Kylie Ahern installed a "drain garden" (designed by Michael Mobbs) into the front verge of her house at her own expense but received no rebates on storm water or rates charges

“. . . can’t seem to loosen my grip on the past . . .”

Leonard Cohen, In my secret life

My plea

Some colleagues from Fremantle, Western Australia, visited Sydney in November 2015. We went by bus to look at a building site in Newtown. As we waited for a bus which could accept cash or a paper ticket (an option removed at the end of 2015) one visitor took out his electronic plastic transport card for bus and train travel in Western Australia.

“Why”, he asked, “don’t we have one card for all of Australia’s buses and trains? Why must I purchase a paper ticket or another plastic card just for Sydney, or, for that matter, any other state?”

The answer is simple.

State and local governments work in medieval towers, each with their own planning, transport and other city-running bureaucracy, their own duplicated salaries, systems, travel cards, red tape. These red tape makers put themselves and their fiefdoms before us, we citizens. We citizen taxpayers hold up this Sisyphean burden on our wallets.

This article is a bid to bring efficiency, simplicity and common sense to the design and building of our streets, buildings and homes. It is, too, an attack on current development controls by local and state governments. It’s not about whether buildings should be smaller, bigger, shorter, taller. It is not about whether local councils should be bigger or smaller, or whether some projects should be decided by councils and others by states. It’s not about whether we’d be living for the long term if we had no state governments and there were just local and federal government.

It’s about how to sustain ourselves and our culture.

If we’re to cut air pollution, soil and food production loss before our resources are exhausted we need to simplify red tape to make sustainable development easier than unsustainable development.

I assert we can only sustain our cities and farmland with efficient, simple development controls.

No matter the size or goals or numbers or domain of government agencies, it’s the content and impact of daily transactions between government and those who develop thatwill or will not sustain our culture.

And so long as there’s a command and control mentality with little to no explicit red tape invitation for innovation and an equal partnership offered to those who wish to develop sustainably there will be no sustainable cities or farms.

And high level”stuff” like the Paris climate warming goal will remain just a goal, ignored and outside the thousands of development controls and approvals by which houses, units, buildings and infrastructure are built and maintained.

Yes, red tape must go beyond finger pointing and breed trust and partnerships, it must aim for an emotional landscape of collaboration. Character in the transactions is as important as the content of the rules.

Surely it’s true that no legislation ever rises above the level of its administration?

I’m pleading for governments to free us up and reward us when we do more than the minimum required by red tape. Development controls that wish to sustain our culture need to specifically allow those of us who wish to to go that step further to conserve energy, water, materials and soil.

When, if ever, will an Australian development approval truly reflect and require a development which implements the Paris climate goal

There’s a tradition now of lack of accountability which makes any plea for simplicity sound silly. Who can imagine councils and state governments being held to account for the cities and farms they have for so long abused?

When, if ever, will an Australian development approval truly reflect and require a development which implements the Paris climate goal of cutting air pollution?

Compare government behavior with ours, that of we citizens, when we minister and deliver services for ourselves.

Lawyers, dentists, doctors and others who we rely upon for vital health and commercial life have mandatory continuing education rules to stay up to date to renew their annual licence to practise and can be struck off for unprofessional conduct. Complaints must be answered and scrutinised by independent tribunals.

Not so for councils and state governments. They can give wrong advice to homeowners, professionals, designers, etc, not keep up-to-date, and refuse or control projects without risk of any disciplinary or complaint process for the higher bills and damage they cause to householders and farmers.

Government staff can get a qualification and work for the next 50 years without being obliged to learn what’s happened in their field, and apply whatever knowledge they gained decades ago even after it’s been debunked, is out of date, or irrelevant.

They are often unaware of or, worse still, uncaring, that what they say or know is wrong. Who, after all, can challenge them except by calling for intervention from a court of law?

This may be partly why councils win less than a quarter of appeals against their development decisions in the Land and Environment Court in NSW.

The examples in this plea are neither unfair nor irrelevant. They are typical and may be found in almost every one of the thousands of Australian development approvals issued each week.

Following is an example of the huge costs we citizens pay for red tape made without accountability, and made ostensibly to achieve a higher environmental result.

