On Wednesday, we interviewed building industry stalwart and physicist Paul Bannister for our second series of podcasts that’s just kicked off and will start being published soon. 

During a deeply thoughtful analysis of the property industry, Paul dropped many gems and insights. But behind all mathematical and engineering talent that he’d brought to energy efficiency, the design of the NABERS environmental rating system and now its export to the UK, came a strongly humanistic thread.

In our closing minutes, we asked what his feeling was about whether humanity would survive the climate that’s coming.

He understands that we might care for the planet as a concept, but—like in every other matter—we’re probably inherently selfish and care more for ourselves as a species. And, of course, all the things that bring us joy – living or inanimate. 

We will make a lot of mistakes, he said, and we will probably blunder through, but the one thing that he fears we may fail on, is a sense that we may end up with growing inequality because of climate disruption. 

If that’s true, and there are good reasons to think so, we need to leap on any emerging signs of this and shut them down. Because the disruption that will cause – politically and of course geo-politically – will be immense.

When NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet allowed his planning minister Anthony Roberts to kill off the Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy or SEPP this week, he unleashed a kind of ugliness that will turn that possibility into a probability.

The people the SEPP was designed to protect with better urban planning that allowed walkability, tree canopy cover and access to amenity, were Sydney’s future residents, who will mostly be allocated to western Sydney.

That’s the place where the Nepean River rose 13 metres in just one day. The place where it’s hit close to 50 degrees already, and where the temperatures routinely go 10 degrees higher than eastern Sydney.

The place where families need to run two or three cars if their adult kids can’t afford their own house, and so are up for enormous upfront costs, fuel and road tolls because private companies like Transurban must have their government guaranteed levy.

And it’s the place where those students from the University of Sydney a few years ago cheekily identified in an interactive map of Sydney as the place where most of the fast food outlets were located. They called it the Red Rooster line. (A description that’s a tad more blunt than the demure “latte line”.)

That’s the case because giant shopping centres, such as Westfield, suck the life out of all other retailers in their orbit and the tired tradie—coming home from the eastern suburbs or leafy north shore mansions they’ve been working on—can’t be arsed stopping at a shop to pick up some healthy food to cook for dinner that night. So they grab a Maccas instead. It’s conveniently located next to the servo.

Western Sydney, though, is where all the rich Sydney farmland is and where developers have done a thing called landbanking. That is, bought up huge swathes of pastures to develop as “highest and best use” in line with the developer’s golden mantra.

The developers have rounded as one against the state government’s SEPP, developed painstakingly and with much wide and deep consultation by the former planning minister Rob Stokes.

They can’t afford canopy cover and nicely laid out walkable communities accessible to amenities, they say. 

A leading member of Urban Taskforce Australia, David Tanevski, waded into the debate on social media and said such largesse could not be afforded. It would be an unfair burden on our new citizens effectively paid for by existing households in Sydney:

“If we are serious about withstanding the effects of wild weather from climate change then the Design and Place SEPP should have been a policy on the existing four million home-owners in NSW. Why are we continuing to obligate the new home buyers to subsidies the exist privileged homeowners. All this does is increase house prices for our young wanting to get into the market. We should all be in this together.”

The thing that’s missing is that we know that retrofit of existing buildings is hard and expensive. But why repeat poor development that will only add to the burden later?

A second thing is missing and that it’s not quite correct that the developers – or buyers – will be out of pocket for better designed places.

As Tim Williams, former chief executive of Committee for Sydney pointed out on Thursday afternoon, if you make clear rules about the quality of the intended development, and even inclusionary zoning which guarantees social and affordable housing, the developers don’t pay any extra. And the buyers don’t either.

The reason is that clear rules before the developer buys the land means these “extras” are paid for by the landowner. (You’d think they were luxury marble benchtops instead of mere safe and resilient housing, the way the intensity of protests go.)

The farmer or other landowner gets to wear a discount on the price they achieve because the developer will discount the cost of the
“extras”. Be they tree canopy, better designed neighbourhoods – whatever. 

And they will still make their standard 22 per cent (or whatever) return on investment, which Williams says is a universal economic property rule that works both here and at least in the UK.

In the UK, however, all developers buy land knowing from the start they must devote 35 per cent of the housing to affordable and social housing.

Even Lendlease, which operates in the UK – and which in Australia, however, expects to pay for no such thing.

The home buyer, meanwhile, will obey the other golden rule of economics and pay whatever the market demands and not a cent more. Or less.

And yet, despite these obvious and undeniable truths without which no developer would be silly enough to be in business, the property industry continues to tell the same unchanging stories. It trots out the very same mantra to planning minister after planning minister, to premier after premier.

It’s notable that almost the first thing a senior politician will say in their first public address is a repetition of the mantra. It’s code to the people who are mainly responsible for getting them there that they hear their story, they will bend over backwards to comply with their desire and needs, because herein lies the solution to affordable housing: more supply, faster approvals, minimum standards.

And yet it’s not true. Affordability can be fixed by flooding the market, but developers will never do that. They have the land already, They just want a smooth path with the least impediments. No rules please.

It’s not the pollies’ fault. Most of them have not been in business during their career and might not understand this complex industry.

They must rely on what the lobbyists tell them. And tell them they do, demanding easy access that goes “right to the top” as sources have told us over and over during the 13 years of this publication.  

From our experience, the advisers don’t know much about this industry either. So, it’s highly paid lobbyists and so-called advocacy groups from the property development industry, wall to wall. Now what other industry does that remind us of? Unlike the coal industry, however, we need developers and can love what they do; if it’s done well. In fact, a well designed precinct can be a total delight. 

We need these clever people to build our future places to live, work and play in. But we want this industry to be on our side. We need a partnership here. 

A model that’s future proof and not some outdated neo liberal capitalist model founded during the industrial revolution, or earlier, and no longer fit for purpose.

The people, Mr Perrottet, are angry. Really angry. We’ve not seen it like this before. They say this is a line in the sand that’s been crossed. 

So far, that anger is confined to those who understand the SEPP – so professionals and environmentalists – but trust us, they are seething and the message is spreading. 

But already we’ve seen the mainstream message, with headlines about the government putting people in danger of floods and fires. Not to mention killer heat.

As Jeff Angel from the Total Environment Centre says it will soon become a federal issue with the people he represents set to ask climate focused independents lining up for the imminent federal election to take a stand for the resilience of the places we live.

‘’Environment groups will be asking federal election candidates to reject the Perrottet government’s anti-environment policy and call for a reversal of the decision by the minister, which pandered to the developer lobby,” he said on Thursday.  

“It’s not a choice between more housing – and the environment and people’s health – we can have both with intelligent and informed policies of the type developed over two years of consultation and research into the economic, social, health and environmental benefits – but now dumped.’’

And watch out, the Better Planning Network is having a say too: its convenor Jan Primrose says: “The Minister should not have summarily dumped the draft just because development industry lobbyists whinged that it could be too difficult for them or would reduce their exorbitant profits. Public interest should take precedence over vested interests. That is better planning.”

But, as we’ve seen, developers don’t have to drop a dime. They just need to accept a level playing field and a stable planning framework whose rules are known far and wide before they offer the farmers their squillions. Then deduct the cost of the “extras” from the fat sale cheque.

We can try to have the best possible world with the least inequity no matter how hard things get with the climate, if we really want. 

The last word goes to David Tanevski: “We should all be in this together”.

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