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CONTRIBUTOR: The debate about Sydney’s employment lands isn’t over, with urban planner Benjamin Craig advocating for greater flexibility in the city’s approach to industrial and urban services land to better accommodate the jobs of the future.

There is no doubt that planning for employment land is complex. As a result, we have seen high levels of intervention in this space as governments seek to meet the employment and servicing needs of our cities.

For example, in October 2018, the Greater Sydney Commission released a thought leadership paper titled A Metropolis That Works which focussed primarily on the retention of industrial and urban services land.

While it was seen by some as a clear mandate for the wholesale retention of all employment and services lands, its purpose is to build on the Greater Sydney Region Plan and District Plans, and to “provoke discussion and debate in some cases and, in others, provide practical ideas on implementation across a range of challenging issues in the near, medium and long term.”

Ethos Urban welcomes the GSC’s initiative to publish thought leadership articles that encourage discussion and debate on matters critical in shaping Sydney’s future.  We agree that land zoned for employment generating purposes requires careful management as it plays a critical role in supporting businesses and services that are integral to a well-functioning city.

However, some elements of the GSC’s approach to industrial land are causing a great deal of concern within the property industry, who will ultimately deliver the places and spaces accommodating the jobs of the future.

The debate

In general terms, one side is advocating that the policy framework set by the GSC simply perpetuates historic planning practices that fail to respond to the dynamic changes occurring in the economy, including shifts in how people work and businesses operate.

This side of the debate tends to suggest that a more market-led approach to industrial land planning will lead to greater investment, and hence employment generation, than the existing static and prescriptive policy approach. 

Counter to this is the view that the GSC policy approach that appears to provide blanket protection for industrial land as the best means of safeguarding sufficient land to protect and deliver the jobs and services of tomorrow.

That is, a top-down directive to protect industrial land from evolution to (or including) alternative uses to ensure Sydney is able to mature and function as a global city. 

Naturally, there are many opinions between these two positions.

We see the GSC’s approach under A Metropolis that Works as a reasonable starting point for the conversation. The discussion to date illustrates the fact that the future management of Sydney’s industrial zoned land is a highly complex matter and the consequences of any policy decision will be significant and thus careful decision-making is necessary.

It is our view that an open and transparent debate is needed which considers in more detail both the macro and micro drivers for employment lands and the generation of jobs into the future. This can then inform a balanced and robust metropolitan policy framework which establishes clearer guidance for decision-making by local government. 


One thing that we advocate is for flexibility. 

History tells us that approaching complex planning matters in a prescriptive or “black and white” manner is unlikely to achieve desired outcomes and can in fact be counter-productive to the objectives such policies are seeking to achieve.

For this reason, planning policies in the past 25-years have increasingly adopted a “performance-based” approach which allows for flexibility and adaptation, as long as key policy objectives are being achieved.

In this instance, the risk of the approach set out in A Metropolis that Works is that it may also inadvertently frustrate economic growth, innovation and changes in business practices associated with, say, advances in technology or the jobs of the future.

As issues become more complex, the solutions need to become more flexible so they can respond to these changing circumstances. At present, the current planning and policy framework for industrial land lacks this required flexibility.

To emphasise, this is not a flexibility to undermine the objectives of policy – but rather a flexibility to deliver the objectives of policy.

Discussions to date have highlighted that the GSC’s position and thought leadership piece provides an opportunity to reflect on how we approach the management of industrial lands to ensure we deliver the type of metropolis we want Sydney to be in the future.

The next steps

Following adoption of the Regional and District Plans, we are now at a critical juncture where councils are preparing Local Strategic Planning Statements to inform the updating of Local Environmental Plans.

We therefore have an opportunity to reflect on the role that employment lands have historically played in Sydney; understand what works and what doesn’t from a planning and land use perspective, and then plan for how things can be done better.

For this reason, the time is now to develop a policy approach that first and foremost ensures the effective protection of industrial land, but which also provides opportunities to support innovation where it is warranted.

The GSC’s Chief Commissioner states in her The Fifth Estate article titled GSC on why we can’t leave city planning to the efficiencies of the market that:

“We can’t plan a city simply on the basis of allowing all land to be left to the ‘efficiencies’ of the market and ‘highest and best financial use’ or we’ll end up with, not with a city that works, but that is unworkable, with suburbs that are predominantly residential.”

Undoubtedly the Chief Commissioner is correct, however, one needs to ask:

  • Is there a compromise to be achieved that better balances the market forces identified by the Chief Commissioner and the blanket moratorium on all employment lands put forward in A Metropolis that Works?
  • Is there a better policy solution that not only protects land for employment purposes, but also provides opportunities for select areas to deliver a greater mix and intensity of uses based on agreed and highly transparent performance criteria?

For Sydney to remain internationally competitive it needs to be supported by a planning framework capable of adapting and responding to the demands of the global economic environment.

The approach to managing the planning and development of employment land is therefore, a critical issue that will shape Sydney’s future and for this reason, we welcome the discussion to date and encourage the GSC to engage further with the industry to inform the proposed policy approach.

Benjamin Craig is a director of Ethos Urban.

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