Peter Phibbs

Stephen Albin is a nice guy. If we had a cup of coffee to talk about planning and development matters we would probably agree on more than we disagree. But like many contributions from property lobby groups his piece on the Greater Sydney Commission tries to construct a narrative about the property and development industry that is disconnected from the evidence.

The narrative runs like this – the development industry is doing it tough (the piece describes development in Sydney as scarcely viable, largely because of all the costs Stephen mentions). The second part of the narrative is that the planning system is a “blockage” in the development process. Stephen’s article also adds an interesting twist to this narrative by suggesting that property people need to have a formal role on the Greater Sydney Commission.

Let’s start with the statement that development is close to being unviable. Perhaps we should consider that the ABS recently reported that Greater Sydney recorded 5159 dwelling approvals in July 2015, the largest number of approvals in the series (which began in 1991). Or better still perhaps is to count the cranes in inner Sydney.

The Greater Sydney Commission has some important work to do. But unblocking approvals probably isn’t at the top of the list. The same ABS series reports that Sydney generated 43,845 dwelling approvals in 2014-15, the highest number for many years. The bigger problem is turning these approvals into dwellings. NSW seems to be a national leader in getting DAs that do not turn into buildings. We also need to think about how we can achieve approvals once the housing boom has passed.

The last point is the article’s criticism of the Commission that “For starters, there is no one actually responsible for development on the Commission (at the moment).” The problem with having people directly associated with the development industry on a planning body that is involved with rezonings is a pretty obvious one – conflicts of interest.

The Greater Sydney Commission needs to be aware of development issues but given the size of the development lobby in Sydney I am sure that they will be getting a lot of free advice about development anyway. They can also commission work from any number of property consultants working in Sydney or elsewhere. There are a lot of risks associated with rezoning as demonstrated by the excellent work of Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters in Brisbane.

Getting back to the Greater Sydney Commission, a more transparent approach to coordination is a good idea. I think its most important role will be to try to better coordinate the work of the major state planning and infrastructure agencies. Many previous metro strategies have failed because of the non-delivery of crucial infrastructure.

I don’t expect there will be very different results in terms of the planning outcomes as a result of the Commission, although I think the Commission will help enable better alignment between the different levels of plans in Sydney and better match infrastructure plans to land use plans.

The issue about the Commission that seems unresolved is the role of the community in the planning process and where they stand in the operation of the Commission. Commissions can have a very important role in coordinating but in making decisions about areas where people live, there needs to be some accountability.

What if an area in your street gets rezoned by the Commission? What is your role in that process and how can you participate? Can you talk with your district representative about it? What democratic processes can you use to register your disapproval if you disagree with the decision? Some of these issues will become clearer when the draft legislation is available so readers should keep alert.

Some commentators have suggested that the role of the Commission will be to solve Sydney’s housing affordability crisis. The record dwelling approvals in Sydney suggest that the Commission won’t have a large role here. Indeed, the focus on housing supply as a way of moderating price increases that we have experienced in Sydney is misplaced, as an excellent contribution at the University of Sydney’s recent Festival of Urbanism highlighted.

We need more some much more specific policy innovations to address the housing affordability crisis. Perhaps Stephen and I will be talking about them the next time we catch up for a coffee.

Peter Phibbs is chair of urban and regional planning and policy at the University of Sydney.

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