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Brakes taken off NSW development approvals

Urban Taskforce, is calling for a ‘Great Leap Forward’ in construction projects during Covid-19 lockdown, but will fast-tracking bypass normal vetting procedures? Photo: Skitterphoto/Pexels

Opinion by MERRILL WITT

A great leap forward?
If you know a little about the history of China, you may have been bemused to read that Tom Forrest, the new CEO of Urban Taskforce, described the recently announced planning system reforms as “a great leap forward for jobs, housing supply and the NSW economy.”

As you may recall, a “Great Leap Forward” was the infamous moniker for Chairman Mao Zedong’s ambitious suite of ill-conceived economic and social policies designed to transform Chinese society.

Today, the horrendous five-year plan is primarily remembered for its ideological purity and hasty implementation – two perilous attributes that contributed to the horrific loss of 20 million lives from starvation between 1959 and 1962.

Forrest’s unfortunate turn of phrase as well as his remark that “we have been calling for a fast-track system for assessments of big projects for six months,” should serve to remind the public of the potential pitfalls of approval processes that place too much emphasis on simplicity, speed and certainty for developers at the expense of a thorough cost/benefit analysis and strong community buy-in.

Economic Imperative to be “overwhelming objective”
But if Urban Taskforce’s press release isn’t enough to set the alarm bells ringing, Forrest’s follow-up article on 8 April in Sourceable is confirmation that his demand for a hasty implementation of a fast-track approval process for development proposals has in fact been united with a truly frightening, communist party level of ideological purity.

Forrest is now advocating for the reinterpretation of the “public interest imperative” test in the state’s governing planning legislation, the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, (EP&A Act), so that “the economic imperative” is clearly spelled out as “the overwhelming objective.”

In fact, he actually believes that the original intent of the public interest imperative was the “broader benefit to the community derived from investment, employment and housing for the growing population of Sydney and NSW.” He sees a pattern in recent years where this original intent has been subverted by “NIMBYs who were given a veto over jobs and growth.”

Councils are too focused on community benefits
This trend, according to Forrest, made government planning bodies and councils worry about little things like “over-shadowing” and “the need for developer funded infrastructure including green spaces, road upgrades, bicycle paths and community facilities.” It was as if, he said, that everyone had forgotten that “no construction means no community benefits.”

Further, community and council objectives, he said, “have been reinforced by the ‘independent’ Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) and its “drive for a comprehensive suite of strategic planning documents (District Plans, Regional Plans, Local Strategic Plans and new Local Environment Plans).”

In his opinion, forcing councils to do some forward thinking about what is in the best long-term interests of their communities has given them a “mandate to slow their assessment processes down and wait for these strategic documents to be completed.”

Fortunately, Urban Taskforce predicted “this looming problem” and “sure enough” he said, “the ABS reported this month that new housing development approvals (all types of housing) have fallen to their lowest level since 2012.” (Ah, let’s not worry that these figures may have been impacted by a little thing like the coronavirus pandemic!)

Treasury called for a list of projects stuck in the system
If you’re beginning to think that no-one sensible in Government would actually take onboard Urban Taskforce’s outrageous demand to essentially get rid of the planning system, think again!

Forrest acknowledges that “NSW Treasury has been the agency driving planning reform in NSW.” He says that “it was Treasury’s review of the NSW planning system that revealed its deleterious impact on the NSW economy, showing the NSW system to be the slowest in dealing with developer applications (DAs) in all categories, across the nation.”

Alarmingly, he also acknowledges that “it was Treasury that called on Urban Taskforce to provide “a list of projects that were stuck in the planning system and could generate employment and investment if they were freed up.”

And don’t think for a minute that Treasury was only referring to projects that had been properly vetted and were just being held up by small technicalities or a slowdown in final sign-offs as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.

The 76 proposals Urban Taskforce submitted to Treasury, according to Forrest, “range from immediately shovel-ready projects simply waiting on hoarding approvals from RMS or Parramatta Light Rail, to projects which have been frustrated by the Government’s on-again, off-again approach to significant transport corridor development (Crows-Nest to South St Leonards, Sydenham to Bankstown, Parramatta Road) and the tools-down approach to applications for the rezoning of land everywhere from Wilton to Pittwater; from Sutherland to the Hunter Valley.”

Nothing on any developer’s ‘wish list’ looks like it has been left off this list!

Fast-track approval system now in place
Fortunately for Treasury and Urban Taskforce, the Department of Planning has now well and truly come to their rescue.

Forrest seems relieved that the Minister for Planning and Public Spaces, Rob Stokes, has finally abandoned what Forrest believes was “a genuine commitment to community consultation and participation in planning decision making”, but unfortunately stalled development approvals by giving councils yet another reason “to slow their assessment processes down” and wait for their “strategic documents to be completed.”

Here’s just a partial list of the planning reforms that the Planning Minister has set in motion – changes which the Greens spokesperson on Planning and Heritage, Jamie Parker MP, says give “the Minister unfettered power over what gets approved in NSW.”:

* Fast-track assessments of State Significant Developments, re-zonings and development applications (DAs), with more decisions to be made by the Minister if required
* Support councils and planning panels to fast-track local and regionally significant DAs
* Introduce a ‘one-stop-shop’ for industry to progress projects that may be ‘stuck in the system’
* Clear the current backlog of cases stuck in the Land & Environment Court with additional Acting Commissioners.

COVID-19 crisis likely to weaken immediate public outcry
The Government must be breathing a sigh of relief that the already development fatigued and no doubt now very angry residents of NSW are in lockdown.

The Better Planning Network (BPN) Facebook page, for example, has seen record engagements (ie, hundreds of thousands of views and thousands of shares) to posts about the sweeping planning changes. If possible, massive street protests would likely have already been organised.

Only time will tell whether the fast-tracking of development approvals for some of the state’s biggest projects and rezoning proposals won’t have unforeseen and potentially disastrous consequences.

But if history provides any guidance, this Government’s past pattern of facilitating overdevelopment doesn’t bode well for our state’s future. Even the lucky few who get a short-term contract job out of the anticipated development onslaught will probably come home to a high-rise apartment dwelling that soon faces a brick wall!

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