Lack of density in posh Sydney – it’s a thing

There is an abundance of self interest in the collaboration between the Save Our Suburbs crowd and developer lobby The Urban Task Force – in furious agreement to stop medium density in middle ring leafy suburbs. But why? And is it fair?

SPINIFEX (Contributed): The recent SMH article Limited high-rise can halt sprawl and preserve our suburbs on 7 May 2019 was presented as a refreshing “strange bedfellow” piece.

Chief executive of the Urban Taskforce Chris Johnson agreed with the president of a peak community group Save Our Suburbs (Sydney’s chief NIMBY) Tony Resci. What they both oppose is medium density housing in middle ring suburbs and that the status quo was the best solution for Sydney.

What they are in glorious agreement about is that the state government’s new Low-Rise Medium Density Housing Code (known colloquially as the “missing middle” project by its sponsor planning minister Rob Stokes) is not a solution to Sydney housing problems.

This is a policy that allows limited development of two-storey dual occupancy, terraces and small residential flat buildings through certification – this means no need for a lengthy and contested development application (DA), the development can be approved in a few weeks by a certifier.

Ominously, the policy is due for general release this July. No need for the big DAs that the Urban Task Force’s members make and the small infill ones that the Save Our Suburbs crowd so successfully oppose.

These two groups have come together because, for different reasons, they both support the current solution to housing in Sydney. That solution is that existing older suburbs in Sydney, that is east of the harbour bridge and generally clustered around the harbour or inner city, are not the right place for urban density.

The loss of character housing in Sydney is an alleged existential threat that must be stopped at all costs.

The right place for urban density is on a busy road, in a commercial centre, maybe an old industrial area and always as far west as possible. Flood and bush fire prone land on the urban fringes, in the food bowl, maybe even in a heat or cold sink are the best places for new housing.

Prime urban land near a job and a cooling sea breeze is a thoroughly unsuitable place for medium density housing (or sharing).

Lack of density and population growth in posh Sydney is now becoming an established fact that is hiding in plain sight in the Greater Sydney Commission’s metropolitan policies

Welcome to Sydney, where real planning constraints are less important than the imaginary ones of character and the made-up view that the city is done.

The lack of density and population growth in posh Sydney is now becoming an established fact that is hiding in plain sight in the Greater Sydney Commission’s metropolitan policies and to their credit well revealed in their supporting research.

Expressing a concern about this approach to housing in Sydney is not some angry class envy view of the world but rather a concern about equity and ultimately the sustainability of our city.

Building new houses away from the good jobs and amenities of the inner city and in the hotter and more polluted parts of our metropolitan area means more driving, more airconditioning and social segregation. These are bad things for a community.

The Urban Taskforce and the Save Our Suburbs people are not the strange bedfellows that they portray themselves to be in this article. In fact, they are the ruling coalition of Sydney’s development community. The fact that they met outside a Department of Planning briefing is no coincidence.

The Save Our Suburbs crowd has paralysed the planning of established Sydney with their NIMBY agenda

The Save Our Suburbs crowd has paralysed the planning of established Sydney with their NIMBY agenda. It would be fair to say this group has captured the local decision-making power in established local government authorities in Sydney. A bold accusation you may say.

Look at it this way: the failure of the last Liberal government’s local government reform endeavours was largely driven by the Save Our Suburbs agenda.

It is no mistake that all the local government authorities that successfully led anti-council amalgamation campaigns were in Sydney’s NIMBY heartlands.

The toxicity and success of that campaign appears to have given the state government a good lesson – leave these communities as they are which means no new density or not much.

And then the planning decision-making processes in these areas have become nimble to the NIMBY agenda. Who would have thought that independent Planning Panels chaired by retired NSW Land and Environment Court judges would have no planning policy ideas of their own and were easily captive to council staff?

Councillors often had broader policy positions on planning affairs, such as an understanding of the need for affordable housing or an oversensitivity to character. They were not perfect decisions makers, but they made their decisions with democratic flair

One of the now forgotten benefits of having elected councillors determine contentious DAs was that they debated and made their decisions in public. There was mostly an alternative put and there was more defined separation between the officer’s writing the reports and councillors voting on them.

And councillors often had broader policy positions on planning affairs, such as an understanding of the need for affordable housing or an oversensitivity to character. Councillors were not perfect decisions makers, but they made their decisions with democratic flair.

Now Planning Panels rarely debate the merit or alternatives to the reports they are presented. Panels value conformity and the unanimous decision.

And the senior staff have all lived the recent failure of reform and they appreciate which interest group won that fight. Little surprise really that they self-censor and report like News Corporation journalists doing the bidding of their NIMBY masters.

The Save our Suburbs crowd has gone quiet on local government reform, as I suspect they have realised that the strange half reformed/half reconstructed system of local government we now have in established Sydney works just fine for them. Change is almost impossible.

And then there’s the Urban Task Force: it doesn’t want density to break out of its members’ land banked centres, road corridors, brown and green field sites – well, why would you? It might be too hard to sell those units if you must compete with density in more attractive areas.

Corporate development in Sydney may not be a monopoly but it does have all the characteristics of a cosy oligopoly: big barriers to entry and established relationships that inhibit smaller players.

The actual existential fear is in both these groups.

