20 May 2011 – The federal government this week released three major urban policies and reports on planning. They are:

Most significant of these reports is that from the Productivity Commission. (The Fifth Estate discussed elements of the urban policy report last week, after release of key segments of the policy with the Federal Budget.)

In brief the Productivity Commission was asked to go beyond “benchmarking business compliance costs and to also examine the impact of the planning and zoning systems on competition and on the efficiency and effectiveness of the functioning of cities.”

In particular this was to include “laws and practices which unjustifiably restrict competition” and to identify best practice approaches that support competition, including but not limited to:

  • measures to prevent “gaming” of appeals
  • processes to maintain adequate supplies of land for a range of activities
  • ways to eliminate any unnecessary or unjustifiable protections for existing businesses from new and innovative competitors.

In its massive survey of cities around Australia Commission conducted three separate major surveys of:

  • key state and territory planning agencies
  • the local councils in the cities being examined
  • all the local council communities covered in this review (which comprise 78 per cent of the total Australian population).

It also surveyed 16 greenfield developers, which provided information on 29 individual development projects.

Key findings in the report include that differences between jurisdictions are evident for:

  • Business costs — such as the median time taken to assess development applications and the extent of developer charges for infrastructure
  • The amount of land released for urban uses
  • The provision made for appeals and alternative assessment mechanisms and community involvement in influencing state and city plans, in development assessment and in planning scheme amendments (such as rezoning).

Competition restrictions in retail markets are evident in all states and territories. They arise from excessive and complex zoning; through taking inappropriate account of impacts on established businesses when considering new competitor proposals, and by enabling incumbent objectors to delay the operations of new developments.

Leading practices to improve planning, zoning and assessment include:

  • providing clear guidance and targets in strategic plans while allowing flexibility to adjust to changing circumstances and innovation (so long as good engagement, transparency and probity provisions are in place)
  • strong commitment to engage the community in planning city outcomes
  • broad and simple land use controls to: reduce red tape, enhance competition, help free up urban land for a range of uses and give a greater role to the market in determining what these uses should be
  • rational and transparent rules for charging infrastructure costs to businesses
  • risk-based and electronic development assessment
  • timeframes for referrals, structure planning and rezoning
  • transparency and accountability, including for alternative rezoning and development assessment processes as well as having limited appeal provisions for rezoning decisions
  • limiting anti-competitive objections and appeals, with controls on their abuse

Responses

Significantly the NSW Urban Taskforce’s chief executive Aaron Gadiel interpreted the report as a win for his members who want to build low density residential on city fringes.

“This is a once a generation chance to undertake far-reaching microeconomic reform, on the same scale as the Hawke/Keating government’s reform of outdated industrial relations laws,” Mr Gadiel said.

Mr Gadiel said the Productivity Commission’s report identified a range of “leading practices” to smooth and speed up planning.

This included “early resolution of land use and coordination issues” and  “engaging the community early and in proportion to likely impacts.”

On retail property it included “eliminating impacts on the viability of existing businesses as a consideration for development and rezoning approval,” as another leading practice.

“This is a wide-ranging report that tackles almost everything that is wrong with Australian town planning laws,” Mr Gadiel said.

“It’s the most intimate examination town planning laws have ever been given by someone independent of the system.”

The Task Force didn’t agree with everything, Mr Gadiel said, but he was “particularly pleased that the Commission recognised the need for alternative assessment mechanisms’ where proposals that have positive or negative impacts beyond a council’s boundaries can be assessed by a higher level of government.”

In NSW, however, this ambition is in contrast with the apparent intention of the NSW O’Farrell Government to do the reverse; it has already said it would hand back a raft of assessments to local councils that had been sent to the state government under the state’s Part3A provisions.

“It’s become increasingly clear that the modern age of NIMBYism is encouraging local councils to stop large developments – even when they’re clearly beneficial to a whole city or region,” Mr Gadiel said.

Shopping Centre Council of Australia’s deputy director Angus Nardi said his group was generally pleased with the report, which comprised analysis and findings rather than recommendations.
“I think the most critical issue is that the commission found no systemic failure with activity centres in lifting retail supply,” Mr Nardi said.

“It basically highlights that the activity centres approach is the best approach. In terms of specific findings it recommends a less prescriptive approach to zoning.”

ACT Government made a point of dissenting in comments contained within the report.

It said it welcomed and supported the Productivity Commission report. However, the ACT “holds different views on certain issues relating to centres planning”.

“The ACT Government believes that planning for a hierarchy of activity centres is an essential element of economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable urban planning,” it said.

“In the context of an adaptable planning system, centres planning can be entirely compatible with the economically efficient allocation of land and the facilitation of competition in retailing and other sectors.

“Centres planning seeks to integrate land use and transport planning.  In doing so, centres policies typically seek to locate centres so as to equitably distribute access to retailing, employment opportunities, and other services across cities.

“Many forms of large-scale commercial development can significantly affect residential amenity through impacts such as noise and traffic.  Formal centres planning processes can to some extent avoid, minimise or mitigate such impacts.  In this context, floorspace controls on certain types of commercial development are not necessarily anti-competitive, but can rather serve important public policy purposes (such as amenity protection).

“Within an overall hierarchy of centres, local centres with a single (often small) supermarket play an important social inclusion function through providing basic services to persons with limited mobility.  Such centres serving small catchment populations should not be expected to support multiple supermarkets.

