If we’re picky about the projects we choose, fast-tracked planning approvals could accelerate the low carbon transition, fix social problems and boost the economy at the same time.
Western Australia and New South Wales are using State Emergency powers to accelerate planning decisions and to extend planning permissions already granted but not yet started due to the lockdown.
This is very sensible and establishes something of a springboard to consider how we should approach the recovery phase from an economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.
We can learn from this economic bubble bursting and create a new economy that solves many issues that were considered too hard before. This is what has happened after every economic collapse in the past 200 years of industrial civilization, and is well documented as a process that enables not just new technologies but new ways of enabling us to solve problems.
There will be lots of easy projects to come forward, with “shovel ready” big roads already at the top of the queue. But Australia, and the world, needs to bounce forward, not back.
We need to take on big, difficult projects that can achieve zero-carbon and zero-poverty goals from the Paris and SDG agendas. These will be combined infrastructure and urban regeneration projects that create work across the economy that we are already know how to do.
These don’t easily fit our approvals system so we will need emergency powers extended perhaps learning from the pandemic.
Triage the planning process
What if emergency planning powers were based on the triage process so that the right investment happened very quickly?
Planning systems have become more and more complicated, and the processes to deal with big issues like climate change, bushfires, congestion and homelessness seems to be out of step with risk-averse planning controls.
A source from one of Australia’s largest developers told me it has around $1 billion a year to invest in a range of major projects in Perth and along the WA coast, but they had been told any projects will take four years to approve.
According to this source, there are 60 to 70 touchpoints in the approvals system that all work in a linear fashion, one after the other, with the people responsible for each touch point believing no one can over-ride or handle their special area.
Triage offers a solution. We should be able to continue using the emergency powers process that can judge quickly whether developments: a) will get by in the system without special interventions; b) will survive on their own after help, so they need some interventions; and c) will die anyway, for many reasons, so shouldn’t be focused on.
The big, difficult projects that take years of risk averse planning will die in Australia as they will take their capital elsewhere. And the world is looking for quick investment now.
How this might work
Although the planning process is there for many positive reasons, it’s possible to achieve good public outcomes quickly. For projects that need emergency assistance, approval should ideally take between two days and two weeks.
Emergency planning should have a set of criteria that takes into account a project’s size, ability to create jobs, and how well it solves big, difficult issues. Consideration should also be given to the project’s ability to survive without creative resolution of the existing barriers in the system (some are outlined below).
The “approval in principle” (to leave the emergency process) should be given within two weeks so that finance can be found and procurement started. Detailed plans are then created with the preferred consultants, builders and construction teams in close liaison with local and state agencies.
The emergency planning process should bring together the 60 to 70 gatekeepers in a two-day workshop where all the major issues are solved in an emergency session, and all the small issues are put aside to be solved as the project begins.
Mainstreaming virtual conferencing is key
Critically, the two-day workshop can be enabled by ICT teleconferencing, which is now a maturing technology that works reasonably well.
Face-to-face communication has always been preferred to ICT-mediated communication and for many functions this will continue.
But there have been so many successful stories of people discovering how much better teleconferencing systems are for working from home, or at work. These have been clunky for decades but now show how much less we need to travel.
For me, lecturing students across Australia has been a delight with much more engagement than lecture theatres as one-to-one is easier and more equal, making it more appealing for students who have stopped going to lectures. Similarly, my long overseas trips for IPCC meetings have been replaced by very productive meetings, both large and small.
Virtual conferencing has the potential to improve the planning process further. For example, those who were previously unable to sit around the Emergency Workshop table because they have too far to travel can still play their part when face-to-face meetings are replaced with videoconferencing
Emergency planning would ideally be used as an opportunity to advance the following zero-carbon and zero-poverty outcomes:
- Mainstreaming electro-mobility
Oil refineries are closing as demand plummets to 70 per cent less for aviation fuel and 50 per cent less for gasoline.
This has been a good result for the environment, but how do we come out the other side in terms of mobility? Perhaps it’s time for oil-based options to diminish as we reduce the need to travel in planes and cars and move to electro-mobility.
There are number of new micro-mobility technologies now on our door step: electric cars, electric buses, electric trackless trams and electric bikes, scooters, skateboards and other micro-mobility.
Most of these new forms of mobility are cheaper than using oil-based mobility and certainly have to be enabled for climate change goals as we solarize our power systems. But the approval systems are not keeping up and they need the regulatory system to be totally over-hauled.
It’s a classic example of needing an “emergency” process to bring together all the gate-keepers and enable solutions that are likely to rapidly accelerate a positive but sensible framework to proceed.
- Re-localising our cities.
Cars have sprawled and scattered our cities and now we have to walk to local services we can see how much we need them to be better. Some of the old tram-line suburbs are much better off in terms of local services. Re-localising to enable more local, walking-based activity and less car-based activity is good for our health and the economy.
Electric bus rapid transit, light rail and trackless trams can enable more intensive provision of local centres along main roads as a major focus for development in the next economy. Micro-mobility can be enabled to feed into such centres.
All such urban regeneration should feature zero-carbon and zero-poverty outcomes in their building and construction.
Investment in re-localised centres, with zero carbon electro-mobility and high quality teleconferencing links, can be fed through a new “emergency” approvals process and get us all underway into the 2020s with hope in a better future.
Peter Newman AO is a Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University.
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