The Save Our Suburbs crowd understands that the modest two-storey medium density housing proposed in the missing middle push is not that much of a threat to its character-based view of the world.

The real threat is to the housing exclusivity its members relish and their success so far in controlling local planning.

The Urban Task Force likely also knows if the Sydney residential unit consumer was presented with an actual choice between a low-rise unit in a block of four where every room has a window (including the bathroom!) and a high-rise unit in a block of 100 with a sole orientation to a busy road, their product may not fare so well.

When two self-interested players get together and claim “limited high-rise can halt sprawl and preserve our suburbs’ character” that’s time to get suspicious. Go the missing middle.

Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email

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  1. While I’m sure some do want to live in the apartments you champion, around 40% of Sydneysiders want to live in Missing Middle Housing (as revealed by Grattan Research) – a housing model that is superior in most ways in terms of the co-operative living. Students like myself might cop high-rise buildings out of sheer lack of other options, despite likely negative impacts on mental health that they entail. Looking at Baugruppen in Berlin and you realise the problem in NSW is also deeply embedded in housing finance.

  2. If medium density is to take a significant proportion of Sydney’s population increase large swaths of the suburbs will have to be taken over, as is graphically illustrated by the pamphlet that was put out by Canterbury Bankstown Council. A judicious mix of strategies is required. In addition to destruction of urban character there are many disadvantages associated with extreme high-density policies. At one time nearly all Australians could afford to own their own home. But since the introduction of high-density policies which restricted the release of peripheral land the cost of housing has gone through the roof. The land component in the price of a dwelling increased from 30% to 70%. As density increases so does traffic congestion, even in cities with wonderful public transport such as Moscow, Hong Kong or Tokyo. Destruction of urban gardens results in less open ground to absorb rainwater which then floods on hard surfaces carrying pollution into our rivers and ocean. There will be fewer plants to absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants and to cool the city. There will be less roof area per person to collect solar energy and rainwater. If we are not vigilant our unique Australian way of life will be gone for ever.

  3. There is nothing wrong with the missing middle and some posh councils are going ahead with it regardless. No I won’t tell you which ones. However, there is a lot wrong with the code which leads to substandard built form outcomes in which the garage is the predominant element in the streetscape.The setbacks which revert to Greenfields housing code an abomination in itself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Victorian model manifest in the physical form in many established suburbs around Sydney. The Code has substandard lot lengths, rear setbacks and upper level setbacks. The lack of a control for private open space on the ground plane and a mandatory minimum of soft landscaping. Nowhere can you plant a tree and don’t rely councils to provide for a tree canopy, that’s just a cop out. The interblock riparian zone that is entirely lost in the code is essential for urban resilience and should not be disregarded We do not have to turn Sydney into an entirely paved surface. Most councils feared an increase in congestion, and importantly the reality of existing suburbs unable to provide adequate schooling. But their resistance has saved us from bleak apparitions turning up in every suburb. Before the code is reinstated upon an unsuspecting public there should be at least mandatory controls limiting roof colour ie – no more black or dark shades and where there are front setbacks the drive should not be painted black. This is a problem that has to be resolved at a state level. The code in principle is the way to go for the future. The current code is manifestly inadequate put together by planners who don’t have a clue and base their controls on developer input. This code rightfully should not be in force and needs to be revised to provide proper residential amenity and the ability to provide or be in keeping with the existing street character. The current model provides a wall of garages to the street. I just don’t find that acceptable and either should you.

  4. The reaction to the medium density housing code has in part been a reaction to growth in general including the proliferation of higher density apartment blocks that Chris champions. Modest middle suburban infill development, at low to medium densities and sensibly located close to or on the fringes of centres near services and transport, is critical for housing diversity and providing options for households to age in place and for downsizing. Research over many years by the Grattan Institute and SGS has shown there is an unmet demand for compact and medium density housing. Building only the extremes of high density and outer suburban detached housing is not meeting our complex housing needs.

  5. This is a great article although I would disagree that it is Posh suburbs East of the bridge that are arguing against the Missing Middle – these suburbs are some of the densest in Sydney already: Pictured is Woollahra which is made up of predominantly two to three storey terrace houses and a lot of infill apartments. My understanding is the kickback comes from communities in Post-Victorian suburbs in the inner-west, south-west and north, made up of predominantly single storey, free-standing homes. Not enough analysis is being done by Councils to see how CDC would impact on streetscapes and traffic, ( due to lack of funds and timing ) so to stick with what they know seems to be the simplest solution.

  6. Chris, I agree. But there is more to living in an apartment than being near a rail station. There are so many well-located areas in Sydney that get overlooked for density for often spurious reasons.
    Canterbury Bankstown has done a lot for urban density over the years and is a bit of strange case right now, for various reasons (ICAC etc).

  7. Posh implies it is only the wealthy suburbs fighting medium density but look at Canterbury Bankstown ‘s campaign or Liverpool councils concerns about changes in the suburbs. 50 councils raised conccerns about the missing middle code. Clearly they are reacting to their communities concerns. So my reading is that we can accommodate growth in higher density apartments around railway stations and give the community what they desire.
    We need to support the 30 percent of people in Sydney who live in apartments. They live a different lifestyle but they are real people.