“While it is agreed in principle that planning should seek to accommodate as many competing demands for land as possible in response to market conditions, there may be limits to the ability of the planning system to accommodate this demand. ”

Green Building Council of Australia said the national urban policy was just the first step on a long journey towards truly productive, sustainable and liveable cities.

“It is essential that governments support policies around key issues such as waste, water and energy to reduce environmental impacts from our built environment. Likewise, we need to identify and capitalise on opportunities for climate change adaptation and mitigation for our cities – this policy supports that, ” GBCA’s executive director of advocacy and international Robin Mellon said.

“However, we want to see comprehensive, integrated programs which drive this policy. Currently, there are not enough fully-funded programs available to realise this ambitious vision.

“With financial support from industry and all three levels of government, including Minister Albanese’s own department, the Green Star – Communities rating tool is set to become a national, voluntary framework to support best practice planning, design and construction of communities, precincts and places across Australia.

“ASBEC, of which the GBCA is a member, issued a call to action to highlight the urgent need for a federal Minister and Department for Cities and Urban Development to ensure a streamlined, co-ordinated approach to urban management.

“ASBEC found a significant lack of policy co-ordination across all levels of government, which currently includes 45 federal programs and strategies, as well as inconsistently-managed programs across eight states and territories and more than 500 local governments.

“Sustainability means so much more than simply ‘being green’,” Mr Mellon said.

“True sustainability requires an integrated strategy for long-term financial, social and environmental benefits across the country.”

The Property Council of Australia and the Residential Development Council
said they “strongly endorsed” the commission’s broad findings, of “too many roadblocks in the planning system hindering delivery of housing.”

The Property Council chief executive officer Peter Verwer also endorsed the findings for more consistent and smoother planning outcomes across all states.

This report identified seven leading practices which mirror those of the National Development Assessment Forum and which support the need for structural reform of development assessments as well as national strategic planning principles.

Mr Verwer said that the planning system was the lynchpin of the three strategies.

The RDC said the policy opened the door to more greenfield development.
RDC executive director Caryn Kakas said the government had “made a fundamental shift in their understanding of housing policy by acknowledging that housing affordability can only be delivered through ‘a suitable balance between infill and greenfield development’.

“The bold objectives outlined set the stage for a quantum shift in the way we build cities and other urban areas, but this must be done through action and must be driven by all levels of government,” Ms Kakas said.

The Planning Institute of Australia
welcomed the  launch of a National Urban Policy to outline objectives and directions for cities, but sees the need for extra measures.

PIA national president Dyan Currie said today’s announcement was a first for an Australian Federal Government.

“A national overarching direction and vision for Australian cities has long been needed and we commend the Federal Government on its initiative,” Ms Currie said.

“There’s no doubt the initial investment of $181.4 million signals a new era in collaborative urban planning for Australia but a far greater investment will be needed to secure a sustainable future for our cities long term.”

Ms Currie said the document recognises that many decisions made by the Federal Government impact on urban Australia.

“The NUP promises to recognise the critical roles that all levels of government, the private sector and individuals play in planning,” she said.

“We believe the Government needs to better integrate the sustainable population strategy it launched last week to provide a sufficiently clear direction to inform the NUP.”

On the Sustainable Australia, Sustainable Communities the PIA said”
“PIA supports steps towards a more sustainable Australia and advocates for all planning initiatives to work cohesively.

“Disjointed approaches to planning for cities and regions across Australia have been hindering our future capacity to respond to emerging challenges for too long.

“We want to see success with this new approach of establishing a long-term framework for making our cities work better.”

The Lord Mayors of Australia’s capital cities welcomed the national urban policy.

“Over $180 million in new programs were announced in last week’s Federal budget as a down-payment towards implementing a Federal cities agenda, CCCLM chair and lord mayor of Hobart Rob Valentine said.

“This includes $20 million to improve affordability and liveability; specifically for the Gillard Government to work in partnership with my fellow lord mayors and I on demonstration projects which enhance the liveability and sustainability of our capital cities.

“Today’s policy announcement is highly symbolic and highly anticipated after three years preparation.  It is an important recognition of the national and international role our cities play, and the future challenges and opportunities they face.  What’s needed now are the partnerships between governments, backed by enough dollars to drive real change.”

The Australian Conservation Foundation welcomed the urban policy.

ACF Sustainable Australia program manager Monica Richter said

“The federal government has a clear role to play in helping our cities improve their performance by providing incentives for better and more efficient planning regimes, investing in sustainable infrastructure, making sure we are smarter with existing infrastructure and substantially reducing cities’ environmental footprints.

“This policy sets out some important principles and commitments that will help Australian cities achieve these objectives.

“We look forward to working with government to help deliver this policy.”

On the Population Strategy
The Property Council of Australia said the Gillard Government had failed the credibility test and the strategy ran the risk of damaging Australia’s long-term prosperity.

“This is not a detailed plan for managing population growth and to describe it as a policy or a strategy would be stretching credibility,” Property Council chief executive officer Peter Verwer said.

“Unfortunately, the slim strategy simply contains motherhood statements, previously announced initiatives and ongoing government programs,” Mr Verwer said.

“It is a political strategy not a strategy for managing complex policy issues, as promised.”

The Property Council has consistently argued that the challenge is not whether to grow our population, but rather how the nation manages growth, Mr Verwer said.

The RDC said the strategy abandoned an affordable housing policy

– By Tina Perinotto

The Fifth Estate – green buildings and sustainable development news and forum

contact: editorial@thefifthestate.com.au