by Greg Volz
“We spent years and years fighting it,” says Colin Spencer. “But it just felt like bureaucracy telling us what they were going to do.” Colin is reflecting on his time as Chairman of the ‘Save Mona Vale Hospital’ Community Group, one of many battles over land development he has fought over many years. It’s a battle that is playing out across the state, every day. At its heart, land development is about future choices. And it’s an important issue because the way the decisions around these choices are made is about to change, in a very big way.
The NSW Planning System has seen better days. Even the Government department charged with running it agrees. “The system is complex and complicated,” said Sam Habib, NSW Planning Department Director General, recently. “We added a lot of layers to the Planning Act since the 1970s,” he said. “It has grown and it is very prescriptive.”
But it’s not just the rules that make it tough. Scandals involving questionable payments from developers to officials have also hurt.
“We were told, repeatedly, during community consultation meetings that the public has lost confidence with the planning system,” according to former State ministers Tim Moore and Ron Dyer, who in 2011 were commissioned by the then new NSW State Planning Minister Brad Hazard, to review the system. Their findings ran to two volumes and nearly 300 pages and helped inform a Government Green Paper, A New Planning System for NSW, released in July this year.
The 90-page Green Paper is a framework for a new Act and planning system. The detail will come later in the year, with a Government White Paper and draft legislation. The Green paper deals with big picture issues, like economic development, sustainability and quality of life. Some of the proposals are just common sense. Like linking strategic decisions about land with transport and infrastructure decisions, so we don’t end up witha new housing area with no buses or trains.Or bringing transparency back by making decisions “evidence based”.
However, a proposal to increase upfront strategic planning as a way to speed up development approvals has created a big stir. Zoe Baker, Deputy Mayor of North Sydney wrote recently that she was worried the proposal would kill off the right to object to local developments because they were already in the “strategic plan.”
She described this proposal as “taking this state back to the 1960s”, in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald. It appeared to place the state in “the hands of a small band of developers”, she wrote.
Others worry that power of municipal councils to decide development applications might be weakened. “We would be concerned that the decisions would be made in Macquarie Street rather than at council,” said Kyle Hill, President of the Newport Resident’s Association.
On the other side of the debate, practitioner groups like the NSW Planning Institute and NSW Institute of Architects, like what they have read.“A lot of our ideas have come through in the Green Paper which we are really pleased about,” says Sarah Hill, NSW President of the Planning Institute. Of the controversy, she says “the Green Paper talks to a development envelope.If the community agrees to that development envelope, it gives the developer certainty and it gives the developer the ability to get on with it and that’s important for driving our economy”.
Matthew Pullinger, President of the NSW Chapter of the Institute of Architects, has been impressed with the way the paper has come together. “I think it has been an exemplary approach,” he says. “At a political level this incoming government made it pretty clear this was one of the things they intended to do. It was a fairly bi-partisan, one from each side of politics and they did an extraordinary amount of consultation.”
Indeed, reading the Green Paper, you notice that that word consultation pops up often. The paper stresses that community consultation will be critical in shaping strategic plans; while at the same time suggesting it is removed from the process of approving many individual developments. The NSW Planning Department itself is getting into the swing of community consultation, with sessions to obtain feedback on the proposals being held across the state since July. “It’s really important, in its own right that the Green Paper tries to practice what it preaches,” says Sarah Hill.
“There’s a lot of positive support for a lot of the initiatives in the Green Paper, particularly from the practitioners,” says Marcus Ray, an Executive Director of the NSW Planning Department. “However, obviously everyone wants to see more detail, which is fair enough.”
And that’s one thing that worries Sarah Hill.
“There is an enormous step going from a Green Paper to a White Paper. We are all aware that the devil is in the detail with planning,” she says. “We try and keep it simple and that’s what a new planning system should be about. But there will need to be a lot of testing to see whether a lot of the ideas in the Green Paper can co-exist in a planning system.”
What else should we worry about? Well, according to Marcus Ray, the biggest issue emerging from the discussions with the public is resourcing. “It’s a time consuming and expensive exercise to do both strategic planning and also get the community involved. I think that’s the major issue.”
Architect Matthew Pullinger goes further. He paints a grim picture if the ambition of the paper is not matched by the funding to make it happen. He describes a situation where the development application approval processes are deregulated but no money is put into getting strategic plans in place up front.
And if that happens? “That would be an appalling outcome,” he says.
So, people like Colin Spencer will watch and wait. In the meantime, Mona Vale Hospital has just opened a new maternity ward, even though Colin believes it’s long term future is unclear. One suspects that, new planning system or not, people like Colin Spencer will not be giving up the fight easily.