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News from the front desk:

Dear Mr Dominic Perrottet

You’ve snared a great gig as premier of NSW, thanks to the stumblings of some people in your government.

It’s also a great gig because you’re inheriting the benefits and kudos of the outperformance of others.

This outperformance is unexpected. In all our years of watching politics, where it related to our buildings, cities and the environment, these have been the toughest places to show true leadership.

In the environment and energy field your now Treasurer Matt Kean has delivered policies with gusto and care for a better future, with a strong program for clean energy. Sidelining, at least in part, the powerful coal industry which, a clever mining journalist once told this writer, “sits on John Howard’s lap”.  Our current PM Scott Morrison likes to channel his spiritual/political predecessor in many ways and has loudly proclaimed the availability of his own lap for this industry.

It drove him to try to belittle Mr Kean.

It didn’t work. The world has changed. The world wants clean and green and most people want to live, not choke on the coal dust left by the making of others’ bank accounts. Matt Kean is cited by people on both sides of the political divide as a really good minister. Maybe even national leadership material (if he could sufficiently lower his ambitions, given the current state of play).

So it’s very good to see you have Matt Kean flanking your leadership on one side.

But the image is lopsided.

If you care about delivering a better state for all, you need someone on the built environment side to match Matt Kean’s vision and determination (which will only enhance your own).

You need someone on the other flank to protect our children and other people’s children. Jacquie Lambie nailed it the other day when she said being an adult – cue, leader – is when you put other people’s interests, (or other people’s children) ahead of your own.

Let’s hope this idea resonates Mr Perrottet, and you can appreciate and reward the vision that’s been demonstrated by what we think is the best planning minister NSW has ever had, Rob Stokes. 

The rumour mill is that he will be dumped and replaced by lesser mortals. The problem is that Rob Stokes is too good at his job.

We’ve heard him several times and watched his progress. He speaks from knowledge (he has a doctorate in planning) and deep conviction. He speaks as a government minister who wants to provide benefits for all – not just the property industry.

Now, this is not easy.

It’s a Machiavellian task to keep in check those who are less grown up and more concerned with their interests and immediate stakeholders, often giving only marketing-designated gestures to end buyers.

Think about this: a full 81 per cent of new housing in NSW is still built with only single glazing. 

Housing: woeful, inadequate, poor outcomes? Take your pick

Let’s be clear that after the energy and carbon emissions landscape and in fact intricately bound with it, right up front, the built environment is where all the political fireworks happen. 

And so it’s the toughest place to show true leadership.

If we think about it, your new job is due at least partly because of malfeasance in this space with handouts wrongly (or legally) handed out to build things people don’t need and don’t particularly want in sporting clubs, rifle clubs and the like. 

We call it the built environment these days, in the hope it sounds 

genteel, built of grand humanitarian and environmental ambitions. Something for our children and other people’s children.

But really it’s just good old property development. 

Our human progress is too often measured in property. The visible places we occupy to demonstrate human progress, status or power.

And it’s our road to riches because earth is limited and it’s a perfect candidate for a tulip bubble or pyramid scheme.

If someone gives you $10 million what would you do with it? After their fill of indulgence which has a negative return to scale most people will buy a better location on the monopoly board.

It’s no coincidence that about a third of the economy is property dependent. 

The Property Council of Australia says it’s Australia’s biggest industry and the nation’s second largest employer. 

Even more impressive, the Property Council says a quarter of all jobs are property related! Let that sink in for a moment. 

The result is ever growing elevation of property as a key to government.

During the pandemic we saw how that panned out. It was the construction industry given all the exemptions and huge chunks of subsidies. It was developers kept cosy with first home buyers grants.

So we understand the property industry’s vice-like attraction for our most ambitious – and let’s be frank – our most avaricious people.

Our venerable Reserve Bank of Australia genuflects to the god of property, and gives it its due even in the tulip-bubble frenzy of the current market. It’s the highly skilled croupier at the craps table of life, carefully weighing up how many tokens it will advance to the clients, balanced against the risk it will cook the golden goose that lays its eggs. 

So amidst that, is it hard to work out which sector is most powerful, coal or property?

Matt Kean has shown the tables can be turned on energy. It’s game over for the fossil fuel industry, the only question is will the death knell come soon enough to avoid our own.

Perhaps even harder is corralling the enormous property industry into adult policy making and implementation.

There are not many contenders willing to take on this job. First, it’s really complex. The answer to housing affordability is NOT supply.