NSW’s Marrickville Council requires each new project under the airport flight path to provide acoustic reports to show the building design dampens aircraft noise.

A copy of the condition typically used by the council is in the notes.below????? It’s an example of thoughtless, avoidable, costly red tape, not something to use if you’re intent on achieving sustainable cities:

“Condition 20: Noise attenuation measures must be incorporated into the development complying with Australian Standard 2021-2000 in relation to interior design sound levels, in accordance with details to be submitted to the Certifying Authority’s satisfaction before the issue of a construction certificate together with certification by a suitably qualified acoustical engineer that the proposed noise attenuation measures satisfy the requirements of Australia Standard 2021-2000. Plans and specifications fully reflecting the selected commitments must be submitted to the Certifying Authority’s satisfaction before the issue of a construction certificate. Reason: to reduce noise levels within the development from aircraft.”

Let’s assume, say, the condition requires reports for 5000 projects over 10 years at an average consultant cost in the range of $1000 to $1500 each.

In 10 years the condition causes a total cost to homeowners and developers of between $5 million and $7.5 million.

This cost does not factor in the cost of each project having to administer those reports, get quotes, brief building certifiers, copy the reports 3 times each, submit to council, builder . . .

At a one-off cost to the council of about $3000 it could have avoided this multi-million dollar folly. A simple condition would avoid the need for an acoustic report and list three to five design solutions which would prevent noise levels and from which developers could choose a solution.

It would give “deemed to comply” examples of designs for different building types which would dampen aircraft noise and which a developer could choose from. That would save millions of avoidable consultant costs. It could say something like this:

Noise audible inside a house, residential unit or office from aircraft must not exceed x and to achieve this noise level the method of construction of walls, roofs and windows will be one or more of the options listed in the drawings numbered x to y on the council’s website here. Exemption from the options may be obtained by a report provided by an acoustic consultant justifying an alternative method of design or noise level and accepted in writing by the owner of the property.

I believe that until councils and state government focus on how to help we developers to achieve affordable environmental results our cities and culture will continue to decline.

How about some cut through solutions?

Two approaches occur to me. One is to scrap most of the red tape and replace it with a simpler set of rules. Another is to trial some “cut through” solutions for by government and developers so all can see what can be done. Given we’re more likely to want to cling to past practices this second option seems a good starting point.

The cut through option offered here is made after I asked myself these questions, all of which seek to achieve the goal of making sustainable development the norm and unsustainable development the exception:

  1. Is the control needed, or is there another way to achieve the desired result?
  2. If the control is needed, does it achieve the result in the most efficient way?
  3. Does the control create lower or no compliance costs?
  4. If costs are created, are they the most efficient, or can they be avoided?

Rich or poor, greenie or brownie, Left or Right, atheist or religion-prone we all face rising living costs and rising taxes. This trend is avoidable.

We citizens can cut our household and farming bills and bring benefits to others and to natural resources beyond our property boundaries, and, crucially, we can cut air pollution and projects which presently are approved each day so as to increase the air pollution heating up Earth.

Here’s how:

Following are two solutions that come at no extra cost to government and bring worthwhile savings to householders and farmers. They are off-grid projects.

Solution 1: Rate rebates exemption from stormwater charges for farmers and city folk who onserve water, soil, trees or energy


When a farmer or city property owner spends their own money to conserve natural resources they provide a public benefit beyond their property because their actions:

  • Clean up rivers, harbours, the air and the ocean by stopping pollution entering the waters or air
  • Keep water in the rivers or dams and increase the security of water supply to others
  • Take the load off the main power and water grids and reduce new capital cost for the owners of those grids
  • Reduce the pressure to raise household bills for fellow citizens whose bills pay to use and maintain those systems

There is no financial capacity in government businesses to do all the work needed to conserve our farmland, water and energy resources. Householders and farmers end up paying for government works anyway. Why not reward those who accept responsibility for doing what they can on their own property if their works provide a public benefit beyond the property boundaries?

There is no reason for governments to nanny citizens who choose to invest in society by responsible management of our commonly-used, essential natural water and energy resources.

There is every reason to reward citizens who choose to be citizens in this way. Financial incentives can be far more powerful in sustaining our resources than “Thou shalt not” red tape. Governments need to step back and allow those who act to get on with it.

