Escape from Sydney: planning the way out of congestion

Building away from our cities could ease congestion in urban areas. AAP

Bashing planning has become a national sport, and in NSW, we’re the best at it. Stuck in traffic? Blame the planners. Housing stress? Planners are too slow and too stingy with land release.

In the perception stakes, NSW planning needs a major makeover, and we’re getting one.

The new government has promised to fix things, with planning reform on the immediate agenda. We’re in for a new planning act and the infamous Part 3A laws – where developers wrote their own environmental assessments, invariably for Ministerial sign off - are toast.

In seeking inspiration for a new planning regime, the Productivity Commission’s latest report is required reading.

Commissioned by COAG, the Productivity Commission has “benchmarked” the performance of State and Territorial planning, zoning, and development assessment systems.

So how does NSW perform?

It’s no surprise that Sydney is still the most unaffordable housing market. But price increases have slowed here, while other capital cities continue to worsen.

In terms of the “housing supply gap”, measured as the difference between household growth and new housing development, we score a respectable fourth. NSW beats Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Yes, there’s room to improve, but we’re not out of the race.

Indeed, in terms of time to get land to market, we’re roughly equal to the other States with the exception of Victoria.

Believe it or not, according to the Productivity Commission, median development assessment approval times are shorter in NSW than in Victoria and Queensland.

In planning system “barriers” to competition NSW scores respectable middle of the road results. Why then, the perception that the NSW planning system is so bad?

Putting aside the scandals, the rather boring reality is that the planning laws in NSW are complicated and some of the processes inconsistent and redundant.

The former government worked very hard to fix this – and successes are beginning to show - the Housing Code, for example, now offers faster, simpler approvals for basic houses and home renovations.

But it’s a mistake to think that procedural changes represent spatial strategy, or that simplification, standardisation and speed, are all it takes to correct fundamental problems such as housing market imbalance.

The Productivity Commission report is only the latest in a long list of government inquiries and reports, at State and National level, focusing on planning system deficiency, red tape, and the need for regulatory reform.

De-regulation is already de-rigueur in Australian planning and NSW, like the other States and Territories, has undertaken heroic reforms over the past decade – all intended to relieve planning system burdens.

Yet this reform period has actually coincided with a significant slowing of housing production in all jurisdictions bar South Australia, according to the National Housing Supply Council.

It seems likely that planning system changes can exacerbate problems, as the system slows to accommodate new procedures, or as important checks and barriers are discarded, leading to problems down the track.

Regulatory planning is an important tool within an urban governance framework but an obsession with it provides a handy distraction from the real issues.

Issues like the need to establish new strategies for infrastructure provision in an era of climate change and peak oil; or that more residential land on the city fringe simply won’t solve what has become a structural crisis in housing affordability for low and moderate income earners.

That’s why it’s refreshing to hear the incoming NSW government talking about more than procedural reform.

Also on the agenda is addressing the major infrastructure deficit across urban and regional areas of the State, through a new infrastructure agency.

But while serious commitment to infrastructure – particularly public transport – is crucial – it is important to get the spatial planning strategy right first. Particularly so if the goal is to rekindle the grand planning idea of decentralisation – supporting regional and rural areas to grow and flourish as real alternatives to the major population centres.

This is a real opportunity to overcome many of Sydney’s problems stemming from unsustainable patterns of growth, and to better utilise existing resources and talent in the regions.

The time is right to capitalise on the small but steady movement of downshifters and sea changers to attractive coastal and inland communities.

Victoria and, to a lesser extent, Queensland have done this second wave of regional development well – promoting diverse and restorative local economic growth in the process. They’ve shown too, that ongoing success depends on using planned infrastructure investment to support, rather than define, the new landscapes of opportunity.

Strong State-led strategic spatial planning, challenging the centrifugal force of metropolitan Sydney while actively considering the wider regional and rural dynamic, represents the only long term solution to growing urban discontent.

In this context, a new planning law for NSW should be an important symbol within a wider scenery of change and renewal.

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