Woman looking at broken air conditioner sitting on couch, suffer

D&P SEPP: Residents will have higher cooling bills and less livable apartments, thanks to the NSW state government’s decision to dump a key planning reform.

NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts is under fire for not consulting with key industry groups before dumping a proposed policy that would have made apartments more livable and sustainable.

Ahead of the federal election, the decision to scrap the proposal will have a big impact on the cost of living for many apartment owners and renters across key marginal seats across western Sydney.

The state government had previously announced plans to update its planning guidelines for apartments, through a document known as the Apartment Design Guide (ADG). 

The revised ADG set out best practice principles for building energy efficient apartments, using low-carbon building materials, with good ventilation, green spaces and access to sunlight.

It was accompanied by a second document, called the Urban Design Guide, that set out how urban planners can create pleasant walkable communities.

For apartment residents in the outer suburbs, these changes would have meant more comfortable apartments with lower power bills from heating and cooling.

Both of the changes were part of a policy package called the Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy, or D&P SEPP, which was going to replace the state’s existing apartment rules, known as SEPP 65.

However, the changes were suddenly dumped by Minister Roberts on Tuesday, during a lunchtime speech at an event organised by developer lobby group The Urban Taskforce. The group had claimed the changes would make apartments more expensive.

While the minister said that he is open to retaining some improvements to the basic building sustainability rules, or BASIX, the changes to the ADG were dumped and the UDG was scrapped entirely.

Key industry groups and stakeholders in the construction and property sector were not consulted about the decision before it was announced. A number of peak bodies representing architects, planners, and green buildings, supported the changes.

The Fifth Estate has confirmed with industry sources that the earlier SEPP 65 planning rules and its ADG remain in force.  

Cost of living pressures on apartment owners

A spokesperson for the Australian Institute of Architects told The Fifth Estate that while “the existing ADG isn’t broken”, there are lots of areas that need improvement based on the growing issues of climate change, natural disasters and hazards. 

“The critical piece was about the amenity for the people who live in a building and the livability of apartments. We can build apartments, but people actually have to live in them,” the spokesperson said.

“The big argument from developers is ‘supply, supply, supply’, and we all recognise that we need more affordable housing. However, we can’t just build anything anywhere at any cost. We have to think more carefully.

“Building the same apartment block in eastern suburbs versus Parramatta is just ridiculous. Apartments get up to 50 degrees in Parramatta in the summer. …. And it’s often the renters who can’t afford to pay for having the airconditioning on 365 days a year because their apartments aren’t livable.”

Better quality, more livable apartments

The benefits for apartment owners in the new ADG included protections for their access to sunlight and natural cross ventilation.

“The issue of ventilation is critical. We know what energy costs are like. For people living in places like Parramatta, it’s expensive enough as it is just paying rent,” the Australian Institute of Architects spokesperson said.

On the liveability front, it promoted greater housing diversity (including family apartments), enough space for people to work or study, more storage and usable balconies.

Another important principle in the new ADG was deep soil connectivity. This basically means that areas of deep soil for gardens should ideally be placed next to the ones in neighbouring buildings. This would have helped to create established tree canopies to overcome the urban heat island effect.

“Then you’ve got this opportunity for a bigger expense of natural landscaping in one place where you know that it’s going to get good rainfall and sunlight. 

“So instead of it just being in isolation, plugging a building into its community, from a natural environment perspective, from a transport perspective and from a walkability perspective. All the things we want to see in good communities that we thought would make you want to live there.

“They also had to have maintenance plans in place to make sure trees would survive, and that there was enough deep soil for them to have significant growth. That way, we get established tree canopies. [Trees and plants are] not just popped in for the display suite and, in 12 months time, they’re dead.”

Flow-on benefits for industry

The D&P SEPP would have also benefited many areas of the construction and building industry.  According to a cost-benefit analysis by Deloitte Access Economics, the policy will deliver $979 million in net benefits over 30 years, with $1.42 of benefits for every dollar of cost.

John Brockhoff, national policy director at the Planning Institute Australia, told The Fifth Estate that benefits in amenity, and avoided costs in terms of climate risks, would’ve outweighed the short-term costs of adjusting to the new planning rules.

“The social licence to operate as an industry in a changing climate is changing. We need to have better sustainability and more climate ready development,” he said.

“The benefits in amenity, the avoided cost in terms of climate risks, are going to outweigh the short term pain that the property sector has to go through in adjusting to this.”

Lack of consultation slammed

The lack of consultation around the minister’s decision to dump the D&P SEPP is being widely criticised by many in the broader construction and property industry.

“So much goodwill and expertise has gone in from the planning profession into trying to make the D&P SEPP as good as it can be,” Mr Brockhoff said.

“Having better design for urban heat, for flooding, for carbon mitigation is part of a licence to operate for the property sector. We can’t go forward with more supply unless these places and buildings are designed for a future climate. 

“All of the goodwill and expertise that the Planning Institute channelled through the engagement process with the Government Architect’s Office and with the state government was all to that end.”

The sentiment is shared by architects, who said the minister is only speaking to one part of the property industry.

“He is not speaking to us. We’re not invited into the conversation. He announced this at an Urban Taskforce lunch,” the Institute of the Australian Institute of Architects said.

“We’ve been trying to get him to attend an event on affordable housing, which was meant to be his priority. And the day that our comments hit the front page of the paper, he sent us a rejection letter.

“So he’s saying that he’s listened to the industry. But architects, landscape architects, planners, we’re part of the industry too. We have knowledge and information to offer. We would be very, very happy to sit down and talk to him about this.”

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  1. the only industry he’s listened to are the developers who ‘donate’ $100K to the Liberal Party, and the focus groups who might have said first home buyers in Western Sydney want more affordable houses – in other words, whatever it will take to get the Libs re-elected.