SOUTH AUSTRALIA SERIES No 2: The 30-year plan for Greater Adelaide envisions a medium density, walkable tree-covered city close to public transport. But community groups say it will harm the heritage of their neighbourhoods and want the state’s planning laws to change. 

When it comes to sustainability in the built environment, South Australia has a lot to teach the rest of the nation.

Through the 30-year plan for Greater Adelaide, the Planning and Design Code and e-planning system, the state has a strategy for urban greening in Adelaide that can help it to defeat the urban heat island effect we’ve seen in places such as Western Sydney. 

It’s also taken a sensible approach to creating medium-density walkable neighbourhoods that avoids the low-density car-dependent sprawl that has plagued the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Perth and Southeast Queensland.

This is on top of an energy policy that has seen the share of power generated by renewables generated in the state surge to around 65.7 per cent in 2021.

However, the state’s new planning system is certainly not without controversy. Some community groups, such as Protect Our Heritage Alliance SA, claim the state’s new planning policies allow for inappropriate developments that threaten the heritage of their neighbourhoods.

“There’s an interesting balance between preserving the existing character of those inner urban areas versus creating a more sustainable city, which basically means bringing more people into the centre so that you’re minimising the reliance on vehicle travel, so you can have walkable, cyclable suburbs,” Baukultur director David Homburg told The Fifth Estate.

So what, exactly, are South Australia’s 30-year plan for Greater Adelaide, the e-planning system, and the state Planning and Design Code? How do they work? 

And, following Labor’s victory in the most recent state election, what changes are on the cards under SA’s new premier, Peter Malinauskas?

Planning review 

The previous South Australian Coalition government, led by Steven Marshall, implemented a major overhaul of the state’s planning policies. 

The new Planning and Design Code replaced all of the state’s 72 development plans with a single statewide planning scheme, alongside a new online platform for lodging planning applications. It was rolled out in three phases from July 2019 to March 2021.

However, there were a number of delays and strong opposition from some grassroots community groups to the rollout of these plans.

In 2020, Greens MLC Mark Parnell tabled a petition opposing the reforms in the state’s upper house. The petition, which attracted 13,928 signatures, was organised by Protect Our Heritage Alliance. It complained that the code allowed “inappropriate high rise developments” and “weakening of protections for heritage items”.

Before he was elected premier in March, Peter Malinauskas, pledged to review the code. He said he wanted to encourage “planning decisions [that] encourage a more liveable, competitive and sustainable long-term growth strategy”.

The review was designed to address concerns raised by industry groups and local communities, including:

  • protecting the character and heritage of local communities
  • ensuring greater tree canopy coverage and green open space
  • providing certainty to business, industry and communities by implementing appropriate design standards
  • improving the e-planning system

A plan for a greener, more walkable Adelaide

While the high-profile introduction of the new code has been a lightning rod for grievances from community groups, many of the concerns from Adelaide residents seem to centre on one particular aspect of the planning system.

In South Australia, each of the state’s 10 planning regions has a 30-year regional strategy that guides planning decisions under the code.

The 30-year strategy for Greater Adelaide sets out a vision for transforming the city into a tree covered city where most of the population lives in a medium-density walkable neighbourhood close to quality public transport.

Dr Johannes Pieters, program director of urban and regional planning at the University of South Australia, says “in relation to the environment, it certainly has a very strong platform around open space planning, maintaining canopy cover, densification of buildings within the existing urban growth boundary”.

And it encourages more medium density development within the existing urban boundary. 

It’s infill development but a lot of tends to be not so very high density. “It’s basically replacing a large suburban block with two or three townhouses,” according to Dr Andrew Allan, senior lecturer in transport, urban and regional planning at the University of South Australia.

There are six main prongs to this strategy:

1. Containing the urban footprint to protect natural resources, with 85 per cent of all new housing in metropolitan Adelaide to be built in established urban areas by 2045 

2. More ways to get around, with 60 per cent of all new housing in metropolitan Adelaide to be within close to current and proposed fixed line (rail, tram, O-Bahn and bus) and high frequency bus routes by 2045 (this is an increase from 40.2 per cent currently).

