Frank Marra

Western Australia’s land development agency LandCorp has decided to join the Global Reporting Initiative. If not unique, it certainly seems like a bold move.

But according to chief executive officer Frank Marra, who was appointed to the post in March, it’s not such a brave or gutsy move – just what will soon be expected of any organisation that wants to be taken seriously, or even operate effectively in the market.

“The commitment to GRI is just the next step in our journey to demonstrate to the development industry that there is an easy way to do this reporting system,” Marra says.

“It will become a licence to operate in the market. In the future is integrated reporting, and the community and other stakeholders will value this more and more.”

According to Marra there’s nothing that new or radical about the sustainability agenda for this massive organisation.

LandCorp has always been on a sustainability journey, he told The Fifth Estate in a phone interview on Thursday. The language might have changed in recent times, but not the objectives.

“We’re very keen to continue this sustainable development journey. It might have been knows as different things, but we’ve always been on this journey,” he says.

And despite what some people might think of the political agenda at the federal level and some of the states, Marra says the objectives and ambitions of LandCorp in sustainability are very much supported by the state government.

The opening pages of the baseline GRI report seems to confirm what Marra claims. There on the very first opening pages is a statement from LandCorp’s relevant minister, for regional development and land, Terry Redman:

“The Western Australian landscape is internationally renowned. From the rich red ochres of the Kimberley in the north to the pristine white sands of Esperance’s beaches in the south, we have a natural canvas that is both striking and precious.

“This is why the state government’s land development agency must lead the way when it comes to sustainable residential and industrial development.”

GRI reporting will start the process of “more rigorous, strategic and holistic approach to sustainability,” the minister says.

Marra says it’s all about LandCorp’s leadership role to plan, design, sell and sometimes build projects that demonstrate efficiency, lower operational costs, long-term thermal comfort, social outcomes such as affordable housing and most recently even a design vernacular that’s responsive to a specific location.

It’s also about paving the way for the private sector to follow this leadership by “de-risking” the processes by developing the systems and proving the market for a different way to approach development.

Local developers in Western Australia, as we found in our recent ebooks, Greening the West part I and part II, and their associated events, are reticent to change their ways to take up more sustainable practice. Marra totally gets why. It’s hard for anyone to give up a proven track record that works, he says.

That’s where the agency steps in – to demonstrate and de-risk.

“LandCorp has always had a tradition of progressing down a path of sustainable development,” Marra says. “We’ve always put in place the building blocks to innovation. It’s always been a core part of our business.

“We talk about innovation in terms of demonstration. Showing the market what can occur in terms of sustainability even though it’s not spoken of in those words; it’s the same core part of what LandCorp has been trying to do for a very long time.”

The language around sustainability has changed in the past and it will change again, he says, but key is community, design, environmental and economic outcomes.

“The core concept is around making sure our activities today impact as little as possible – making sure what we do today doesn’t have a negative impact on the future but has a positive legacy.”

By its very nature property development changes the environment but “people need to live somewhere and people need to work somewhere”, he says, but the key is to minimise the impact of that and not “just looking at the lowest cost thing to do today”.

Marra is keen to point to two demonstration projects he’s especially proud of. One consists of two houses – with one featuring conventional reverse cycle airconditioning and the other tapping geothermal energy for heating and cooling – to see which produces the best results in a two-year period.

The second project is what the agency calls the “Pilbara vernacular”, a project in the Pilbara to create a housing model that is site specific in terms of local environmental considerations and thermal comfort, and community relevant in terms of local design.

This is the unique opportunity of the agency and one sought by the government, Marra says – to use its unique position to deliver development “in a way that makes a difference”.

Among those objectives is to ensure that 15 per cent of housing is affordable. That goes along with housing design that captures ideal solar orientation and long-term thermal comfort.

The government is strongly supportive of this because it makes sense, Marra says. Any issues the government has with the climate agenda are no impediment, he says. Climate is “just part of the story” he says, and all the objectives need to be weighted equally – social, environmental and economic.

The government is also aware that if Perth is to continue to grow it can’t continue to be at its fringes. But that’s a story that is starting to be strongly picked up by the community, which is now more accepting of higher density and taller buildings.

“The important role that LandCorp can play is one around de-risking any change that needs to happen. How can we accelerate that and how it can work and another is around identifying and delivering to a market that has been untapped and wants to take advantage of a product.”

Scale of operations

LandCorp’s is certainly vast. There are around 150 projects stretching from the north at Kununarra to Albany in the south, as well as in the metropolitan area.

They cover residential, commercial industrial and tourism. Generally the work focuses on masterplanning but also extends to working alongside the private sector, with developers such as Lend Lease, Satterley, Cedar Woods and Mirvac involved in some of the projects.

The market is changing

Marra says the housing market is in flux but, despite publicity about the tapering off of mining investment, not as much as you might expect.

Unemployment is on a par with the rest of the nation, prices have stabilised in the metro area rather than dropped, but residential rents have fallen back, easing the burden for occupiers.

Overall the economy is quite buoyant and certainly LandCorp’s position is well protected from its strong diversification, Marra says.

In fact Marra and other executives including chief operating officer Nicholas Wolff have recently returned from a trip to China and south-east Asia to see if they could stimulate some interest from the vast capital available in the region to come to Perth.

Sure, Melbourne and Sydney have enjoyed much of the investment flows from the region so far and that makes sense, Marra says, because these are the “gateways to Australia”.

But if Perth could share just a part of that inflow it could make a big difference.

“Even a small percentage coming to WA would be a significant difference.”

And Perth has its advantages, he says.

“We’re closer, we’re on the same time zone and we have a lot of linkages in terms of exports and education.”

Marra is deeply embedded in LandCorp. He has a long history in various aspects of the agency and was CFO for 10 years before stepping into the new role. He has an economics degree, picked up a second degree in accounting and most recently studied advanced management programs at Harvard.

But the best education of all, he says, has been right where he works.