New sustainable planning policies are being repealed in NSW, which benefits developers and scraps restrictions on building in vulnerable places such as flood plains. By Elizabeth Farrelly.

NSW scraps flood laws to benefit developers

An aerial view of high-rise developments in Breakfast Point, Sydney.
An aerial view of high-rise developments in Breakfast Point, Sydney.
Credit: Steve Christo – Corbis / Getty Images

We’re moving not just into the Anthropocene but into the Urbocene – the era of city dominance. With so many of us now living as urban creatures, city-making is a question not only of economics and delight but of survival. Australia, heavily urbanised as we are, is a leader in this regard. More than 80 per cent of Australians live in cities, compared with about 55 per cent globally. Will our leadership be for better? Or for worse?

Australian cities, like others around the world, stand at a crossroads. Facing us are oppositional ogres of climate and pandemic. Our choice is clear. We can let our pandemic-generated terror lock us back into our cars, McMansions and solipsistic sprawl, in a way that would only worsen climate change, or we can be bold and inventive, sustaining and enhancing the proximity that is the essence of city life in ways that are enjoyable, equitable, prosperous and climate-friendly. This, surely, is the single most critical, bleeping-red job of planning.

And yet every time our governments look as if they might do some of that they get frightened – or nobbled – and back feebly away into the open arms of the developers. The latest slew of acts, tracts, reports and repealments tells just such a story.

Most recently, at a lunch hosted by development lobby group the Urban Taskforce on April 5, New South Wales Planning Minister Anthony Roberts revoked the newly minted Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy (DP SEPP), which had been intended to foreground “sustainability, resilience and quality of place”. The SEPP, brainchild of previous minister Rob Stokes, collected urban design, apartment design, infrastructure and BASIX guidelines into a single overarching strategy. It was intended to combat urban heat, increase tree canopy, enhance walkability and mandate pale roofs.

The SEPP rescission followed an even more scandalous one, just two weeks earlier. Then, at the height of the flood crisis, as people clung like sodden fieldmice on their slippery, flood-bound rooftops, Roberts unilaterally scrapped Stokes’s ministerial directive on nine sustainability principles designed to enhance the state’s climate resilience.

These measures – which would, inter alia, limit our rapacious tendency to build on flood plains – had been in effect a mere matter of days. True, they were 20 years late. And true, they would not have helped people marooned on uninsurable roofs in Lismore. Properly applied, however, they would at least have stopped more Lismores being built.

In both instances the development lobby was cock-a-hoop. The Urban Taskforce of Australia, the Property Council of Australia and the Urban Development Institute of Australia had all been fiercely critical of the sustainability push enshrined in the two documents. Now, to their delight, the state government had listened. The summary rescissions derived directly from the development industry’s relentless push for faster approvals, looser controls and cheaper construction.

At the same time, bookended by these two controversial repealments, a pair of potentially far more influential planning bills slipped quietly through NSW Parliament on the same day. One was the Greater Sydney Parklands Trust Bill 2022, which gathers all of Sydney’s major parklands (Centennial Park and Moore Park, Callan Park, Parramatta Park, Fernhill Estate and Western Sydney Parklands) beneath a single administrative umbrella; the other was the still more surreptitious Greater Cities Commission Bill 2022, which expands the Three Cities model current under the Greater Sydney Commission Act (2015) to six cities, covering the entire “sandstone mega-region” from Newcastle to Wollongong.

Both bills look like – and could become – good opportunities for some much-needed large-scale, long-term strategic planning of the kind that has almost never happened in Sydney. In apparent contradiction to the neoliberal deregulation that drove the two repealments, these bills both gather and centralise power. There is, though, a common thread – not neoliberalism but old-school cronyism, enabling commercial exploitation of the environment to benefit the few.

The Greater Sydney Parklands Trust Bill, for example, will enable leases of 99 years, a move seen by many as a specific enabler of Gerry Harvey’s longstanding Carsingha unsolicited bid to invest $1 billion and build up to 20 storeys on the so-called Entertainment Quarter, or the old Showgrounds, once part of Centennial Park. As Alex Greenwich said, after his bid to limit the lease-term to 50 years was reversed in the upper house, this “essentially permits freehold ownership of public land [and] was done to facilitate the selloff of the former Showgrounds land for commercial profit”.

As to the “six cities” model: in the hands of a decent government this should be a good thing. Strategic planning in any real sense has always been one of Sydney’s glaring lacks. But good law should not depend on good people to apply it. Signs are that this government will merely use “planning” to cloak the parcelling out of windfall gains to developers like sweets to greedy toddlers.

