Jeff Angel of Total Environment Centre leads a protest group outside the electoral offices of planning minister, Anthony Roberts

ANALYSIS: NSW’s Perrottet government had two choices today (Tuesday).

It could kill off the most remarkable set of environmental, health and climate focused planning rules in Sydney since the Green Olympics. And thereby fall victim to the immensely powerful developer lobby that’s been running the place since the Rum Rebellion, as someone so eloquently put it on Monday morning.

Or it could stand up to the pressure and protect its citizens. And along with that, its new hard-won leadership on progressive energy and sustainability policies, lauded by both sides of the political divide.

If that sounds dramatic, wait and see what happens now that the new Planning Minister Anthony Roberts has decided on the first option.

Roberts, who replaced the highly regarded Rob Stokes, ditched the vast majority of the Design and Place State Environment Planning Policy, or  SEPP. He kept parts of the SEPP that relate to improving the BASIX standard and some other elements, but not those that relate to residential urban development through improvements to the urban landscape such as tree canopies and walkable and accessible open spaces.

  • See our explainer story to see the wide ranging and deep thinking parameters that underpin the Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy.

Robert’s move came after a fierce backlash from the property development lobby.

The Urban Taskforce Australia, the Property Council of Australia and the Urban Development Institute of Australia were all scathing of the SEPP.

But what Perrottet has effectively unleashed through his minister is a blow for western Sydney. This is the highly sensitive political area where vast numbers of voters – millions actually – live now and will soon be placed.

This part of our population must now do without the protections the SEPP would have given to their health, lifestyle and affordability.

Instead of a planning policy that would mandate that new communities would be liveable, walkable, covered by tree canopy for cooling and accessible to transport, there is genuflection to the mantra of the property industry for more supply, faster approvals and cheaper builds.

While the developers themselves live in leafy eastern suburbs or north shore homes.

And while western Sydney residents already suffer floods and burning heat.

Yet Perrottet has promised that no postcode would be left behind.

“Our starting point is that we want everyone to be able to enjoy the world’s best quality of life no matter what your postcode is”, he said in the Bradfield Oration on 2 December, with the title by the way of Liveable, workable, beautiful: a new vision of Sydney.

Someone should remind Perrottet about the Better Planning Network – actually, he should ask Brad Hazzard who was planning minister at the time and is still in cabinet.

Hazzard is probably still scarred from the fury that followed some proposals that look timid by comparison with the current  SEPP. In a matter of weeks the backlash for Hazzard grew exponentially, from handful of disaffected people to a raging torrent of opposition and hugely uncomfortable images in the daily media as thousands of people joined the movement.

The BPN hasn’t gone away. But now it’s joined by Sweltering Cities, and residents from Lane Cove.

And on Monday morning one of the most respected environmental voices around, Jeff Angel, who is executive director of the Total Environment Centre stepped up to lead a protest outside Minister Anthony Roberts’ electoral office in Gladesville. He was joined by the Lane Cove Bushland and Conservation Society and Nature Conservation Council.

The group was concerned, Angel said, about the weight of developers on ministerial decisions.

As soon as Anthony Roberts was appointed as minister for planning, “the developers were in full force in the media attacking the new SEPP, calling it half-cooked, saying it was going to impose too many costs on home purchases”.

And when the planning principles that accompanied the SEPP were dumped the few weeks ago, the developers were saying they expected the SEPP to receive the same treatment.

The thing is, Angel said, that until Rob Stokes came along, there was a marginalisation of environmental matters.

In particular in western Sydney, “with its killer heat, worsening under climate change, the lack of trees and the need for massive increase in the tree canopy making building and precincts net zero ready and using renewable energy at the local scale”.

It was pretty clear that the developer lobby had the ear of government, Angel said, “whether it’s Liberal or Labor, they have the capacity to get to the highest level of government.

“You know, when do we ever get to see the premier? The developer lobby can virtually walk into the office and demand a meeting. We’ve been trying to get a meeting with the new Minister for Planning Anthony Roberts. Nothing. No response since December.”

That might not be for much longer, given Angel’s promise that he “doesn’t hope” the support will grow, “he knows” it will, given the early signs. And given what we’ve seen with the Better Planning Network, he might have a case.

The wide consultation ahead of the release of the SEPP also indicates there is now a “wide range of stakeholders” that are unhappy.

“The job of the Total Environment Centre is to bring those people together and amplify the voice of the community in the decision-making processes,” Angel said.

Perrottet will not be impressed.

