Photo: Appin Grove/Facebook

COMMENT: Last week we heard that it was too early to tell if rolling of the New South Wales’s Greater Cities  Commission into the planning department was good, bad or indifferent.

Early days we heard. Too hard to know whether the new Labor government, just 100 days into its tenure, would manage planning and housing any better than the last government did.

Already the cracks have appeared.

Not long before the GCC announcement was the policy drop that big concessions would be made for residential developers. They would benefit from a 30 per cent uplift in height and 30 per cent uplift in density for projects worth upwards of $75 million in return for 15 per cent social and affordable housing.

On government land the developers would be given access in return for a 30 per cent uplift in social and affordable housing.

This was all to accommodate the “chorus of supply, supply, supply” as former planning minister Rob Stokes told The Fifth Estate on Friday.

Density would solve all problems: the property industry as one voice has for decades stuck to this message, alongside its call for “less red tape” (by which is also means green outcomes, such as cool light roofs to lessen the urban heat island.)

Soon after the housing density announcement came an amendment or clarification – the density bonus would apply to land less than 800 metres from a transport hub… oh and also a bus route.

If it smelled like policy on the hop, maybe it was.

The planning community was stunned by this alongside the even bigger shock of the GCC roll or fold.

Professor Jua Cillers, head of School of Built Environment at the University of Technology Sydney said fellow planners attending industry events last week were taken by surprise.

It was seen a “bold” decision, she said – one that seemed would diminish the strategic planning role of the GCC and “went against years and years of planning practice and examples around the globe”, she said.

“One thing the planners get right is to be inclusive and consultative – this was seen to be a top-down decision.” No one was aware of any inclusive decision making.

“It will reshape the future of this city.”

The developers were delighted.

As The AFR said in an unusually biting critique of the sector, “The property industry was pleasantly stunned. One apartment developer spent $260 million on land in Sydney the day of [Premier Chis] Minns’ announcement. The lot was suddenly worth more; he was worried the seller would realise. He didn’t. 

“Mirvac’s shares rose 7 per cent in one week. Billionaire Harry Triguboff, owner of Meriton, became even richer. Architects began, mentally, redrawing plans upwards.”

Hal Pawson, professor of housing research and policy and associate director at the University of New South Wales’ City Futures Research Centre, said the question of whether the development industry was in fact the state’s shadow government – given barely 100 days had passes since taking power and its big property announcements – might be a tad provocative.

“Clearly, it looks as though the big developers seem to have a lot of influence,” he conceded.

“They always have in NSW, but they seem very happy with the new proposal that the Premier’s announced about the density and the new density bonus package.”

It’s not surprising because objectively looks very attractive from the developers’ perspective, he added.

There’s devil in the detail though, he added. The affordable housing needed to be genuinely affordable, he said, not like the UK model that fudges the numbers where there is sometimes only a slight decrease in prices and rents to qualify.

What’s missing said his colleague at UNSW Ryan van den Nouwelant who is a city planning lecturer, was that strategic planning looks to have been sidelined in the shift of the GCC out of its own independent unit (created through legislation).

The announcement of the density bonus without the strategic underpinning of the infrastructure needed to accommodate more people only heightened concerns.

So local residents can expect 30 per cent more people on public transport, at local parks, schools and so on, he says.

But, say the developers, the extra density would be worth it because it would put downward pressure on prices.

But will it?

New Zealand experimented with these ideas when Auckland’s planners allowed three storey townhouses in the 75 per cent of the entire metropolitan area not already zoned for this.

People called thought it was a magic bullet, but are now calling for a reversal of the policy because it ensued in chaos. Things went nuts. There was overload of demand on local schools and services that were unanticipated.

Prices didn’t rise as much in Auckland after the policy but planners say it was because people moved away to other locations.

Policy on the hop – or silver bullet solutions – have the same result they always do ­– they fail to deliver on the wishes.

Not that the development industry cares.

It passes on the costs, it pays less for the land and moves on the next job.

On Monday came even more confusion

It was the announcement Lang Walker’s Walker Corporation had just been gifted a massive win when the land it bought at Appin, about 70 kilometres and one and half hours south west of the Sydney CBD, was given the green light for housing for up to 13,000 people.