I’d love to be wrong about this. I’d be delighted to discover even a sliver of authenticity amid the rhetoric. But consider the evidence. In 10 years, our market-obsessed neoliberal governments have accelerated rezonings, accelerated approvals, fostered land-clearing and expanded complying development. Covid-19, which should have tipped Sydney towards full-on community engagement, simply became a pretext for further rapacity guised as “development-led recovery”.

Consider, too, the wordage. The language in which this latest tranche of enactments and rescissions is wrapped is all very hydraulic. All flow and squeezing, pipeline and supply, as if housing were some kind of liquid fuel we could suck from the ground and burn with impunity.

The ministerial directive summarily revoked by Roberts last month wasn’t just about flood. It would also have limited developers’ ability to build in places of extreme vulnerability to bushfire, earthquake, landslide, coastal erosion and tsunami. The government’s own figures show disasters such as these cost NSW $3.6 billion every year, so avoiding them is mere common sense. It’s what planning is for. But no: they’re gone.

Scrapped along with that principle were a further eight. These included: developing a competitive and resilient economy; delivering well-designed places that enhance the environment, the economy and quality of life; gradually transitioning to renewables; providing well-designed transport integrated with land use; and ensuring a supply of safe, diverse and affordable housing.

Roberts justified his rescission of these nine principles as exigency – a need to focus on “delivering a pipeline of housing supply”. A spokesperson, echoing the phraseology, cited instruction from Premier Dominic Perrottet “to deliver a pipeline of new housing supply”.

This is designed to sound efficient, plausible and public spirited. We all need somewhere to live and, after climate change, housing affordability is the No.  1 issue. The background to the new Greater Cities Commission Bill makes precisely this argument, that the mega-region (Sydney east, central, Sydney west, the Hunter, the Central Coast and the Illawarra–Shoalhaven) is expected to double in population from five to 10 million in 40 years. This is certainly something we should plan for. But how should it be done? And to whose benefit?

The danger of the primitive “supply” argument is that it neatly casts developers as the good guys, striving only to deliver homes for the people. All government needs to do, according to this argument, is take off the brakes – remove red and green tape – and everything will be hunky dory.

Unsurprisingly, developers agree. The Urban Taskforce commissioned a study whose name, “Standing Tall”, says it all. The findings seem to show that high-density and high-rise (about 58 storeys) is the best model in terms of land efficiency, embodied carbon and operational carbon emissions.

But is this the reality? With the built environment generating some 40 per cent of carbon emissions, the form and efficiency of it is critical. Conclusions are diverse. A recent paper from researchers at University of Colorado Boulder and Edinburgh Napier University, for example, contradicts the developer-beloved nostrum that high-rise is necessary to combat sprawl. Instead, it finds that “high-density, low-rise environments such as those found in Paris are the optimal urban form when looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over their whole-life cycle” because they optimise population levels without the concomitant rise in greenhouse emissions.

So thoroughly do developers see themselves as colonising the moral high ground here they even advocate a public subsidy for apartment towers, to generate “a pipeline for this more affordable and sustainable housing type”.

In truth, there is no evidence that increasing the supply of apartments by itself reduces cost. Indeed, over the years of the current residential building boom – the biggest ever in this country – prices have continued to skyrocket. This is because the market is not finite. If we were limited to one dwelling each, sure; but the current combination of low interest rates, no travel and negative gearing incentivises investors, meaning the market is essentially limitless.

The developer lobby groups are hugely supportive of a parliamentary committee inquiry into housing supply chaired by Liberal MP Jason Falinski. The Falinski report, which did not distinguish between high-density and high-rise, argued for less regulation and sustaining negative gearing as is. Of course, what is never revealed is just how many of the pro-negative gearing individuals – including politicians – own investment apartments. It seems a rather glaring conflict of interest.

Planning good cities is not that difficult. Sydney especially has such good bones – not just in its natural gifts but also in its city of villages DNA – that it should be a natural for a 30-year plan that takes us to zero carbon, full renewables, intense community engagement and tight, dense, exciting, walkable village centres linked by clean, fast and silent public transport.

It’s a survival issue, with disaster one side and delight the other. Is that a difficult decision?

This piece was updated on April 21, 2022, to note that the Falinski report was from a parliamentary inquiry and not the Productivity Commission.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "This is not a pipeline".

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Elizabeth Farrelly is a writer, critic and academic. Her latest book is Killing Sydney: The Fight for a City’s Soul.

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