This slogan peddled for decades under an early Trumpian/climate denying/tobacco-peddling formula that if you lie often enough and with enough facial contortions to denote passion, the people who only read headlines and watch pictures will soon believe you.

Jago Dodson and his co authors show how good ole New Zealand has fallen into the trap to deregulate or liberalise zoning to improve housing affordability.

It’s sad because, as he points out (and which is so obvious if you stop for one second and dispassionately observe the data), people who need affordable housing will never be able to afford a new apartment in the desirable areas that are in the cross hairs of this deregulated zoning.

And if they manage to build enough apartments to make the prices come down, it will – because the place now looks like Hong Kong.

After which we will see what’s already happening in Sydney – people moving out at the rate of 20 per cent according to anecdotal evidence about the impact on high street businesses once we ended lockdown.

If this all sounds a bit tragic, dramatic, it is!

Our built environment needs to be for all of us, not code for property developers like they are the only ones that matter.

The only worthy minister to flank you on the other side of your premiership Mr Perrottet – is Rob Stokes.

This is the man who recently shot NSW over the horizon to outperform the former star of sustainability, Victoria.

While poor Victoria was trying to repair its mental health and physical/economic damage from Covid, your state planning minister stole its crown when Rob Stokes took the “M” mandate, out of the neo-liberal closet and said no more black roofs that will overheat our cities.

He banned them, Mr Premier.

He said NO.

Like an adult.

We know how hard it was for Rob Stokes to make that call. 

He also said embodied carbon will be accounted for in buildings and we will have carbon neutral buildings. 

And we can only guess at the repercussions.

We heard the none too subtle hisses after his inaugural, and we think brilliant, speech at a huge property industry lunch after he was announced planning minister for a second time.

There he talked about the common good, the need to balance outcomes. The need to make a plan and stick to it.

The need to stop spot rezoning: developers hate that. They call for certainty but the only certainty they want is the right to change the rules when they want.

Can you imagine Mr Perrottet: flagging a rule and then saying you will actually stick to it!

Mr Perrottet do you want to be the one who deregulates zoning so the highest and best use principle rules? By which it is meant that those who can pay the most and make the most money designate the use of land – invariably this means residential developers.

The consequences are that we run out of industrial land that is well located and we run out of commercial land for the cool creatives who can’t afford to buy houses in or near the city.

Sydney is running out of industrial land – have you read the news Mr Perrottet?

But now we hear you may well reshuffle Rob Stokes off the planning and possibly the transport portfolio.

This is not a good idea for the state or the city even in the medium term. 

Now he’s come up with a new State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) that enshrines key beneficial outcomes for all.

Here are the key intended outcomes of Design and Place SEPP:  

  • Greater housing diversity and choice, including provisions for flexible layouts for families, space to work or study, adequate sunlight, more storage and usable balconies 
  • Homes that are more comfortable in both winter and summer and are cost effective to heat and cool 
  • More, and better quality parks within reach no matter if you live in an apartment or new greenfield suburb 
  • Greater permeability in new subdivisions that make it easier to walk or cycle to key destinations 
  • Beautiful and productive high streets and centres that are better for business 
  • Commercial buildings that operate at net zero, from day one of coming online. 

What’s wrong with that?

Within 24 minutes of what we were told would be the release time for the new SEPP, the Property Council had a media release in our inbox saying the SEPP needed to be ditched. Unless they had prior access to the document, this is the standard shelf response to anything that is ever proposed to most change.

Either way it reveals who has the power (to get early access to these documents) and the power to tout a consistent line: no.

These strong positions don’t appear overnight, they’re worked on consistently and with many corporate resources over a long period of time. 

Not all this lobby group does is questionable. It does great work on sustainability where it benefits the big end of town and they do great work things like modern slavery, where again the big end of town can pick up a lot of brownie points. We hope for the trickle down effect, always.

But what’s been happening, Mr Perrottet, is that while you were still in your previous jobs the power and reach of Rob Stokes has been progressively eroded. 

First through the Greater Sydney Commission which under Lucy Turnbull dared to tell us that it was an advantage to bring it into the arms (lap?) of the premier’s office and away from the planning ministry.

Now its reach is to be expanded beyond our metro region and into other cities. So the Greater Sydney Commission.

On top of that there is to be a cities minister.

All well and good but if this sidelines the ability of the planning minister to mandate the roadmap he’s on then it will be with the interests of one key group in mind, the developers, who we need and sometimes love for their outperformance, but who rarely, unless they are mandated to do so, put the needs of the rest of us and “other people’s children” front and centre where they need to be.

Mr Premier, you need to balance out the flanks.

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