There are many examples of rate rebates and financial incentives across Australia and some of them are listed in the table below.

How would the rate rebate work?

The rate rebate would recognise, encourage and reward farmers and city folk who conserve and protect our farmland, rivers, water and soil resources.

They would be less than the cost to the farmer or city dweller of their investment and less than the cost to the council or government business if they were to carry out conservation works on council land, roads, and reserves. The rebate would apply annually for as long as the farmer or city property owner maintains the works they’ve carried out on their property.

The changes would mean no stormwater charges would be made by government water businesses such as Sydney Water if no stormwater leaves a household or commercial property.

For city homeowners the rebate could be up to a maximum figure of $250 a year for a residential property or up to $2500 a year for a commercial property with rates over $10,000 a year. Forfarmers’ fencing costs the rebate might be 100 per cent and the state government could contribute to these costs.

The rebate and exemption from a stormwater levy by a council or a water authority (such as Sydney Water) would apply to:

  • Fencing off creeks or trees or perennial pastures (100 per cent rebate for the fencing costs)
  • Rain tanks of 10,000 litres or more
  • Off-grid electricity systems for so long as the property owner remains disconnected from electricity or gas
  • Any fast track off-grid project that fits the definition of off-grid (see the next solution, fast track off-grid projects)
  • Any device in the footpath or road verge that harvests stormwater from the street or road to irrigate a tree or the road verge outside the householder’s property

After 10 years from introducing the reform the state and local government sector will review the operation and effectiveness of the rate rebate scheme and continue it unless the review finds a clear failure of the reform.

Raindrain: total cost
Raindrain total cost: $2400; rebate:$0

Example of solution to be delivered by rate rebate household road verge irrigation devices

Generally, in NSW towns and cities, over 30 times more stormwater falls and is wasted than is imported as mains water.

AT Goulburn, for example, (near where the current NSW Minister for Water comes from), over 30 times more water falls and is wasted as stormwater than is imported and sold as mains water. Goulburn gets hot and dry. Water is often scarce. Trees in the road verges grow slowly, or not at all, or die from lack of water which, when it rains, runs down the road drains a couple of dozen centimetres away from the neglected, dying trees and road verges.

A rate rebate for householders who install a device to capture road water to irrigate street trees would increase tree growth, increase property values, cool the street, and cut air con bills for the householders, reduce the use of mains water for gardening, cut water bills, increase the city’s security of water supply.

There are several road irrigation products on the market which citizens can install, some costing less than a hundred dollars to buy and install (see this two minute video of what we did in Chippendale in 2008 when we installed at our own cost leaky drains in the road verges, and others costing a couple of thousand dollars to buy and install.

In 2008 we householders in my suburb of Chippendale installed cheap leaky drains in our road gardens at a once-off total cost to us of $300 for over 20 households. The drains saves over 4 million litres of stormwater a year to irrigate the road verges. That’s a total saving of over 28 million litres since 2008. BUT: despite these savings, each year the local and state government double-dip into these householders’ pockets:

  • Sydney Council imposes a stormwater environmental levy on each household in its area, including Chippendale
  • Sydney Water imposes a stormwater environmental levy on the same households, including Chippendale

At Newtown, in The Kylie Project ( , in Marrickville Council’s area a property owner Kylie Ahern installed a $2400 road verge irrigation device. Ms Ahern, is paying for and installing it (with council approval). It’s called a ”draingarden” and is something I’ve designed and the council has agreed that Ms Ahern may trial. But, again, Marrickville Council and Sydney Water will offer Ms Ahern no rate rebate or exemption from their two stormwater levies.

If we cool cities by cooling our streets we can expect reduced use of air conditioners and less use of electricity and gas which pollutes air.

Get it?

Solution 2:Fast track off-grid projects for farmers and city householders

What’s the reform?

Automatic approvals for off-grid projects.

End the current7-12 months council approval time which results in many farmers and city householders abandoning their off-grid dreams.