The Perrottet government has been enjoying unprecedented goodwill right now. Mostly thanks to the intelligent treatment of planning by Rob Stokes, who’s highly educated in the field. Garnering even broader appeal was Matt Kean as Energy Minister and now Treasurer when he courageously took on his political peers in Canberra with an ambitious clean energy agenda that contradicted their own.

In November last year Kean talked about the “new capitalism”  where “the environment and social values take the front seat”, and the green investment policies he fostered meant that NSW would attract billions in funding for renewable energy projects across the state.

He outlined five principles of his own that included expanding the notion of debt to “environmental debt”.

A nice corollary, you might say, to Rob Stokes’ nine planning principles that accompanied the SEPP.

The venue for Anthony Roberts’ announcement speaks volumes

Robert’s chosen venue for the killing of the SEPP was an Urban Taskforce lunch. It was a nod to the fierce opposition this group has led to the SEPP.

It’s where mainly-residential developers such as Meriton, Billbergia and Walker Corporation rule the roost and why there was so much opposition to the residential components of the SEPP.

The Urban Taskforce cites cost as a problem.

But what does it say about the 55 per cent increase in Sydney’s housing prices over the past three years? The market is still booming. It cites supply as a problem that would bring down prices. If developers unlocked their vast land banks until the prices came down, that’d work.

But they don’t want that at all.

They want to build fast, cheap and profitably.

That’s fine. It’s their job.

Their lobby groups’ job is to help them in all ways possible.

Fine; all clear and transparent.

But the state government’s job is to work for us: to protect our homes, our health and our quality of life to the best of its ability.

As Jeff Angel said, the SEPP was not about fanciful illusory benefits.

“These are real and substantial benefits: people have better health, they’re better emotionally, mentally, and physically every day, and that has an ongoing consequence for the health budget. People are not sick as often, they have a better family life since they’re more relaxed and might have a chance to go outside and sit under a tree.

“You know, these things aren’t hippie illusions… these are real people.”

Cognitive dissonance

The strange feeling during the day was a cognitive dissonance that accompanied the brouhaha. In the morning was a Property Council breakfast, with an excellent line up of speakers who outlined in detail the huge challenges we are facing on climate and sustainability.

It was underscored by the morning’s statement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that we can no longer hold the line at 1.5 degrees warming.

The statement pointed to a “litany of broken promises” and a “file of shame”.  UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a speech after the release of the report that the world was walking into an “unliveable world”.

“Sleepwalking” was the word Green Building Council of Australia chief executive Davina Rooney chose, up on stage, with a wave of the hand to the screen behind her that indicated the damage already on view and highlighted by keynote presenter environmental scientist and explorer Tim Jarvis.

The property industry is responsible for nearly 40 per cent of all emissions, Jarvis said; it was vital to the fight for our future.

Yet, as we pondered the vast challenges, the previous planning minister had painstakingly produced an instrument that could tackle a huge swathe of the issues we need to solve: low energy, electrified buildings, tree canopies for cooling suburbs, walkable communities for our health and convenience, cross flow ventilation in flats for comfort and affordability, lower embodied carbon in buildings, access to renewable energy, a focus on health and community so that people don’t get sick and place a burden on the rest of us.

But no. Apart from qualified support for lift in the BASIX standards, and maybe one or two other items such as around embodied carbon and electrification already top of the list with commercial property owners the answer for improvements to our urban planning was a resounding no.

On Tuesday after the announcement Audrey Marsh, advocacy and campaigns manager for the Planning Institute of Australia said the rejection of much of the SEPP was a “real shame”.

“This SEPP went a long way to addressing the urgent issues we have, particularly with urban tree canopy cover and connections between planning and First Nations Peoples and access to open space,” she said.

GBCA chief executive Davina Rooney said late on Tuesday that the moves to improve BASIX to match 7 Star NatHERS was welcome and hoped that “other initiatives” mentioned by the minister would be progressed within sustainability.

“We recommend that the ‘other initiatives’ include the work on net zero, embodied carbon and a best practice guide to liveable and resilient communities,” Rooney said.

And she reminded us all of the dire warnings from the IPCC.

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  1. The accessible housing citizen advocacy group – Australian Network for Universal Housing Design, has been fighting the property lobby for 20 years. Now that people see accessibility and sustainability as being mutually supportive, perhaps it is time for them to join with Jeff Angel and co?

  2. When has it been any different? Check out the Cumberland planning scheme that could have made Sydney into a great city but the green spaces were usurped by developers for profit

  3. Best practice needs to be implemented not just looked at and then dumped. The long term economic and human benefits are clear and the short term blinkered views always aim to muddy the discussion. Do we want a better future or the fiasco of the cheapest one?