NSW Planning Minister Paul Scully and NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann

COMMENT: With any luck the breathless announcement that the New South Wales Greater Cities Commission had been axed or rolled was not much more than another free kick to that part of the development lobby that likes to dish out kicks – of the negative kind – to local government and state government whenever they can get away with it.

In the washup, the reaction from insiders looks more like evaporating hot air than incendiary firestorm.

For good reason.

It turns out that the 350 staff that make up the GCC and its cousin the Western Parklands City Authority is simply moving house – not booted out to the street and joining the homeless.

The GCC is moving from the Department of Premier and Cabinet back to the Department of Planning and Environment and joining the WPCA there. The commissioners remain but chief commissioner Geoff Roberts is leaving as his term has ended, replaced for now by Deborah Dearing whose term will also soon expire.

So why the kerfuffle?

Cate Faehrmann, Greens MP, initially said it looked like a case of developers telling the new Labor government to jump and the government asking “how high?”.

But on Thursday she told The Fifth Estate that things looked a little less alarming than first thought.

Planning Minister Paul Scully had made some encouraging remarks to the Property Council of Australia by way of a warning: “Don’t put up rubbish’ proposals for ‘crap’ housing”.

Naturally the Greens have been worried about the undue pressure that the development industry has placed on government. We all have.

“We’re worried that there is clearly a lot of pressure in terms of the housing crisis,” she said.

“We’re worried that the government is responding to what the developers say – that what’s needed to fix housing is at the expense of liveable sustainable communities.

“It’s really important we densify right.”

A concern was that although the planning minister was saying some things in the right way, that that the government was giving too much away and too quickly.

Is it throwing out sound planning principles – that decisions should be made locally with genuine community consultation, she asked.

But the minister’s comments in recent days seem to clarify that a little.

There was a suggestion to allow terrace houses in more suburban areas. Alongside manor houses which are small apartment blocks: two-up-two-down.

This is currently allowed in R2 or low density areas but not all councils allow it.

Given past performance though, Faehrmann said she and her colleagues were watching closely. Especially calling the propensity to call up developments under “state significant” assessment, as well as affordable housing targets that are too low.

Another big issue is affordable housing that simply stops being affordable at a point in time, such as the National Housing Affordability Fund. There needs to be a way to make this housing affordable in perpetuity, she said.

The pressure by mainstream media was also a worry in its encouragement of the YIMBY (yes in my backyard) movement.

“Some of the research in California in the US has linked it to very wealthy tech industry and developers.”

There is no doubt of course that young people are very concerned about their housing prospects and the Greens encouraged density – medium and high density – in the appropriate places, Faehrmann said.

She also wants to see a reset of the green belts.

“We used to have the green belts in the ’50s and it’s time we had that again.

But overall there is “some promising language” from the government, Faehrmann said, “but what we’ve seen in terms of action [so far] has been all for the developers.

Roberts calls for a halt to sprawl

On his way out Roberts called for a halt to urban sprawl.

We need to stop greenfields development,” he said, while making exceptions to the new metro line between St Marys and Western Sydney Airport.

We need good planning alongside more supply

John Brockhoff, national policy director of the Planning Institute of Australia, said what was important was that good planning be used to target the outcomes we want as a society and economy.

The danger is to put numbers before context. The consequence can lead to bad outcomes. At present there’s been months of concerted campaigning by the housing and development lobby that can smell an opportunity in the housing crisis to push for deregulated zoning and let developers rip.

Which they would if the market permitted. In New Zealand the bonfire of a hot market there led sadly to the hoped-for magic bullet of loose, relaxed zoning (as if it’s a fashion direction) and much of the Auckland CBD overnight was allowed to go to three storey townhouses.

The result was “chaos” according to locals who spoke to The Fifth Estate. So much so that the biggest advocates of the policy are now calling for a reversal of that free-for-all. Sadly for Auckland, it’s back to urban sprawl.

On why the housing numbers are never enough – you need the story

Thing is, that in the absence of planning for place, infrastructure and good economic outcomes like the PIA forever reminds us, we get mess – exactly as the cautionary tales foretell.

Maybe Paul Scully gets it with his call to developers to not put up “rubbish” proposals for “crap” housing.

At the Property Council of Australia’s housing summit on Wednesday in Sydney, Scully also criticised local council zoning laws that prohibit terraces, townhouses and manor houses from being built, saying these denser dwelling types would help the state achieve its housing target, The Guardian reported.

He also “recounted the sweeping changes the new Labor government has introduced since coming to office in late March, which include allowing developers to build taller and denser projects with a fast-tracked approvals process that bypasses councils, as long as at least 15 per cent affordable housing is proposed”

He said the rolling of the GSC and the WSPC into the department of planning as a way to resolve overlapping mandates that had confused and blurred accountability for delivery outcomes.

“The system created resourcing gaps in critical areas, while duplicating effort in others, and with the housing challenges we face, it wasn’t fit for purpose,” The Mandarin reported.

Part of the shakeup is an expansion of Landcom’s role and the creation of a NSW Building Commission, strengthening the role played by NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler.

It sure sounds like a lot is going on.

Kiersten Fishburn would agree. She said told the PCA that instead of revising each of the planning levers one at a time, her department would “pull all 20 levers all at once.”

A bit like the “everything, everywhere, all at once” we need to enact in the sustainable built environment sector.

This will be interesting to watch. Closely.

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  1. I rather miss Lady Lucy Turnbull, in hard-hat and high-vis, as she explained with generous clarity, the obvious benefits of eight million city vibrancy. A fair way, that is, from Point Piper.

    GSC or no GCC, Sydney folk rejoice as one. They hate barbies and backyard swings. All they ever wanted, was high rise with life mortgages. Rudd’s 50 million wouldn’t be enough for them.

  2. More ‘green-belting’ seems like a good opportunity to increase the lands available for carbon offsets. Having the offsets on the public eye will also help keep them honest.

  3. Why is it that every time the media or development industry mention the Government’s fast-tracked ‘affordable’ housing of 15%, there is no mention that this is actually fast-tracked future ‘market’ housing?