After practising as a lawyer for 20 years, and then, these last 19 years, after I became a sustainability coach and started showing and talking to over 20,000 people through tours of my off-grid house, I know from first hand conversations with thousands of people that:

  • Every house tour someone complains about the time, cost and delay of getting councils to approve off-grid water, recycling and energy systems
  • The off-grid technology is simple, increases business for plumbers, builders, electricians
  • The big blockage to off-grid, low bills households and farm projects is red tape and ignorance in local councils and water authorities
  • It’s more expensive and time-consuming to get council approval for an off-grid house with low household bills house than a high bills, business as usual, house
  • There is systemic failure by local government to keep up to date about laws and research about water, recycled water and energy systems
  • Lawyers, dentists, doctors have mandatory continuing education rules to stay up to date to renew their annual licence to practice and can be struck off for unprofessional conduct
  • Councils can give wrong advice, not keep up-to-date, and refuse off-grid projects without risk of any disciplinary or complaint process for the higher bills and damage they cause to householders and farmers
  • In a typical, current off-grid project the local council approval has required my client to pay it $3000 for local environmental works KNOWING the client has volunteered to spend $2400 to put a draingarden in the council’s footpath to irrigate street trees by using road runoff – council failed to recognise this innovative contribution and also failed to recognise the off-grid project will keep all rainwater on the client’s property; council will also charge my client an environmental levy in her rates; this is my experience time and again with councils over the last 40 years.
  • Myths and lies are typically told by councils and water authorities to householders, builders and plumbers; examples include:
MythFact or law
You can’t drink rainwater(even told to farmers who move & retire to town and build a house there after drinking rainwater all their life on the farm)
  • More 2 million Australians drink rainwater every day
  • More than 48 per cent of Adelaide households rely drinking rainwater
  • No-one has died drinking rainwater in Australia
  • There is NO AUSTRALIAN LAW saying householders cannot drink rainwater
  • There is no law saying council approval is needed to drink rainwater

Free legal advice here titled “On site legal advice”:


You can’t recycle waste waterNSW Law is clear; if you use a recycling system accredited by NSW Health a council has NO power to refuse approval to it
You can’t disconnect from mains grid water, sewer, electricityWrong. The 42 councils in the Sydney, Blue Mountains and Woollongong area, and Sydney Water, have NO power to stop any property owner disconnecting from mains water or sewer – a great reform by the Greiner government when it corporatised Sydney Water in 1994.So, 21 years after that Act was made, councils and Sydney Water are still denying this fact or ignorant of what’s LAW.


Why is reform urgent?

 Household energy and water bills keep rising much faster than inflation

  • Use of electricity and gas is causing air pollution which is heating up Earth
  • Government regulators fail to reign in electricity, gas and water price rises by government monopoly businesses like Sydney Water and the energy businesses
  • Government regulators put government budgets before customers; they set higher and higher water and energy prices to keep dividends paid by government businesses to government as high as possible; those dividends have become a ”budget drug” and are roughly 8 per cent of the budget income for state governments – billions of
  • dollars
  • Ordinary householders forced by red tape to pay over $40,000 in council and consulting fees for simple, small renovation or building project costing less than $200,000 – we’re talking over 20 per cent of the project cost for red tape!
  • Red tape cost and delay goes up for off grid projects where householder wish to cut their energy and water bills
  • High cost and delay of development approvals for ordinary, straightforward off-grid projects is forcing people to stay on grid for electricity and water and to a lifetime of paying high household bills
  • Current system is unaffordable for ratepayers whose rates go to pay for council staff to do repetitious red tape work (many of whom only do one or two developments in their lifetime) that is avoidable. For example, we used to build our cities with rain tanks until the government water businesses chose a path of deception, red tape complexity and anything to prevent their customers becoming self-reliant and disconnecting from their business.
Existing fees for new housing, renovations Fees after reform 
Council fees charges  $15,000$Nil
Designer fees over $20,000 $3500 
Engineering fees over $5000 $5000 
Planner $10,000 $Nil 
OVER $36,500 $9000 

How would these solutions work?

Extend existing fast track approvals system to off-grid projects.

Existing red tape allows some projects without council approval and cuts down council wage costs and householder costs by giving householders and farmers automatic approvals for a broad range of projects, big and small, such as:

  • Fences
  • Decks, pergolas, paths, privacy screens, food vans,
  • Rain tanks up to 10,000 litres.


