box-ticking exercise but conducted on a fair and equitable basis – including access to the decision-makers.

    The basic of objective outlined in the Planning Green Paper was growth – not good planning, and didn’t even mention sustainability. We hope that the White Paper addresses the major issues raised by BPN and its members. They are fundamental issues – but not anti-development.

  15. Dear Mr Johnson,
    I must admit that I am quite offended at your condescending description of the member groups of the BPN. As the president of one of those groups, let me remind you that we are ALL volunteers with a passion for our communities, and yes our focus may appear to be on the environment and the past – but without either, there is no future.
    I don’t believe I have received any information from the BPN which advocates an anti-growth and anti-development position, as described in your summary – we are concerned that our communities will be over-developed by your members who don’t take into consideration the logistics of housing hundreds if not thousands more people into areas that are not coping now with being able to transport and serve the current population.
    Your UTF is, as you say, made up of developers, financiers, architects and planners, all, I imagine on fairly good salaries to justify the grandiose ideas they come up with that will destroy many existing environmental, heritage and community areas . I notice that in your ramble trying to justify what the UTF is hoping to achieve, not once did you mention ‘heritage’ – that dreadful word that UTF members seem to be so afraid of, have no respect for and appear to have no intention of conserving.
    We have no problem with suitable adaptive re-use of some of our heritage items but not the wanton destruction of our history in the name of ‘urban infill’. What a ridiculous description – it sounds like you are designing a tip! Perhaps that’s what these new communities will be.

  16. Just a note (as an Architect and heritage consultant) to confirm and support the BPN in this matter, it is not only focussed on the natural environment and it is not anti development, or anti Reform process. The BPN provides a strong check to the process and hopefully will mean that the reform process will be a balanced outcome in the end.

    The main issue is that there are many design professionals out there who do not want to see development and growth AT ANY COST. While the rights of the individual land owner are important, history shows that individualism always occurs at the cost of community. Growth without community and without environmental protection will be not be positive.

    There is need for change and process reform in planning but the only way to protect the rights of the community, produce sustainability, and create an attractive living environment is to have a long term vision and that needs other issues than growth and land owner rights to be taken into account.

    How can the community support an enterprise zone at strategic stage if they can have no idea what will happen there?

  17. I am proud to be a member of Better Planning and fully support their platform that the community should be entitled to input into the development of their community and should have equal access as developers to the legal process when they are disadvantaged by council decisions on development.
    The Green Paper was virtually a licence to developers to do what they liked. it also perpetuated the injustice of denying residents access to the Land and Environment Court when their right to a fair go had been trashed. The Minister ignored the recommendations of the Review Panel Commissioners who had recommended this right be available to disadvantaged neighbours of developments.
    I am not what you describe as a “tree hugger” but a resident who has been disadvantaged by a developer and council “love-in”. My letters to government ministers requesting meetings to produce evidence that council acted improperly and had deliberately mislead councillors have been ignored.
    If developers and government acted in the best interest of the community and less in their own best interest there would be no need for prganisations like BPN.
    Don Ollerenshaw

  18. Shame on you Chris. You misrepresent the BPN as consisting only of green groups. Its a very base level tactic on your part and highly uninformed. The BPN contains some of the most experienced professionals including planners that served for many years in the NSW Government developing the current EP&A legislation.

    The BPN is not anti development or anti growth at all. You can easily read their website at and find this clearly stated. This is again a base tactic to discredit the group.

    They do however want to ensure that the places where they live are not ruined for ever by development that is inappropriate and does not integrate well into their existing community.

    There are many examples where this has happened, especially under the previous Part 3A of the EP&A Act Act. All I can say is that if if development is appropriate and integrates well and enhances existing communities there should be no harm allowing communities to comment on proposed designs and have a right of appeal.

    Chris might I suggest that your organisation take a more sophisticated and professional approach and find out why over 250 community groups are concerned about this legislation, rather than just discredit them.

  19. Come on Chris, get a grip. When was the last time in living memory that developers ever acknowledged that the community was right?

    Developers, who typically believe they should be able to build whatever they want wherever they want to, and architects, designing things motivated by their own self-importance and fascination with the edifice, should be the last people to have such influence on a Government so interested in “development and economic prosperity”.

    Development and economic prosperity shouldn’t just mean a free for all the tacky development and self-important architects.

    Chris Johnson’s criticism of the Better Planning Network is the most worthy commendation that the VPN is on the right track.

    Go hard BPN and make sure that the developers just don’t roll right over the top of communities when the White Paper is released.