Maybe it’s a sane and logical idea to bring the Greater Sydney Commission in from its independence and place it snug in the office of the NSW premier and cabinet where big planning decisions could be better coordinated and delivered.

Or maybe it’s a sign that the success of the commission, its independence and goals could be something the premier had best keep a closer eye on in the lead up to the state election on 22 March next year.

Either way, the move announced on Tuesday stirred a lot of strong views and most were a trigger to look at the state government’s track record on planning overall.

Most views were positive but the sceptics worried that at least some of the motivation could be a desire for a bit more control over one of the better planning stories of recent times.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian certainly put a positive spin on it when she announced the GSC would now be “front and centre of government decision making.”

Key agenda items for the commission would be planning the Western Sydney City Deal and the new Aerotropolis, to be centred around the new Western Sydney Airport.

Click here to read the new priorities

Chief commissioner Lucy Turnbull said the role would now be similar to Infrastructure NSW, which provides advice directly to the Premier, and would mean it would “effectively collaborate across Government agencies and ensure the Government’s vision becomes a reality.”

Several observers said this was always part of the commission’s plans.

Time will tell.

There is one thing that Sydney is notably good at, putting a positive supportive spin on much of what is newly announced, by anyone. The more sceptical observers take their time.

The election, the election

Highest on the thought waves was the obvious, the state election on 22 March next year.

Bringing the GSC closer to government simply indicates how important planning issues are now to the voting public.

While planning and transport decisions were once the often boring preserve of statutory bodies that made decisions paternalistically for the rest of us, today planning is a red-hot barbecue stopper.

One reason is population growth that’s exploding with immigration that looks unstrategised at the federal level but has huge ramifications on the big cities.

It hasn’t helped that the daily papers continue to hammer congestion – on the roads, trains, buses and visually, with big ugly wall-to-wall towers horrifying even the most rusted on density advocates.

Bringing a big planning outfit into the centre of government signals the premier is listening to concerns and taking a close interest.

It’s a political signal that planning and liveability issues are taking centre stage, just like the recent budget that focused on people and soft cuddly things (let’s not get started on the absence of any funding for climate and the even more insulting failure to allocate funds remaining for climate work. And let’s not mention the absence of housing affordability that seems to have slipped almost completely off the agenda.)

Peter Phibbs, USyd

Professor Peter Phibbs head of urban and regional planning and policy at the University of Sydney is one of the people who say that the move to the department of premier and cabinet is “theoretically good”.

It’s a good place from which to co-ordinate issues across government, but there’s a risk, he says, that withall the issues clamouring for attention from the premier the GSC would not get the attention it needs to do its job properly.

Certainly planning had become elevated as a political issue.

“I suspect the research is showing that the good burghers

are nervous about the pace of development,” he says.

“And it’s seen as a more important political issue.

“So it’s moving closer to the centre of government. So I think we are going to see a lot of things about liveability and new parks and places to walk your dog as response to growth without threatening the quality of living.”

Sadly, he said, placing “a few extra trees in someone’s street” was not going to make people feel better when they were struggling with housing and the cost of living.

“The year before affordable housing was the thing that kept the premier awake at night.”

Not this year.

But why housing affordability had slipped off the radar was harder to fathom.

“It’s hard to keep the attention of government. The affordable housing  debate had the government’s ear for a while but they got some first home buyers into the market, prices reduced and… mission accomplished.”

Except it’s not accomplished.

“Young people are still very angry. Prices are still 85 per cent higher peak to trough and they’ve come back by just 5 per cent,” he said. Not enough to make a difference.

Committee for Sydney

Advocacy director for The Committee for Sydney James Hulme said it was a positive move.

“I think the decision reflects the importance of the GSC to the premier and the state government’s priority and will lead to a more whole of government approach and strategy planning across Sydney.”

Hulme thought it was probably a “natural evolution”.

“It makes sense to have the GSC reporting to the planning department in the early days and we’ve seen the GSC work really efficiently with planning and transport.”

Planning increasingly important

It certainly reflects the fact that housing and infrastructure will be big at next election and reflect that fact that the government is taking these issues very seriously and having a more strategic approach to planning across greater Sydney.

