NSW could see more terrace house development. Pictured: Paddington

The NSW Government is pushing for more medium density housing to be built in existing suburbs, with the release of a draft Medium Density Housing Code and draft Medium Density Design Guide.

The code and design guide are hoped to increase construction of the “missing middle” – housing typologies between freestanding homes and high-density apartments, including townhouses, terraces, dual occupancies and manor homes (three or four dwellings in a two-storey building).

According to planning minister Rob Stokes, the drafts respond to changing preferences for housing and will also work to increase affordability, while ensuring quality developments.

“Sydney needs more choice in housing types than we are currently building and this policy will help to deliver better quality medium-density homes,” Mr Stokes said.

“This type of housing has the added benefit of generally being more affordable too because it requires less land area.”

Mr Stokes said there was the capacity for 280,000 new medium-density dwellings across the city, though council regulations were creating barriers.

The code will allow medium density housing types of a maximum of two storeys to be assessed as “complying development” if they meet the guidelines and council zoning requirements. This is a fast-tracked assessment that can be determined by a council or private certifier without the need for a development application, cutting assessment time down to around 22 days compared to the standard 71 days.

Complying developments require only a 14-day pre-approval neighbour notification requirement in metropolitan areas, and no notification requirement in rural areas. Objections made can only relate to the requirements for the type of complying development.

A media statement from Mr Stokes said that only 10 per cent of housing approvals in Sydney were for medium-density housing, though a third of homeowners surveyed by the government said they would consider downsizing to terrace housing. This is particularly relevant for an ageing population, with many finding themselves in large, mostly unused homes, but who do not want to move into apartments.

“Legally enforceable” design guidelines will set minimum standards of design quality across the state for medium-density complying development, including in regards to building heights, setbacks, landscaping, functional room sizes, solar access, privacy and natural ventilation. The guidelines are based on design principles including context and neighbourhood character; built form and scale; sustainability; amenity; diversity and social interaction; and visual appearance.

The design guidelines won’t be legally enforceable for developments assessed as a development application, but the government said it expected councils would use the guidelines as a reference document and perhaps adopt some or all of the principles within local planning policies.

housing_densities_infographicAIA welcomes guidelines

The draft design guidelines were welcomed by the Australian Institute of Architects, with AIA NSW president Shaun Carter saying they would help raise the community’s expectations of these types of developments.

“Low-rise multiple housing is another way of achieving higher residential densities – but with less impact on the character of existing suburban areas,” Mr Carter said.

He praised NSW for being the only jurisdiction in Australia to have design minimum standards in place, which currently applies to new apartment developments under State Environment Planning Policy 65.

“SEPP 65 has helped the architecture profession to substantially improve the quality of apartment design over the past 14 years,” Mr Carter said.

AIA NSW policy advisor Murray Brown told The Fifth Estate the changes were supported because they would encourage housing diversity and density in the existing footprint, while also encouraging a “base level of design quality”.

However, he was less supportive of assertions that increased supply of housing would affect affordability.

“There is no clear link between an increase in housing supply and improved housing affordability,” Mr Brown said. “But medium density development has the advantage of providing housing for more families on less land than is required for detached housing.”

Local government not impressed

The peak body for local councils, Local Government NSW, told The Fifth Estate it did not support the proposed changes because it reduced the community’s rights.

“LGNSW believes communities must be able to have their say in the decision-making process, which is part of what DAs are all about,” a spokesperson said.

“This proposal would remove those rights, and remove the opportunity for residents and ratepayers to have a say on a development next door.”

LGNSW believes the current DA process facilitates well-designed, compatible, niche development that conforms to the character of a particular area.

“Handing the power of approval to certifiers hired by applicants has the potential to raise serious probity issues,” the spokesperson said.

“There have been far too many cases in which the poor regulation of certifiers has resulted in unsafe building work. Councils are left to clean up the mess: handle complaints from customers or their neighbours, and invest resources to enforcement regulatory action to address poor building outcomes.”

The new code and design guidelines are open for feedback until 12 December 2016.

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