News from the front desk issue 440: Rob Stokes, the recently reappointed planning minister for NSW, is to be admired, but also a tad feared for.
The admiration has obvious roots. The man is clearly intelligent, evidenced by several high level academic qualifications, not least a PhD in planning law. He seems humane and also pretty fearless, taking on Federal colleagues in defence of clean energy and sustainability, so he has fans on both sides of the fence. And when he last held the portfolio, in 2015 Stokes proved himself better than most of his forebears in the role at understanding the issues.
Therein lies the first problem alert: understanding how planning works is not always a good thing in the NSW property industry. In fact, the less the premier and planning minister know the better, in some views. All the easier to get them to roll your way under a cloak of expert opinions and copious reports generated by deep industry.
The other problem alert is the nature of politics.
In his first major address two weeks ago in his current iteration as planning minister (V2), Stokes quipped he wanted to move fast because you never know how much time you had. (His sudden removal from the post in a reshuffle last time no doubt still fresh.)
Before him was an audience of about 700 people at a Property Council lunch in Sydney. It was the heartland of his portfolio. A premium opportunity to lay out his vision and aspiration for his portfolio.
That’s the third warning alert.
Politics is always volatile, but when it’s combined with development and planning, it can be positively incendiary. Think about the challenges.
Increasingly clear is that it’s where many of society’s ills and opportunities are hatched. The federal election showed the deep fissures that divide the nation today are more than ever geographic.
The divisions mean your location could morph from a place to live and raise your family into an important determinant of economic and social outcomes.
The tensions are showing up with the “missing middle” program that proposes denser middle ring suburbs, that’s attracted accusations of class bias in how density is allocated, judging by the Spinifex opinion piece this week from Philip Bull (rebutted by Chris Johnson of the Urban Taskforce).
There’s hyper sensitivity to anything that challenges the existing perceived amenity. And to fan the flames we have cowboys like Harry Triguboff who has once again flagged that we should build on parkland because Sydney has so many parks.
So many other issues that merit just as much attention in our headlines: technology and innovation come to mind, just for a start. But they don’t stand a chance against the emotions raised when developers plonk down an ugly block of apartments next to your house or the WestConnext slams through your cherished urban fabric.
We are stuck with a massive spotlight on property.
So back to Rob Stokes: this is the challenge he’s got.
At the Property Council lunch Stokes did not waste a minute.
Behind him is a much-expanded portfolio with environment, energy and a host of previously disparate agencies that inherently offer the potential to create co-ordination and synergies, bureaucracy and NSW famed government silos notwithstanding.
The tone was that of a leader hoping to set an agenda for better. A hope that the industry could recast the narrative of growth as bad into something that would embrace the community. That it could be more sustainable. A win-win for all.
Planning, he said, was the way we as a society decide the future we want. And we can certainly do better than in the past.
He spoke impressively, as we’ve seen before. And as before, no notes but loads of details, references, data, modulations and good flow.
The thing that’s a little troubling, he said, was that that society’s narrative around growth has become obscured, that it’s a bad thing.
Whether we’re talking about immigration or development or agglomeration in the energy industry “growth is always talked about as if it’s necessarily or fundamentally evil.”
“It doesn’t take long to debunk this.”
The reality is growth is inevitable and change is inexorable and change is a logical extension of both of these processes, he said.
Noting that change can also be malignant – involve decomposition and decay as well “it can divide communities” he said.
“Nevertheless there is something inevitable about it.”
Sydney could cope with so much more growth, he said. It had around 610 people per square kilometre compared with Paris with more than 6000 per sq km.
Even after sustained growth Sydney would be very sparsely populated city by international standards.
(Try telling Sydneysiders that the jammed in high rises they’ve seen so much of during this boom will somehow make their city more like Paris.)
Stokes’ solution is to “collectively build a compelling case for the benefits of growth and we need to do so in the face of a community that is mistrustful and antagonistic and even openly hostile toward development.”
We should take heart from the community’s passion because they care, he added.
They want better streets, beautiful design, better architecture and better transport. To inspire people who are already passionate about such things do we talk about productivity and liveability? he asked.
Maybe not. Maybe liveability is read as “survivability”, “developments that don’t kill you”, he said.
Maybe our standards and vision should be set a little higher. “We can do even better than liveability, we can do delight, beauty, we can do inspiration.”
Sustainability is more problematic because few of us know what that means, he said. “I know there is an abiding commitment to sustainable outcomes,” he said, but I’d argue we could try harder. We know we have the power of restoration.”
If we’re going to make the case for the benefits of growth he said the argument has to be more compelling.
And that doesn’t mean we need to trade environmental benefits with economic benefits. Both can be possible, he said.
Productivity was another issue. And fairness and equity key
“We know we are being more productive but we also need to be making sure the benefits of that increased wealth and productivity and prosperity is shared across the fabric of our city.”
For instance if people in the west have fewer opportunities than people closer to the centre then this “strikes at the heart of our social contract.”
On equity in housing Stokes slid out of dealing directly with the issue and it’s such a shame. He said the government could act as a guiding hand, not much more, or perhaps as an exemplar. The thinking these days is that it needs to get more directly involved. Housing that’s affordable simply will probably never be delivered by the market and sooner or later that will become a crisis that will need much stronger intervention.
To bring consensus around the benefits of growth, though there is much safer ground. Stokes could talk about the need to do great quality developments.
We need to change the culture, he said, to stop the image of the “supposedly avaricious developers against the supposedly blinkered communities.”
Which means that “as long as everyone’s a little bit unhappy it’s considered a good outcome.”
“That’s a recipe for mediocrity”.
Quoting notable planner John Mant, Stokes said some of the best examples of successful neighbourhoods were not planned and some of the most disastrous were precisely planned.
“Planning is the process through which society makes decisions about its future. It affects those around us and is it’s only reasonable to that the community wants to be invested and it’s no surprise they get angry when things happen that they didn’t expect.”
His idea is to make people feel invested in the outcome and if we can’t do this will not be able to make a compelling case for growth.”
All good talk and inspiring, and of course we loved to hear about sustainability taking its place alongside other outcomes in the built environment.
There’s no doubt Stokes is genuine and there is no doubt the leaders in the industry get the imperatives to do better.
The sceptical notes riffing through the chat after the event showed it’s going to be a hard slog to bring the bulk of the industry on Stokes’ journey; it’s a long way from the day to day imperatives that developers seek, especially now that the boom has soured.
But it’s like the change agents say, you need a vision before you can create a blue print and you need a blue print before you can have action.
And to be truthful even the mention of those objectives will hopefully stick, a bit. At best, perhaps only as irritations. Like the #MeToo movement once you’ve heard the other view, you can’t unhear it. You may still choose to be a bully – or a bad developer – but you’ve heard another view and you know what your industry leader thinks and you know the best of your crowd will look down on poor behaviour. At least in theory. And at least, politically speaking.
Yet one day you may raise your standards.