July 17, 2012
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
THE developer lobby group Urban Taskforce has been determinedly upbeat in greeting the O'Farrell government's new planning regime, released in the form of a green paper last week.
So has the NSW Minerals Council on behalf of the mining industry. As with all such spin, though, it pays to analyse what is being welcomed, and in what terms. And how things might go awry.
The green paper proposes a system that is strategic rather than incremental. That means the community will be consulted initially over a regional plan, but once the rules are set, developers and miners will be allowed to go ahead with projects which conform to the plan, largely free of the need for additional approval or consultation.
There are good reasons for the government to make this change. Under its predecessor, planning had become almost a parody of good policy, with the strong suspicion, from numerous scandals, that political donations could buy approval for contentious projects.
The legacy of that maladministration is abiding suspicion of the way any planning decision is made by any side of politics, antipathy towards all development - and a shortage of housing.
The O'Farrell government's reforms were motivated, too, by the present system's effect on areas such as Ku-ring-gai, where decisions were often taken out of the hands of the community, which had the effect of changing the suburb's character. The government might point, too, to the proposed Rozelle Village redevelopment of the Tigers rugby league club as an example of what not to do. And it has had to respond to the groundswell of opposition to mining projects in rural areas, which come under the same process.
The Coalition promised to return power over planning to councils and local communities. It can argue that the framework devised in its green paper has delivered that promise.
The Urban Taskforce commends the changes as bringing clarity and certainty. That is true for developers and miners, but less so for others. It is easy to see how residents of affected communities may think otherwise. Once an area plan is fixed, developers will know clearly and with certainty what they can and cannot do. Members of the public, meanwhile, will not have much idea what developers or miners have in mind for them until the plans are announced and the bulldozers move in. It will know only that change is coming, and that it is unavoidable.
The consequences of those once-and-for-all decisions may not match what even those who participated in them expected. To newcomers, who buy into an area without having taken part in forming its planning code, they may well be a complete surprise. It will be no consolation for either group to be told they took part in the process, or they should have done more research.
It is easily foreseeable that communities which are motivated and aware of the likely dangers will be active early to ensure plans restrict as far as possible future development which may change the character of their neighbourhood.
It is that possibility the Urban Taskforce wishes to address with its warning, reported in the Herald yesterday, about the dangers of the nimby (not in my backyard) syndrome. Yet NSW does need a new planning system, one which is transparent and accommodates the need for development as well as the views of communities.
The arrangements proposed by the Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, will not operate without controversy. What planning system ever did? But they strike a reasonable balance in a difficult area.
They will, however, require greater awareness and involvement from communities if they are to gain acceptance. That is no bad thing - but it means this government will have to get out and sell its new planning regime. And keep on selling it as its consequences start to become apparent.