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.
- See our interview with Corinne Fisher of the Better Planning Network, NSW planning reformers have a fight on their hands
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.
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.
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.
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.