17 April 2013 — Well hasn’t the Better Planning Network made an impact.
NSW Planning Minister Brad Hazzard on Tuesday morning might have needed to cut short the milling journalists and television cameras reporting on his release of the state’s planning white paper, dubbed by Premier Barry O’Farrell as “the most significant planning reforms in 30 years”.
But he had plenty of time to for a head-to-head briefing with two members of the BPN and another two members of the public. The director general of planning, Sam Haddad, also had plenty of time for the briefing. As did about 12 departmental and ministerial advisers.
It might have seemed a bit overwhelming for BPN convenor Corinne Fisher and her colleague June Hefferan. They certainly didn’t expect the attention.
But then again, BPN is no bunch of treehuggers. It’s backed by more than 350 community groups with a wide range of backgrounds and interest groups including seriously urban professionals. The group was formed only last year, as soon as they worked out what the white paper intended.
Fisher, who is convenor of the group, had very positive words for the minister. The group was “very pleased” with the minister’s time and that of his staff and department. “We thanked them,” she said.
“A very good minister”, “very engaged”, she told The Fifth Estate after the 2 pm briefing on Tuesday.
But this community activist is not for easy charming.
“There is a marked difference between talking to people ad nauseam and integrating their concerns,” she said.
The government was working with a “deficit of community trust” in its ability to hear community concerns. For the government, it was an area of “high political risk”.
The planning reforms will remove community rights to object to development at the project-specific level and limit consultation to the strategic phase. The BPN says that at this level it’s difficult for busy community members to engage; it’s when matters get local that they will become involved.
BPN’s media release on Tuesday made its members’ feelings clear:
“The NSW Government’s planning White Paper and draft legislation is a cynical betrayal of every promise made to the community,” the BPN said.
“The Government is trumpeting its push for rapid development approvals but speed comes at the cost of community consultation. So much for assurances that community will be at the heart of the planning system.”
In fact the reforms were designed with developers in mind, not the community, the statement said.
The minister at the media conference said the department would use 3D modelling, social media and that each local area would chose the methods it believed most appropriate.
But Fisher said the white paper and the minister did not assure her there would be sufficient resources allocated for such activities.
“Our point is that without community acceptance the planning system cannot work,” Fisher said. “Planning has a problem with fierce community resistance. If they want an effective planning system they need to work with us.
“The minister is very committed. He thinks it can be done. We pointed out there are major problems with the proposals, that people don’t engage at the early strategic planning phase.”
Her understanding is that a lot of the objectives will be set at the regional and sub-regional level.
“Our understanding is that the state government will be involved in setting the strategic plans at the regional and sub-regional level and at the local level the local council will be responsible.
“This is a very top down approach, so what happens is most people will not engage at the regional and sub-regional level. They’re more likely to engage at the local level but the way it’s structured means when they got to local engagement the decision will already be made at the regional level.”
Fisher expects that decisions at the regional level will include issues such as what areas can and can’t be developed and how much housing needs to be incorporated.
She expects the local consultation will be “very limited in scope”.
It will also be high in political risk, Fisher says.
“Once people find out it will be very problematic.”
Trust or not?
Another issue is that the government is asking to be trusted without much evidence that it should be.
“There is no evidence that the government is capable of conducting meaningful engagement at this stage. In fact the evidence is the opposite, so there is a deficit of community trust.”
It’s “putting the cart before the horse”, Fisher says
For instance, most of the concerns and feedback from the green paper were ignored, she says.
“They’re proposing something that’s not been done well in the past and removing the safety net of [the ability to object] to individual development applications.
“It’s a very bitter pill for the community to swallow and we think the community will not swallow it.”
Fisher says her group is absolutely not anti-development.
“We understand the challenges that the state government has in terms of a growing population and affordability and the need to meet housing targets,” she said.
“The BPN doesn’t have a position on densification. It has a position on sustainable development and you would expect some densification. We’re absolutely not opposed to it. But we want it to be done well.”
But who will defend the greenfields and the farmlands against urban sprawl?
On all types of development community engagement will create a better outcome, Fisher says.
“We want to work with developers because we can address community opposition and we can change the way developers and communities engage but the dialogue needs to be started and compromises need to be reached. On both sides.”
The department has offered to meet with the network after it has had a chance to absorb the white paper.
“And we will be meeting with the department to talk about the changes that need to be made.”
Following is the text of a statement from the Better Planning Network issued on Tuesday
“The NSW Government’s planning White Paper and Draft Legislation is a cynical betrayal of every promise made to the community,” said Better Planning Network’s Corinne Fisher.
“The Government is trumpeting its push for rapid development approvals but speed comes at the cost of community consultation. So much for assurances that community will be at the heart of the planning system,” Ms Fisher said.
The White Paper has at its core the ability of developers, small and large, to achieve approval for most developments in a rapid time frame. The onus will be on decision makers to approve complying developments within ten days and code assessable developments within 25 days. In neither case will neighbours or the local community have a right or opportunity to comment.
“Code Assessable development is not benign or necessarily low impact,” said Ms Fisher. “It includes residential flat buildings in town centres, new commercial buildings, mixed use buildings and subdivisions with 20 or fewer villas or town houses. These developments can have a major impact on a neighbourhood or small town centre. The community should have the right to comment and to negotiate for the best possible outcome in such cases.
“The Better Planning Network is deeply disappointed in the State Government. Barry O’Farrell’s election promise to: give planning powers back to the people (Contract with NSW March 2011) has proven to be a cynical ploy. This planning system is a developer’s dream.”
Ms Fisher said that the community had been almost entirely cut out of the planning process at the local level.
“The Government hopes that within five years 80 per cent of development will be complying or code assessable. The rest will be merit assessed developments, including the really big developments that are determined by the Planning Assessment Commission or taken into the Minister as State Significant.
“This is the first major overhaul of the planning system for thirty years,” said Ms Fisher. “It is a disaster for communities all over NSW.”
The White Paper will be on public exhibition until 28 June 2013 despite communities asking for a minimum consultation period of six months, Ms Fisher said.
“Community comments on the Green Paper have been largely ignored in the White Paper. So how does Government expect us to believe that communities will be at the centre of the NSW Planning system?”