Macquarie Group is thumb-ing its nose at decades old planning rules.

News from the front desk Issue 386: Two NSW government decisions made this month show just how much power the development industry has to influence the very form and function of our cities – for its own benefit.

First the decision to approve an unsolicited bid by Macquarie Group for two new towers – of 40 and 28 storeys – at Martin Place, in exchange for funding development of a Metro station. The unsolicited bid process is controversial in itself, but what has really got people riled up is it’s an unsolicited proposal with a disregard for controls that have been put in place to protect the amenity of the area for all users of the city.

Macquarie this week gained a key approval for the development, with the NSW Government forcing a change to City of Sydney’s Local Environment Plan to get around setback controls that require new towers over 55 metres in height to be set back 25 metres from the public domain to protect amenity – rules that have been in place for a quarter of a century.

So we can expect the Eye of Sauron-evoking building (strangely reminiscent of Macquarie’s own logo, we might add) and its southern counterpart to soon cast shadow over Martin Place, much to the chagrin of the City of Sydney and building owners GPT and Dexus, and going against best advice contained in an AECOM report commissioned by the Department of Planning, as well as that from the independent Planning Assessment Commission.

The Planning Assessment Commission found that Macquarie’s proposed building envelopes (it wanted zero setback) would have “significant negative impact on the urban outcome” as well as being out of character with surrounding development, recommending the southern tower have a 25-metre setback from the northern site boundary. 

The AECOM report, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, found a 12-metre setback would provide the optimal outcome, though, like NSW government architect Peter Poulet, said an eight-metre setback had “the potential to provide an acceptable outcome”. Macquarie, meanwhile, said adhering to setback controls could affect commercial viability.

This eight metre outcome is what the government is going with. So while there’s some buffer we’re left with a building that will encroach an additional 17 metres on Martin Place than the city’s controls allow, against independent advice.

Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore isn’t pleased.

“The result will block views to the GPO clock tower and reduce sunlight, daylight and wind protection to pedestrians in Martin Place and the surrounding streets and overshadow the MLC forecourt,” Ms Moore said. 

The owners of the Harry Seidler-designed MLC Centre – Dexus and GPT – also objected to the development, as it would block morning sun to the forecourt used by its occupants.

MLC Centre, Sydney

A City of Sydney spokesperson said the agreed changes were not consistent with the council and state government’s shared vision for a “pedestrian-focused civic space”.

“The department’s decision has cast aside this vision and undermined decades of disciplined decision-making by local and state government and business leaders,” the spokesperson said. 

“More than a billion dollars worth of private development has respected the setback since it was introduced by the city and state.” 

These include the Westin Hotel, 5 Martin Place, the MLC Centre and the government’s own 52 Martin Place HQ.

But Macquarie Bank not. Its development is set to stick out like a sore thumb.

Development near the new airport

The state government also seems to be spreading its poor decisions to its latest area of focus in Western Sydney, making sure it will equitably jeopardise amenity for residents soon to be near (and now nearer) the Western Sydney Airport at Badgerys Creek.

This week it capitulated to developer lobbying, announcing it was a “factual error” in the Greater Sydney Commission’s (GSC) Western City District Plan to attempt to limit residential development around the airport by implementing more stringent national aircraft noise standards, which state and federal governments had agreed to in 2012.

One action in the GSC’s Western City District Plan was “recognising and giving effect to the National Airports Safeguarding Framework (NASF), incorporating noise, turbulence and wildlife safety measures”.

The framework was agreed to by all states and territories in 2012, when premier Gladys Berejiklian was transport minister, though states needed to enact the framework in planning legislation, which NSW has not done. In contrast, states like Victoria have incorporated it into planning frameworks and strategic documents like Plan Melbourne to be used when planning future communities on greenfield land.

The measures are additional to the already used Australian Noise Exposure Forecast (ANEF), which generally prohibits development in areas where more than 10 per cent of people would be “seriously affected” (>ANEF 20), based on a socio-acoustic survey done in the 1980s, with “conditionally acceptable” development up to ANEF 25.

