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Under review: rival visions for people and communities

Facing tough questions: NSW’s planning review must grapple with competing visions of development. Flickr/Askew One

Later this year Brad Hazzard, NSW Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, faces a difficult decision. Will he prepare new state planning legislation that prioritises a desired outcome: healthy, functional communities? Or will his new legislation emphasise the planning process and make development easier?

Soon after being appointed Minister in 2011, Hazzard initiated a review of the NSW land use planning legislation, the 1979 Environmental Protection and Assessment Act. This was in response to a widely perceived loss of confidence in the planning system under the previous Labor government. Ron Dyer and Tim Moore, previous Labor and Liberal NSW ministers, were appointed to conduct the review. Initially Dyer and Moore identified the issues that people wanted changing or improving. They conducted over 120 consultations across the state with the public and stakeholders and received over 300 written submissions. In December 2011 they released for public comment a comprehensive issues paper that collated the information they had collected.

The issues paper reveals the vast range of matters raised and the considerable interest in planning in NSW relating to, for instance, new residential developments in greenfield locations on city fringes or the coast, redevelopment of inner city industrial land or housing estates, and extensions to the family home. More significantly, two radically different philosophical and practical approaches to land use planning emerged in the public’s and stakeholders’ submissions.

According to one view, the primary purpose of planning legislation is to facilitate the approval of building plans as quickly and cheaply as possible. This might be for the development of vacant land, be it large enough for one house or a thousand. Or it might be for the redevelopment of an existing home that the owner wants to make more desirable, whether for personal use or sale at a hoped-for profit. Any delays, requirements, restrictions and levies are seen as unnecessary limitations imposed by an inefficient, nanny-state bureaucracy that cannot respond appropriately to the needs of developers or the demand for more houses.

This view is commonly expressed on talk-back radio and in newspapers by frustrated home owner-developers and spokespeople for corporate developers: “It’s my land, why can’t I do what I want with it?”; “The private sector must do what the government can’t,” are their catchcries.

An alternative, more ambitious view that emerges from some of the contributions to the issues paper is that the main purpose of planning legislation is to ensure that the built environment plays its part in creating and maintaining a functional, harmonious, and environmentally sustainable society.

According to this view, the planning system’s prime role is to contribute to the short and long-term well being of people and society. It is not simply about putting bricks and mortar together as quickly and profitably as possible with little thought for the consequences for adjoining properties, the local community, or society at large. Proponents of this social approach to land-use planning stressed four aspects of the built environment that should be incorporated in the goals of the new legislation.

What is the thinking behind the bulldozers: developers’ profits or thoughtfully laid out communities? AAP/Dave Hunt

Planning for healthy, low-carbon, livable, and democratic communities

First, they highlighted the contribution that the built environment makes to people’s health by ensuring, for instance: opportunities for physical activity through daily walking and cycling, vigorous exercise and organised sport; the availability of affordable, fresh, nutritious food; and opportunities for people to interact and form relationships with others.

Second, they emphasised the completely unsustainable carbon footprint of Australian cities and towns, and the pressing need to ensure that all new developments are environmentally sustainable through, for instance, low energy consumption, renewable energy sources, reduced waste production, lower water consumption and preservation of biodiversity. Fortunately in this regard, ways of designing towns and cities that are good for people’s health are nearly always good for the environment. Reduced car dependence is a great example – less urban sprawl, more use of public transport, and more walking and cycling to everyday destinations such as work, school and shops all have many advantages for personal health and the environment.

Third, the planning-for-society advocates reminded the reviewers that while the community needs enough good housing for everyone, they also need ready access to schools, workplaces, shops, public spaces, health services, public transport, places of entertainment, libraries and community centres. Coordinated regional and local government planning are required to ensure that these services are provided. The I-can-do-what-I-want-on-my-land perspective ignores or expects others to take responsibility for organising and funding these community services.

Fourth, citizens are increasingly demanding healthy suburbs, environmental sustainability and civic infrastructure and the community wants and deserves a strong voice in the planning process and planning decisions. Not only the next door neighbour but anyone who is concerned about these big picture issues should be able to be involved. Governments, the private sector, and the community should all be active partners in shaping our built environments.

Dyer and Moore are now considering the 600 responses to the issues paper and preparing a Green Paper for release in April. This will outline the options they consider most worthy of consideration for the new legislation and the public will be invited to comment on these.

How will the reviewers deal with these two contrasting approaches to planning? Will they be short-sighted and propose simply to tinker with the existing legislation to make it more developer friendly? Or will they respond to the human and environmental needs of the 21st century and make the well-being of all members of society the principal goal of planning legislation - and see the fair and efficient processing of planning proposals simply as a means of achieving that goal?

Comments welcome below.

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