The government, he said, deserved some recognition that it’s produced some spatial plans as detailed as Sydney’s ever had.

“We’d like to see the government go further, especially around affordable housing and develop more ideas around key worker housing.

“And to go further in targets for inclusionary zoning on public lands.”

It could also do more for rental property.

On the moratorium on the “missing middle” medium density housing code it was important not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” he said.

“We think there is a really important role for medium density: on the one hand so we don’t have urban sprawl and on the other that it doesn’t become the highrise that some communities are concerned about.”

 Planning Institute

John Brockhoff principal policy officer national and NSW with the Planning Institute of Australia was more concerned about the budget the GSC had to work with than where it was working from.

His participation in the budget lock up a few weeks ago revealed to him (in Budget Paper No 3) that funding for the GSC can be volatile and it’s recently been significantly cut back. Naturally he said, it’s important that the commission is appropriately funded.

The way funding is done is complicated. According to Brockhoff the GSC has a base operating budget of $15 million supplemented by additional project based grants so that, “when there is a lot to be done they can access extra funding.”

That’s been $120 million over their base when the commission was doing the district plans and consultation on the regional plan.

“The revised budget for last year has dropped right down

and now it’s bounced up a bit to $40million (including the $15 million) but it’s opaque and you can’t get a clear picture on whether they have enough money to meet their responsibilities.”

Brockhoff has a definite thumbs up for the GSC. Especially for their role in infrastructure co ordination.

“To get the infrastructure agency to support the regional plan is better with the premier standing behind their shoulder.”

The GSC has also been outspoken and innovative Brockhoff said. Especially on green infrastructure with Rod Simpson as environment commissioner –  particularly strong on this and the green grid.

“And rightly so, trying to push a low carbon agenda much more strongly than other parts of government. I don’t’ think that’s a tension.”

What might be a tension though is zoning

Where the rubber hits the road, said another source, is the rezoning of land for housing especially industrial land.

While developers want more land released (always) the GSC has a bigger picture in mind. It sees that if too much

industrial and manufacturing and employment land is converted to residential Sydney could loose its golden goose.

GSC chief executive Sarah Hill, formerly of well regarded planning outfit Hill PDA, has a strong background in understanding the importance of industrial land and “it’s a particular hobby horse for her” the source said. 

Changing priorities

Another observer closer to the action also thought the GSC had performed well.

“It’s refreshing and it’s not had political constraints. It’s actually gone out and benchmarked examples around the world and in Australia.”

It had also created some quite good district plans, policies on inclusionary zoning and the 30 minute travel time to work and it had even “knocked some heads together” and got the departments of transport and planning actually talking together and agreeing on a few things.

A motivation for the government to bring it in house might be as a foil for the Committee for Sydney, which was “quite challenging” for the government. “They write all these research papers that are really quite good and they point out all the Achilles heels for the government.”

There’s also the notion that the independence of the GSC could get a little out of hand if not checked. In London a similar advisory authority with a little too much clout had its wings clipped.

“It’s a bit like bringing the enemy into the tent. If you don’t have to report to the minister, you have to calm down a bit. Not be so agile. And not quite so critical.”

“It’s a two edged sword.”

Maybe, but then that’s the eternal dilemma of whether to be inside the tent or out. Time will be the judge.

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  1. Sarah Hill’s concerns regarding rezoning of employment lands to residential are well founded in my view. There is already talk in the industry of seeking to gain re-zoning in areas affected by the Airport noise footprint. How absurd would a rezoning in this space be. Here we have the right planning policy for a 24/7 airport making sure future residential land use aggravation is avoided and the tax payers are shielded from the future cost of retrofit noise abatement at a later date, just as occurred around Sydney airport. The developers of influence in NSW are a powerful lot. They will argue housing affordability amongst a plethora of reasonings to change zoning. Hopefully both the government and to opposition will make their positions clear early.
    The big risk is if the GSC is a ‘frank and fearless’ arm of government, it can be quelled by cutting its budget over time to make it a shadow of its former self…