On top of this, under NASF, undeveloped greenfield land should not be rezoned for residential where 20 or more aircrafts a day pass at greater than 70 decibels (about the same as loud conversation); 50 or more aircrafts pass at greater than 65 decibels; and 100 aircrafts pass at greater than 60 decibels (normal conversation).

With the airport set to be operated 24 hours a day, development could also be prohibited where more than six planes an hour fly over homes at night between 11pm and 6am creating more than 60 decibels of noise.

However, Urban Taskforce chief executive Chris Johnson has been lobbying since 2012 to stymie the adoption of the measures in NSW, which he said could stop development of 10,000 homes over an additional 240 square kilometres of land around Western Sydney Airport. And it’s paid off. 

“For some reason the federal government decided in 2011 to overlay a new method of measuring noise with little understanding of the impact of this on land use planning,” Johnson said. 

The reason, though, is amenity, and the point of the federal regulations was to create a harmonised environment for land use planning around airports.

“The ANEF contours are a well established land use planning tool recognised by most jurisdictions and incorporated into land use planning decisions,” the NASF statement of principles says.

“This practice should continue, but be supplemented by additional measures where appropriate. Use of a broader suite of assessment metrics will allow more informed strategic planning by state and territory governments. These measures are sensible additions to best practice major city planning to avoid zoning of inappropriate residential or other noise-sensitive developments in corridors under flight paths.”

Blacktown mayor Stephen Bali said NASF would lead to development in appropriate places. 

“When we have a 24-hour airport we have to have a proper way of assessing noise,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Far too often people discount noise. These are all key issues that we should be resolving before the first shovel goes into the ground.”

Johnson also said enacting the stricter federal regulations could affect the price willing to be paid for developments, as disclosure of aircraft noise to prospective residents would be required if there’s 20 or more daily events greater than 70 decibels.

No shifting the issue under the carpet to maximise personal gain. A novel concept for some, it seems.

What future do we want?

These examples may seem to appear trivial to some – the difference between eight, 12 and 25 metres on a setback, or a few additional planes flying overhead an hour – but it goes to the heart of a matter that is only increasing in importance – who our cities are built for. 

Governments, both state and federal, so often kowtowing to private interest make us nervous for the future of city-shaping. With technological change like driverless cars and other smart city technology progressing rapidly – and their ability to affect how our cities look, feel, sound and operate growing dramatically – it is important that governments put the general population’s interest – not private interest – first. Otherwise we risk a future where cities become cash cows to a few to the detriment of the rest.

Join the Conversation


Your email address will not be published.

  1. News from the front desk doesn’t grasp the extent of the NASF approach to measuring aircraft noise that would stop housing. This would stop any housing over an EXTRA 240 square kilometres of area around the Western Sydney Airport on top of the area already protected by the ANEF 20 contour.
    240 square kilometres is a bigger area than the Eastern City District Plan area of 214 square kilometres which includes an airport. The Eastern city already has around 500,000 homes and another 150,000 planned over the next 20 years.
    240 square kilometres is the same area as Blacktown LGA (247 sqk)
    240 square kilometres is a third of the area of Singapore (720 sqk)

    To have an area the size of the Eastern City District with NO houses certainly won’t make the Western City a bustling city. The current system of measuring noise, the ANEF, is one of the strictest in the world and it doesn’t need to change.

  2. News from the front desk has used the wrong photograph of Martin Place using the northern tower not the southern tower which is the subject of the set back debate.
    On the Western City airport issue the NASF system was never agreed by all fact no planning Ministers attended the meeting in 2012. Minister Hazzard wrote to us confirming this. The reason is that the NASF noise controls are just too excessive. They would sterilise an extra 240 square kilometres around the Western Sydney Airport and an extra 60 square kilometres around Sydney Airport. Standards Australia rejected the NASF approach and stuck with the tried and proven ANEF system. We discovered a new clause in the District Plans that brought NASF into effect that was not in the draft plans. Decisions that could effect 300 square kilometres of land across Sydney should be transparently proposed to enable community input and not slipped into a final document that has legislative weight.