Rock Island Bend, Franklin River

ELECTION 2022: When the Tasmanian government refused to save the Franklin River several decades ago, the newly elected Hawke Labor government made new laws to give it the power to step in.

When the Queensland government under Joh Bjelke Petersen refused to stop sandmining on Fraser Island, the then Liberal government under Malcolm Fraser made a law to ban the export of minerals.

These were both issues under care of the states. But they had national impact and represented national opportunities.

No-one has ever said we were wrong to stop sandmining or to save the Franklin. Or to stop destruction of any forests, urban areas or  buildings for that matter.

Today both Fraser Island and the Franklin are places that are revered and earn huge revenues in tourism, benefits that reflect favourably in our national reputation and add to our store of wealth.

What happened is that some clear-headed people, spurred on by environmentalists who’d struck a note in the rest of the population, looked at the bigger picture and decided these issues were important enough to cut through the noise of short term self-interest.

In other words, they focused on our collective wealth – which is always more than the sum of our bank accounts – and includes our intellectual and creative capital that we can rely on to get us out of a jam when needed. And in this unfolding life, there’s only one thing certain –  we will face an ever growing number of jams that threaten our mojo.

When you look at the tools we need to navigate this increasingly uncertain, complex and interdependent world, you’d have to put educated, free thinking, creative minds at the top.

And in a world where the threats will be increasingly environmental –it makes sense to put the best possible environmental assets at the pinnacle of our collective wealth aspirations. And also a defence to the angry climate that is already confronting us in growing frequency.

As Australia starts to talk of preparing for war against potential aggressors, and building up its defence capability, it also needs to shore up this other line of defence, to protect our homes, our people and our living creatures from the devastation we’ve seen in the past few years.

Is the loss of 5000 homes not enough to send a loud hailer warning? What about the loss of hundreds of lives and entire human communities devastated in the Black Summer bushfires, along with the deaths of more than 3 billion animals?

These losses will diminish our collective wealth and capability to defend ourselves from other more human derived wars and natural challenges. 

In order to best protect ourselves, we will need a complex tool that can match the complex problems we face.

This tool needs a purview that can manage the often conflicting needs and desires of our people and Country, to borrow from the Indigenous thinking in this realm.

We have such a tool right now. It’s called planning – urban, strategic, local, state and national. 

The professionals who constitute our planners are trained to take into account the many complex and often confusing needs of our People and Place. And by people you can throw in business and the economic order we need to keep our people happy (is there any other reason?).

The complexity is probably why you’ll find planners the most nuanced and balanced off all design professionals. No screaming ideologues among them (leave that to the people in the direct path of demon fires, floods or other imminent dump from an angry Mother Nature).

The big problem is that, in general, planning is a state issue (or a local one that is often subsumed by the state) and unfortunately at the state level it’s extremely hard to balance all the competing needs.

The voices of some groups inevitably triumph over the voices of other groups. Worse, these are generally the voices that are most well funded and who can lobby and overwhelm politicians and bureaucrats, often lacking savvy-on-the ground experience to unravel what’s really going on. 

In a democracy the argy-bargy will always mean someone wins and someone else loses. But that’s fair only if the sides are balanced and equally informed.

But they’re not.

In property development, which is the main way People intersect with Country, the power at state level is skewwhiff the developer’s side.

In Sydney it was ever thus. A tradition that goes back to the Rum Rebellion, we’re often told.

With the recent attempt in NSW to assert environmental defence frameworks for people who are destined to live in new housing estates the power of these groups was revealed in full light.

The Design and Place SEPP was ditched, despite more than two and half years of serious work by the NSW Government Architect and a raft of professional and stakeholders. Its backbone was protection in new developments against rising temperatures and wild weather.

But not only that. An incidental impact of the SEPP was to also addressed equity among the state’s citizens by attempting to provide future residents with the same quality of habitat enjoyed in more established areas of Sydney.

In Victoria things are no better. Developers recently knocked out mooted reforms for greater equity in planning. And in Queensland we learn that much of the job to protect People from bad building practice and poor environmental outcomes was handed to the market long ago. The market has its benefits but concern for the common good is not one of them.

It’s not entirely all the developers’ fault

The problem is the developers have an enormous number of challenges they need to take on to do their job. All sympathy for the difficulty they face to consider a growing list of issues, from threatened species, to loss of arable land and habitat, the growing threats from the legal eagles on the quality of construction, a problem often sheeted home to financial pressures that encourage builders to substitute poor materials and practices for the ones specified by the architect.

In commercial property these issues of poor protection from environment and quality of building are rare.

In residential we have a flick and forget regime. So, no long term investment in the asset the developers have created, as there is in major office property or industrial.

Build to rent might start to turn around this scenario as long term investors establish the same long term responsibility we see in commercial buildings.

But for now, in the resi sector, things are grim.

The diabolical state of play in the attempt to significantly upgrade the National Construction Code to meet current climate needs is evidence of a powerful development lobby holding back progress.

We’re losing.

Generally these forces, from the second tier development sector, are 

too powerful when pitted against polite and well behaved advocates that are trying to improve things on our behalf. 

Development and building industry groups are forcing state government authorities, which must implement the NCC, to accept the most mendicant improvements to the thermal quality of our buildings.

But, and here’s the thing, the Commonwealth is another beast altogether.

It has the power to control things like national defence, our national budget and tax raising, and through its budget allocations to the states and territories it can influence a whole host of other outcomes that have an impact on the national health and the national wealth

Quite simply it’s probably time for the Feds to think about stepping into the planning regime.

Of course it’s best for the states to do this alongside local government, which is best placed to understand local conditions, but if the states and local government can’t get a decent environmental defence plan to protect our future homes and businesses, then there is a case for the Commonwealth to step in.

It’s the Commonwealth that must pick up much of the cost of bushfires and now floods. It’s the Commonwealth that must work harder in future to allocate the right funding levels to the states so they can manage health and economic costs from climate impact. 

The Commonwealth can also direct infrastructure spending which gives it huge influence over land use planning.

The Australian Institute of Architects has alighted on a similar, aligned idea.  A media release that arrived after we’d written this piece, calls for the “elevation of design through the creation of an Office of the Australian Government Architect”.

The AIA has focused its call on federal government buildings, which  we know influence the rest of the industry by elevating standards.

It’s a good idea but could go a lot further. Its statement here is a start: “On behalf of more than 13,000 members, the institute wants all political candidates to commit to better design for Australia’s built environment through national leadership.”

We desperately need better design and better planning to protect our People. 

It’s time for the Commonwealth to think about changing the rules so it can do what the states won’t.

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