As a former New South Wales planning minister Rob Stokes makes an impression when he tackles his core subject matter. Possibly something that deeply disturbed those developers who prefer their government to remain under a dark dank blanket when it comes to the arcane intricacies of housing and planning.
The first thing Stokes tells The Fifth Estate when we caught up with him on Friday last week was to praise the current incumbent in his former job.
“Paul Scully is a good man,” he says. “He is well motivated and he has a big job and I know the complexity of the thing and the last thing you need is people chucking stones from the sidelines. I start from a position that if it [housing] was that simple we would have solved it.
“There are no easy answers.”
But the new housing and planning policies introduced by the new state government, ad hoc, the critics say, show the right answers might have receded even further from the grasp of politicians than they normally are.
They include a density and height bonus of 30 per cent for housing projects of $75 million or more in return for social and affordable housing of 15 per cent, and more recently the Greater Cities Commission which has strategic planning responsibilities, was shuffled into the planning department.
Evidence for the ad hoc comment is the quick revision of the policy to say it would apply only to land 800 metres or less from transport nodes.
But it’s the density bonus that will raise the most hackles.
“Despite the chorus of supply, supply, supply,” Stokes says, “this is not an answer – it raises the question of what, where and how?
There was a real qualitative question around supply.
“Is the problem homelessness or affordability? Both are very different questions with very different solutions.”
First thing, to solve is to ensure people have somewhere safe to live – and someone safe to buy.
“So, of course first home buyers matter.”
It’s a “lesser order of importance” if it’s the investment community that benefits. And this changes the levers you pull, he says.
“You have planning levers as a minister, but not as many as people think.”
And it can take a year or several years to see the results.
“Planning takes time. If you stuff it up people aren’t going to know for a couple of years, so generally don’t act hastily in planning.”
One lever the current NSW government has pulled is to allow the 30 per cent increase in height and floor space ratio in return for a 15 per cent of affordable rental housing.
Another is to allow government-owned land to be sold in return for 30 per cent affordable and social housing. The second deal, says Stokes, is diminished in value because it doesn’t come without the density bonus of the first.
Stokes was also concerned about the density bonus in transport-oriented developments, or TODs extends to bus routes because these are not fixed transport routes and could be changed.
But the biggest concern, he says, is that if you suddenly allow such a large bonus to development “it presumes that the planning was wrong in the first place.
“If the council and the community and the planners and site planners did their work properly and you put 30 per cent density on top, you will end up with a complete shemozzle.
“Because, what I understand is that there is no suggestion there will be 30 per cent more open space or traffic management or more libraries, or schools opened and hospitals.
“If it’s not handled properly it sounds like a recipe for overdevelopment unless the councils were conservative in their zoning. But I don’t think they were generally when we rezoned the urban cores. We deliberately pushed as much as we could.”
There’s also a provision to apply apartment design guidelines, but the additional 30 percent height will inevitably overshadow neighbouring properties or parklands, for instance.
“So there is quite a lot of complexity.”
Stokes disagrees with the oft-heard refrain that Australia has the worst planning system in the world, or words to that effect.
“I don’t accept the premise.” It’s the lament of all property developers around the world, he says.
“I actually think our strategical planning is really good but the development assessment process is where it gets slow. The strategic planning is not the bit that the government should be seeking to axe.”
The thing you learn as a planning minister, he says is that in a liberal democracy planning involves compromises.
We know the development community is delighted with these policy announcements, says Stokes.
The problem with development is that once “you’ve done it you can’t undo it.”