3. More active transport, with an increase the share of work trips made by active transport modes by residents of inner, middle and outer Adelaide by 30 per cent by 2045

4. More walkable neighbourhoods, with a 25 per cent increase the percentage of residents living in walkable neighbourhoods by 2045 

5. More urban green cover, with a 20 per cent in metropolitan Adelaide by 2045 (currently at 27.28 per cent)

6. More housing choices, with an increase housing choice by 25 per cent to meet changing household needs in Greater Adelaide by 2045 (currently, 75 per cent of new dwellings are detached houses in metro areas)

Community opposition

But the prospect of more medium-density infill development within the existing growth boundary has led to a backlash against the state’s new planning system from groups such as Protect Our Heritage Alliance SA.

The group is critical of what it describes as the “adverse effects of the ill-advised and confusing changes” to the state’s planning regulations, including through the Planning and Design Code.

The first prong, which you’d think is entirely reasonable, is for greater tree cover across number 5 says this  Adelaide. This lines up with point five in the 30 year strategy for Greater Adelaide.

On its website, the group states “the absence of effective tree controls in South Australia, in contrast to all other states” impinges on “our proud heritage and lived environment”. This includes “perhaps the most alarming of all the insults, the proposal to turn over 10 per cent of our national heritage-listed parklands to commercial and retail development”. 

The second prong of Protect Our Heritage Alliance SA’s campaign is stronger heritage protections over existing buildings and areas, including “integrated heritage listing process, with strong local government and community participation”.

The group is critical of “the prioritising of inappropriate development over heritage, history and community amenity” and “the failure to recognise that heritage protection and active preservation can be significant contributors to economic growth, employment and tourism”.

This point is more challenging, because if heritage protections go too far in blocking in-fill urban intensification, it risks creating the car-and energy-dependent suburban sprawl, like in most of Australia’s other big cities.

Additionally, as Dr Pieters points out, a sticking point for local residents with many in-fill developments is that they lead to more on street parking.

“If and when this review takes place, I’m sure that would be uppermost in the minds of many middle ring suburban residents who seem to feel strongest about this, because they have got a lot of that infill.”

A simpler, more elegant system

The new Planning and Design Code provides a single policy for assessing development applications across the state, and also introduced a new statewide online portal for planning applications.

In many ways, the structure South Australia used is more straightforward and elegant than, for example, the complex system of state environmental planning policies (SEPPs) and local environmental planning policies (LEPPs) give planners headaches in NSW, Homburg from Baukultur says.

“The process is relatively straightforward compared to elsewhere. I think we’ve done a good job in South Australia, creating a planning system that’s fairly effective for larger scale projects. 

“The process that’s been set up of having design reviews and having pathways through the planning system that allow parties to discuss and debate design topics such as character, mass, scale, access, the benefits of a development etc, have helped streamline the timeframes that has taken to get something through the planning system.”

How the code works

The system is underpinned by the Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act 2016. It was introduced by former Labor premier Jay Weatherill, replacing the old planning act from 1993 with support from the Liberals. 

“The Planning and Design Code is an amalgamation of all of the 72 development plans we had until a couple of years ago,” Dr Sadasivam Karuppannan, senior lecturer of urban and regional planning at the University of South Australia, tells The Fifth Estate.

This new system is the product of around nine years of reviews into the state’s previous planning codes, which were led by Brian Hayes QC, along with countless rounds of consultations.

At the highest level are a series of mandatory state planning policies. These cover the design quality of buildings, integrated land use, the adaptive re-use of buildings, climate change, biodiversity, and the preservation of special areas.

Sitting beneath these mandatory planning policies are the 10 regional plans that provide the long-term (15 to 30 year) “vision” for a particular region of the state, including the 30-year plan for Greater Adelaide. (There are also regional plans for, for example, the Murray and Mallee region, the Yorke Peninsula, Kangaroo Island and the Limestone Coast, among others.)

Bound by state and regional planning policies, the Planning and Design code separates out what can be developed in a particular area from how it can be done.  