The Proposed Reform:

NSW government makes a one page list of fast track off-grid projects which get automatic approval if they have any two or more of the following:

 Rain tank 10,000 litres or more

  1. No stormwater to leave the property
  2. Off-grid solar and battery system
  3. Any one or more of no mains:
    1. Electricity, or
    2. Gas (if the property is already connected), or
    3. Water
  4. Only Australian timber or recycled timber or recycled steel
  5. Plant or fence off trees or perennial pasture on farm as shown on hand drawn sketch by farmer; area depends on farm size

Let’s end on a note of hope.

An observation by perhaps the greatest writer of city life, Jane Jacobs, shows what can happen when we invest in, and reward, citizens who are freed up to initiate change. She’s talking about how the US city of Boston, which was dying, was reborn by the wit of Ralph Flanders.

He “reasoned that Boston’s trouble was what he called its low birth rate of enterprises . . . and in 1946 they formed a small venture capital firm to . . . invest in small new enterprises, and specifically in Boston . . . (A)part from the aim of improving Boston’s business birth rate, Flanders and his colleagues had no preconceived ideas whatever of what they were doing . . . the Boston regional economy was stunningly rejuvenated.” (1)

Enough whinging about governments, already.

Let’s have more of us, we citizens, and what we can do without governments



Government body providing fundingIncentive name or goalDescription
Marrickville Council (NSW)Rainwater Tank Incentive SchemeA workshop and rebate program – is available to all rate payers, residents and businesses in the local government area. Council has offers rebates based on the volume of the tank(s) installed and how the water is used. Higher rebates are offered for larger tanks and those with internal plumbing to laundry, toilets and/or hot water*.
– Standard rebate pays up to a maximum of $2000.
– Low-income households – 50 per cent extra to the standard rebate up to $3000 for applicants who hold a Commonwealth Health Care Card or a Pensioner Concession card.
– Multi-unit dwellings – an additional $500 for flats, units and apartments with the rebate based on the number of connections
ACT, NSW, NT, QLD, SA, TAS, VIC, WASmall-scale renewable energy incentiveHouseholds across Australia that install a small scale renewable energy system (solar, wind or hydro) or eligible hot water system may be able to receive a benefit under the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme (SRES) to help with the purchase cost. Most households choose to assign their STCs (Small-scale Techonolgy Certicifactes) to their installer for a discount on their system. The number of certificates created is based on the amount of renewable electricity the system produces or the amount of electricity consumption it reduces, and the climate region where it’s installed.
QLDEnergex PeakSmart Air-conditioning ProgramProvides eligible South East Queensland households and businesses with financial incentives of up to $2000 for purchasing and installing up to five PeakSmart-enabled air conditioners per household or business premises. Households benefit by accessing the PeakSmart financial incentives well as helping to reduce peak electricity demand (periods placing the highest demand on energy use-such a hot summer days).
NSWFridge Buyback programFridge Buyback program pays you to help save the environment and reduce your power bills by giving up your old second fridge. Fridge Buyback provides residents with free collections by professional removalists and a $35 rebate.
Adelaide City CouncilSustainable City Incentives SchemeThis Scheme is available to all building owners and tenants including businesses, residents, schools, community and sporting organisations in the City of Adelaide for works completed from July 1, 2015.
Subject to funding availability, the Sustainable City Incentives Scheme will provide up to:
$5000 for installing solar PV
$5000 for installing energy storage
$500 per electric vehicle charging controller
$5000 for apartment building energy efficiency upgrades
$1000 for changing out quartz halogen downlights to LED downlights
$120 for installing an energy monitoring system
$1000 to for solar hot water system
$500 for rain water tanks or $3000 for communal use rain water tanks in apartment buildings
City of Whitehorse (VIC)Greywater Treatment System RebateThe City of Whitehorse is providing residents with a rebate of $100 for the purchase and installation of a permanent greywater treatment system that is compliant with Environment Protection Authority (EPA)
City of Whitehorse (VIC)Home Composting Incentive ProgramCouncil’s Home Composting Incentive Program offers a $30 rebate to residents to make it easier and cheaper to convert their kitchen organics and garden prunings into compost. Residents can apply for the rebate when they buy $100 or more of eligible home composting products from local suppliers within 12 months prior to the claim date.
