Coming out of lockdown felt like opening the sluice gates on a dammed Niagara Falls, if you can imagine such a thing. A lot of rushing, gushing, froth and bubble. With big pylons smashing through to jolt us out of our former soporific complacency. No sleepiness here now.

Sure, there’s good news. Plenty of “wokeness” among the erstwhile coal fondlers – well, not all of them – and among those who have gone green/woke there’s a kind of panic you can feel as they scrabble around to spin their road to Damascus awakenings snapping up the best – and we fear pretty much most of the best – story telling journalists and locking them into their media machines. 

Meanwhile those who speak truth to power or speak about any other meaningful thing are frozen out through a truly inventive range of techniques.

The ABC for instance has been so smashed and cowed, it’s starting to resemble a victim of ritual abuse. It should sue the government for damages we reckon, haul it before the human rights commission of media independence.

And at Nine, which has swallowed Fairfax holus-bolus, the drift of good talent continues out the door.  Most notably last week, with the uncomfortable Elizabeth Farrelly summarily sacked from The Sydney Morning Herald in a five minute conversation – after three decades with the paper. Whatever the reason, right or wrong, you can imagine management biding its foot tapping time for just the right moment when it could pounce. You could almost hear the sigh of relief all over Sydney that the editors would no longer have to deal with what must have been the long line of complainants fuming outside the editor’s office on most Mondays to complain about what Farrelly said on Saturday in her column.

Another nail in the coffin of our democracy.

People who rue the demise of her column suggested she write for one of the bigger independent papers, little understanding that it’s the power of the big metro masthead that can have the biggest impact and call to account the most powerful. No point preaching to the converted.

Let’s be absolutely clear: if we can’t abide strong contradictory voices that upbraid the unimaginable power of our lords and masters by even a fraction, we’re in deep trouble. For a start because of the equally unimaginable power that new technology has to control and coerce us all. But standing right in front of the clever tech are still the humans who are so clever at spinning tales and fobbing off our niggling concerns with creative new concepts that distract us and make us think it’s okay for the government to spend our money on its favourite electorates, to hand huge tax cuts to those at the top of the pile, and to turn a blind eye to the fact that our richest people enjoy tax free wealth building through their private luxury homes.

Tax people at the point of making their money, make a kind of GST for housing and most of our problems might disappear. Negative gearing. Bah… We are allowed rightly to discount the input costs in business. Land tax? Too many unintended consequences. But tax the big windfall gains and give back to the society that gave you the infrastructure that helped deliver the windfall gains, and we get some traction on equity.

Supply is an argument all on the developers’ side. Do they actually mean supply of affordable housing? No. They mean supply of the apartments that will give them the biggest return on investment and rightly so, they are not the government whose job it is to make sure we have some kind of security net for our populations.

The developers are running out of the cheap house and land options in the outer reaches of Sydney that are ready serviced with public money. 

Time to raise the dam walls at Warragamba or raise the height of the roads, “to keep people safe”.  What are they going to do about the heat? Force builders to build more sustainably, with low carbon materials, well-sealed construction so there are no leakages of precious energy-fuelled internal comfort? Not likely. The builders lobby will fight with all its might to stop this.

In other semi-related news this week, our sources say that NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes is a day away at best from losing his portfolio and retaining the temporary post of transport minister. The reasons for the timing is the photo opps at Parliament House that need to be squeezed in before Christmas.

So it seems that Stokes has not so much been trying to keep his job by issuing policy after policy in the hope of impressing the premier he is worthy of keeping his job, but trying to ensure some strong frameworks remain behind to protect the common good. (There it is again, that antediluvian concept of adulthood that Jacqui Lambie reminded us of – concern for others). 

So we have on Thursday news that planning approvals will be fast tracked, with tardy councils having the decision-making snatched away from them – so the generic media reporting said.

But the inside professionals say it’s not such a bad thing. Part of the new deal refers to spot rezoning. And according to those sources apparently a council needs to approve a spot rezoning – it can’t occur independently of council wishes, no matter how tardy it’s been on housing approvals. (We reserve judgement on these complex issues and all are welcome to send their views to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au).

Stokes’ media statement on the latest round of policy changes said:

“Newly-elected councils will have clear performance benchmarks to meet in delivering planning decisions under reforms released today to create jobs, boost housing supply and attract investment”.

Supply again. And again, and again. It’s like Trump’s rule: repeat something often enough and it will eventually stick. The tobacco industry did the same by casting doubt on cigarettes as killers and you know the story about climate. 

On rezoning the statement said:

“Last year we cleared 336 rezoning proposals through the system, paving the way for nearly 34,000 jobs and more than 40,000 homes. These draft reforms will go a step further by reducing timelines by up to a year for standard applications.” 

So, spot rezoning is ok now?

“In the interim, a new guideline has also come into effect to better explain the rezoning process and introduce new practices to immediately improve the system, including earlier engagement and categorising proposals based on their complexity.”

So, did Stokes jump or was he pushed? 