What can be built is laid out in a system of zones, subzones (variations to a zone), overlays (which can be applied across multiple zones, for example, in areas that are prone to flooding or bushfires). The functional rules around how a development should take place in each area is set out in what’s known as a general development policy.

The big benefit of this new system is that it provides simpler, more consistent planning rules across the state.

“What it has done is its removed policies that are quite similar but have nuances within different local government areas,” Homburg says. “It has helped streamline the process so that for example a heritage zone is consistent, no matter what local government area you’re working in. 

“Or with a particular type or residential zone, there tends to be commonality across the planning system now, whereas before every local area tended to have a slightly different version of it, which meant you had to be reading and rereading individual codes to understand local nuance.”

A possible way to square the circle: the design review process

An interesting feature of SA’s new planning system – and one that has the potential to square the circle between heritage and density – is the design review process. This allows people to gain advice from an independent panel of built environment experts before they lodge a planning application.

“The idea is that you resolve design issues in applications before they are formalised in the planning system,” Homburg says.

“I think they have improved the quality of the design in the city in particular, where it’s mainly been applied. But they’ve also helped streamline that process as well, because the nuance of the design review is different. It’s a discussion that reviews design-related issues such as siting, access, arrangements, massing, composition etc before it goes into the broader planning process.”

The process can also help to manage the concerns that residents may have about the character of an area by having design professionals involved in designing those buildings that go into the higher density developments.

“If we’re going to go down the path of creating more intensive development in urban areas, then processes like design review are really important,” Mr Homburg said.

“I think we can achieve both a more sustainable city but also keep the character that people know and love as well. It’s a complex thing to have to navigate, and therefore you need people with design skills to be able to do that really well.

“The legislation allows for those design review processes to happen. I think it’s important that people take them up and use them.”

The benefits of the statewide e-planning portal

The standardisation and simplification in the state’s planning system has paved the way for the introduction of a single online e-portal website where planning applications can be lodged across the state.

“The e-planning platform, once you get your head around it, is reasonably straightforward and you’ve got the ability to find the information reasonably easily,” Mr Homburg said.

In most cases, this e-portal has done away with paper forms – allowing for 100 per cent online applications. This has dramatically reducing costs and sped up the application process. The platform also makes it easy to keep track of planning code amendments.

“With the e-planning portal, 24 hours a day, you can put in a development application. It sits alongside a mapping software, where you can put in your address or anybody else’s address, and see what the zones are for that particular area,” Dr Pieters said.

“And you can also go online and see what current applications are in — everybody’s applications, anywhere.”

As with any complicated new IT system, the e-portal did have some early issues with its software. It also took time for people to get up-to-speed on how to use it. 

“I used it not too long ago, because our next door neighbour had to get planning consent to put a carport in.  But it didn’t fit the code by four metres,” Dr Pieters says.

“I jumped on the portal and put the address in for my next door neighbour, and I think I found eight or nine development applications sitting there for the street that I’m in, that’s only a kilometre long in the outer suburban areas – there were a lot of those infill developments.”

Change is uncertain, yet inevitable

So what changes to the planning system are on the cards under SA’s new premier, Peter Malinauskas? For his part, Homburg says that any changes are unlikely to be a complete rewrite, as overall the system has been set up well.

“I can’t imagine there’d be a wholescale reworking of it because the design codes really only just came in the past year or two. I would assume there would have to be a process of monitoring its effectiveness to see how it’s working and then make adjustments as you go along,” Homburg sys.

But whatever the outcome of any future Malinauskas government review may be, one thing is for certain – there will be planning code amendments showing up in SA’s e-planning portal.

“One way of looking at it is that, in a sense, that code is being reviewed all the time. Because there is this constant stream of amendments coming through the code,” Dr Pieters said.

As it stands, any changes proposed by the state planning minister will need approval from a parliamentary subcommittee, and could potentially be amended by state parliament.

“That used to happen under the old system and they just called it something different. It was called a development plan amendment. And the councils, the minister and other people could initiate them,” Pieters says.

“Now you can actually see the history of the ones that are just being planned, the ones that are in the consultation mode, and the ones that are completed.”

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