Coorong District CouncilDryland salinity controlDeveloped a framework for cost sharing for on ground works that gives priority to the control of dryland salinity through plantings in recharge areas, protection of native vegetation, and reclaiming salt affected land.
BushcareNative vegetation protectionFor the protection of native vegetation, strategic re-establishment of vegetation in priority areas, institutional change, planning and research. Up to $600/km where not protected under a management agreement; up to $1200/km where the area will be protected under a fixed-term management agreement or covenant; and all reasonable costs of fencing, including labour, where the area will be protected in perpetuity by a binding covenant on title.
NSWSalt Action Irrigation IncentiveEncourages landholders to adopt more efficient irrigation practices and technology (such as drip and micro-irrigation systems), reducing the amount of water wasted. The incentives are: upgrading irrigation system: 10 per cent of total cost up to $5000, soil pit surveys: 50% of total cost up to $1500, automation: 50 per cent of total cost up to $3000, scheduling equipment: 50 per cent of total cost up to $3000
Victorian State governmentReplanting VictoriaInvested $9 million for the next three years in the Replanting Victoria 2020 initiative. The funding has been allocated to 12 revegetation projects that aim to increase carbon sinks, as well as helping to conserve biodiversity and address land and water degradation.
Manningham City Council (Victoria)Local Environmental Assistance FundSince 1995 the Manningham City Council (Victoria) has had a Local Environmental Assistance Fund, covering such things as pest plant and animal control, erosion, and revegetation. Landholders can apply for a grant of up to $800 for each land management activity, on a dollar for dollar basis.
City of Greater BendigoCatchment management incentiveThe City of Greater Bendigo established an environmental grant scheme to provide incorporated groups and organisations with access to small amounts of funds to carry out environmental works (generally up to $3000 per group administered over a 12 month funding period). The scheme aimed to address catchment management issues, while achieving the specific aims of community groups.
Cooloola Shire Council (Queensland)Land conservation rebateIn 1990, the Cooloola Shire Council (Queensland) began offering a rate rebate to landholders addressing land degradation and conservation values on their properties. Unlike a number of other councils, the Cooloola scheme also incorporates a farm forestry rebate. The scheme is subsidised by an environmental levy, acknowledging the community benefits that are associated with improved management of natural resources. On offer are rate rebates up to 50 per cent, with the size of the rebate proportional to the amount of land that is covered by a conservation or farm forestry agreement. At the end of 1999, the scheme covered 368 hectares of private land (Bushcare 1999; Cooloola Shire Council 1998).
Melton Shire Council in VictoriaWeed control rebateMelton Shire Council in Victoria implemented a rates rebate scheme to control weeds, pest animals and land degradation in general (Bushcare 1999). It has been estimated that 95 per cent of landholders within the targeted areas have participated in the scheme (McLeod 1997).
City of Greater Bendigo (in partnership with the DNRE)Dryland salinity control rebateThe City of Greater Bendigo (in partnership with the DNRE) introduced an incentive scheme in 1994 to address dryland salinity. The scheme offered a rebate to landholders that planted trees and perennial pastures on areas of high recharge. The scheme provided a 100 per cent rebate on rates for one year if perennial pastures were planted and ten years for trees. The scheme received a good response for only the first two years. The Council now believes that the scheme did not offer a large enough incentive, was restrictive in its application and could have been better promoted. The scheme is currently under review by the Council (Sheenan pers comm.).

Michael Mobbs is the Off-grid guy. Michael has lived in a house with energy and water bills less than $300 a year for 20 years in the centre of Sydney. He designs, consults and doodles with off-grid projects;

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  1. I work in local government as an ESD Officer. The quote about government staff not updating their knowledge is very true.
    I work to decrease stormwater pollution plus many other aspects of ESD. For years I have had to battle the engineers and other members of the drainage team to get them to work with me to reduce stormwater pollution. But they are stubborn, don’t care, have been here for years and refused to be educated. It’s infuriating and should not be allowed.

  2. Hi, Liam, thank you for the feedback; makes the late night candle-burning worthwhile. We’re all lucky to have TFE as an accessible forum for ideas, feedback and keeping in touch. Michael

  3. Beautiful essay
    Maybe council amalgamations will force councils to catch up.

    Designing for aircraft noise in Marrickville is a ridiculous process.