Tom Forrest, chief executive of the Urban Taskforce was the epitome of reasonableness on Thursday.

Spot rezoning was essential to deal with complex, changing evolving markets, he said. These days he pointed out you could have a car show room on the ground floor with apartments above.

Yes but we are now short of industrial land and commercial land and all those places where innovation thrives and creatives want to live.

There’s plenty of industrial land at the new airport, Forrest pointed out. Yes, but we need it closer to town. Not just the last mile warehousing either. As the economic/planning modellers tell us the future of Australia’s major cities is not going to be in the offices, it will be in the clever things we manufacture and the creative spaces where ideas are nurtured in the ether and finally take shape so they can enter the analogue world.

And right now it’s residential as the preeminent ruler of the kingdom because it can pay the highest prices for the land we all want.

Besides, we’ve never heard of residential land rezoned to industrial. But the way things are going the lack of supply of industrial and commercial land might one day see the tide turn. Maybe it’s already happened. There’s the windfall profit of $75 million the Jean Nassif’s Toplace Group made when industrial property giant Goodman bought its 15-19 Berry Street at Clyde. But we think it proves our point, and besides, not every industrial/commercial developer has pockets as deep as Goodman’s (unless it’s moving into residential…).

On the Stokes ministry, again, an interesting observation by one of our contacts though is that the nine planning principles Stokes released a couple of weeks ago and that we thought of as strange/unusual, looking more like curious motherhood statements than anything we actually expected contained an interesting twist.

Stokes made big of these being his principles. Not those of another minister who might take his place, nor those of another government that might take over. But his. Unique. It turns out, however, they were made under a section 9.1 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (NSW) (EP&A Act). 

Which means they have legal clout, a small detail many people failed to pick up, (including us!).

The central theme of the Planning Principles is “sustainable development” said one clever publication having regard to:

  • social, environmental and economic objectives
  • connecting with Country
  • addressing climate change 

“The Planning Principles will be given legal effect by way of a Ministerial direction under section 9.1 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (NSW) (EP&A Act),”  

So what it means is you can get your spot rezoning, if you need the above criteria and the actual nine principles (which we’re liking more and more).

Nice goodbye present Mr Stokes, thanks!

And that on top of that, carbon accounting for new developments and the banning of black roofs.

On the housing question and the old chestnut of how to fix the affordable housing conundrum, John Brockhoff, national policy manager for the Planning Institute of Australia, reckons that finally the messaging is starting to seep through that it’s not all about supply – (otherwise, how do explain the housing boom/bubble in the global context? we wonder).

In the PIA submission to the Falinski inquiry on affordable housing y the PIA made these key points:

  • Housing unaffordability cannot be solved by more supply in the market
  • The behaviour of housing as an asset means that not enough housing is provided by the market to those who need shelter
  • Planning regulation/zoning is not a roadblock – it serves as a lane marker
  • Development proposals that align with Strategic Plans flow fast
  • The role of strategic planning and planning regulation is directed towards: creating great places – and a sustainable built environment to access to diverse housing, jobs and services that reduce living costs/ boost productivity o ensuring infrastructure investment is cost effective by reducing development risks
  • A focus only on maximising supply would compromise the value of planning in shaping productive, liveable and sustainable cities and towns
  • Measures to reduce demand for housing assets are important – but realistically won’t progress
  • Substantial non-market supply of social/affordable housing is needed for lower income earners
  • Planning facilitates diverse and affordable housing through the regulatory system – and by strategic planning for population growth and change
  • Costs arising from mandating affordable housing can be absorbed in the price of land
  • The absence of a coherent housing market strategy has major productivity and social implications.

Another pylon mixed in with the froth and bubble is worth a mention, a bunch of builders are starting to go broke, unable to keep up with a market that moves in cyber time while they’re stuck in the analogue world working with real materials and real people.

Russ Stephens, co-founder of the Association of Professional Builders told Realestate.com that 60 per cent of builders were currently losing money.

Peter Koulizos, of Property Investment Professionals of Australia, told the website the HomeBuilder grant, designed to stimulate the economy following COVID, is “the catalyst for the issues that now plague the building industry.”

As most of us limp towards an exhausted end of year with more collective challenges than we ever imagined, let’s try to do one thing and be as critical as all get out when we hear pronouncements from corporates, government or any other organisations. Let’s keep asking the big questions: what’s in it for them? Who else stands to gain? And what’s in it for we the people?

UPDATE: 20 December 2021 9.33 am – Rob Stokes has lost both planning and transport in the ministerial reshuffle. Hard to fathom. Instead he’s been given infrastructure (how does that not include transport? So sporting stadiums? Museums?) active transport (we presume bike lanes and running trails…well we guess you always needed a ministry for that, since no-one has cared for it since the advent of the motor car) and cities (meaning what, exactly? We’re in the dark and lost in the fog of politicised jargon; but a few days before our collectively longed for break we’re willing to wait till the new year and see how the particles in the ether settle into substance).

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