Umm, this coming straight after the big argument that the density bonus in the city and burbs was to better use existing infrastructure – where the jobs are.

Sure, the scene had been set by the previous government, which is what we meant by “shadow government” – it really doesn’t matter what the colour the jerseys are.

And it’s not something that’s exclusive to Sydney. Melbourne and all our other growing cities and hinterlands off Queensland’s beautiful coasts are equally caught in the same urban sprawl sinkhole.

Density can be good. It can be done well. But it can also be done badly and have negative effects, especially on children, as research has shown according to Jua Cilliers.

The WalkerCorp website for Appin looks amazing. Cute kid straddling some rocks – could be a river behind them: nature, wide open spaces.

It’s not the message the local authorities had for whoever cared to listen.

Their words on the nightly news may have been polite and understated, in that country-folk way, but you could tell they were quietly beside themselves.

Wollondilly Mayor Matt Gould told ABC News that his council was already doing its bit with 17,000 homes under way at Wilton. He had no idea how the new residents will get the infrastructure they needed.

Even the water authorities were concerned, albeit WaterNSW initially said its concerns about the impact of the Upper Canal Corridor and its drainage into the Prospect Reservoirs had been addressed.

But Sydney Water said it could “accommodate” the project up to 2025, and after that upgrades would be needed.

And then there are the poor koalas… already under attack by developers from Sydney’s south-west to Queensland

To answer those concerns (and ask Lendlease how heated that debate gets) there is apparently a koala park under way. And these little furry beasts will be encouraged to go along some corridors to safe habitat.

Walker says about 33 per cent of the site will be dedicated for conservation lands.

Total Environment Centre’s Saul Deane said, “All of this development is going to funnel koalas into these much narrower areas, this is a complete kowtow to developer demands.”

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  1. Sums it up perfectly.

    It should be mentioned that the “shadow government”/developers are now even afforded to officially operate in the shadows when seemingly negotiating large scale projects with the Department of Planning, with communities left entirely in the dark about planning proposals submitted under the Rezoning Pathways Program and gag orders imposed on local planning authorities.

    Despite Labor calling this “utterly outrageous behaviour” (Michael Daley) before the election, the program has not been canned and the secrecy policy not been changed to date. Our GIPA application seeking disclosure was rejected, currently appealing to the Information Commissioner.

  2. Like the abandoned dual occupancy policy of over a decade ago, this policy appears to have been developed without consideration of its spatial impacts. Such planning policies inevitably bear unintended consequences, physically, environmentally, socially, and possibly economically.

    Will we end up with environments where you can ‘spot the affordable housing’ as those developments will literally stand out? Will that endear such needed housing to local communities?

  3. “Shadow government” – I like the metaphor! Plutocracy by property developer, the modern day Rum Corps: you can choose the Liberal Rum Corps or Labor Rum Corps, the outcomes are the same and the Rum Corps carries on…

  4. This about sums it up … from SMH Letters 5 July:

    “Population Ponzi scheme killing our planet
    Your opinion piece repeats the mantra of the “long term economic benefits of a higher birth rate” (“Baby drought an ominous sign”, July 5). This accepted economic “truth” is, literally, killing our planet because the planet has demonstrated that it is not a limitless resource to be exploited. Continued population growth is a Ponzi scheme where the fate of our planet, not our wallets, is at stake. The acceptance of this mantra has led to the mindset that an older population is a burden on society that only continued population growth can alleviate. This type of thinking needs to be seriously challenged by finding other ways to sustain decent standards of living. The fact that people live longer and healthier needs to be lauded. The fact that people live longer and healthier needs to be exploited by allowing and encouraging older people to continue to contribute to society while they are able.

    The notion of retirement is a relatively new concept in the world. Look to the US where politicians continue in office long beyond retirement age. Also, sadly, in the US, many people work long past retirement age out of necessity. I don’t have a solution, but population growth is not the solution. Continued economic growth is not the solution. Better minds than mine need to be working on how economic well-being can be sustained with a falling population so that the planet can continue and humans can continue on it, living sustainably. Elfriede Sangkuhl, Summer Hill