Widespread community opposition has so far derailed efforts to make radical changes to planning laws in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, but this has not deterred Queensland’s government from recently announcing its intention to try to push through similar reforms. The moves are designed to fast-track the planning process for developers and reduce what is known as “planning risk” – costly delays to building schedules that result from public protests over development applications. The idea is to engage the community in providing feedback at an early strategic stage of planning, and then remove the community’s right to protest against individual projects. But are the changes what developers want?

What developers want

1. More community involvement in broad planning policy, and less ability to object to projects provided they comply with the agreed-to codes.

Developers are seen as the “winners” in the proposed changes to planning laws, but those in favour of the changes say the new process will cut the cost of construction and make housing more affordable, which is good news for the community. The objection process has led to increasingly long and unpredictable periods of conflict between the community and developers at a time when housing affordability is a major political and social issue. The problem with engaging the community in early consultations is an obvious one: people tend not to concern themselves with planning and development until it impacts them directly, says Dr David Nichols, from Melbourne University’s Architecture, Building and Planning department. It’s understandable, he says: “How many things can you be an expert on?” But Australia cannot achieve better-planned cities and more affordable housing without changes to the planning laws, says Glenn Byres, the chief executive of the NSW Property Council, a chapter of the national lobby group representing the views of developers. It’s not a question of if a change is needed, but when changes are made. Project-by-project consultation heightens planning risk and drives up costs that developers pass on to home-buyers.

2. Governments to take the lead in engaging the community in planning issues such as density, housing affordability, public transport, traffic and environmental sustainability.

Difficult as it may be, it’s up to governments to engage the public on planning issues, Byers says. “There does need to be a more meaningful and proper effort to engage the public,” he says. He advocates using more modern approaches to technology such as “citizen panels” and online visualisation tools to engage in strategic planning “with a depth and purpose we haven’t seen before”. The cost of engaging the community in consultation and debating the issue of affordable housing, density, traffic, economic and sustainable development rightly belongs to governments, not developers, Byres says. Governments stand to benefit, Nichols adds. “The inability to commit to proper planning policy spells the end of many state governments and yet they seem not to take this into account,” he says. “It’s an unpleasant fact that you need a lot of consultation, and to be ready to offer advice and have a dialogue, but everyone needs to be informed and willing to take an imaginative leap.”

3. A more “joined-up” planning process in which local, state and Commonwealth planning policy is aligned, along with the concerns of environmental and infrastructure departments.

The increasing density of our cities is still a contentious issue for communities, but one that more people are willing to embrace, says Frank Marra, the CEO of LandCorp, which develops residential and other projects on behalf of the Western Australian government. “There is much greater acceptance of density, but it not for density’s sake,” Marra says. “It is the lifestyle choices that density can provide – the transport and amenities.”

What developers want is a “joined-up” planning process, Marra says. “I think the utopia for developers is to have a completely joined-up planning framework that is well communicated and aligned at all levels: local and state, infrastructure authorities and the Commonwealth level,” he says. “The planning framework has to consider all the opportunities and constraints and decide how an area should expand. The developers can apply their creativity to each project.” However, Marra adds, it is up to planners and policymakers to win the hearts and minds of the community. “On the ‘heart’ level, there is a community aspiration and if planning and policy occur in the absence of that, there is a backlash. The other part is around the ‘head’, and developers need to find a way to implement an on-the-ground a planning scheme that meets a market reality. When you have a meeting of the heart and the head, the community and the market, you really have great outcomes.”

4. Less political intervention in planning policy and fewer ‘kneejerk’ planning decisions, even if they are in favour of developers.

For developers, no fear is worse than when politics gets in the way of projects, says Ben Artup, the manager of industry and investment at the Penrith Business Alliance, a company funded by the Penrith council to attract investment and jobs to the western Sydney suburb. “Developers want certainty, but they want to avoid politics becoming involved,” Artup says. “They want to avoid that at all costs.” While the changes underway in NSW, the ACT and Queensland are designed to provide that certainty, Artup fears they may have the unexpected and undesirable effect of politicising development projects – even those that comply with agreed planning frameworks and codes. “Very vocal community groups can get to politicians,” he says. Political interference, even when the outcome favours developers, is not widely welcomed by developers because it reduces certainty.

5. More communication and transparency from local councils about the potential issues developers might face and a focus on solutions.

David Ruston, a planner with a commercial and industrial property developer, CIP, says transparency and communication is the key to better planning outcomes and faster development. “Some councils are good at it,” he says. “They are happy to sit down [with developers] and have a discussion about the issues, communicate what the issues are and work towards solutions. “Others say we will think about it when we come to it, and then things come up and the goalposts move.”

6. Thought given to solving the problems involved in the proposed planning law changes.

Ruston sees potential problems with bringing community consultation into the process early, rather than on a project basis. “Residential communities are transient,” he says. The idea of early community involvement is “a noble gesture” but it is often difficult to see the implications of planning at the beginning, Ruston points out.

7. Governments to establish and stick to long-term planning frameworks.

Western Australia has a comprehensive planning strategy for the state, with a scheme for major cities and regions, including Perth, and then a forward-planning document called Directions 2031 and Beyond. But the fate of such documents is patchy, and one of the reasons for community cynicism. For example, in Victoria, after years of consultation and research to develop a long-term planning policy, called Melbourne 2030, a change of government resulted in a new policy document be prepared: Plan Melbourne. Change is needed, however, the level of opposition to the proposed changes suggests that Marra’s advice on winning the community’s hearts and minds is a long way off. The NSW government engaged in two years of public consultation but has met with an unrelenting storm of protest against its proposed changes. The new laws failed to get through the Senate when Labor, the Greens and the Shooters and Fishers Party combined to propose an amendment and the government withdrew its bill.

Case study: Mandurah Junction

The development of Mandurah Junction, a parcel of land adjacent to a commuter train station, illustrates a pretty good example of planning working well, LandCorp’s CEO, Frank Marra, suggests. The state government wanted density and the local government wanted a mixed-use development. The Commonwealth government’s national rental affordability scheme – designed to improve housing affordability – helped reduce the cost of the project. The only “hiccup” came with the Department of Environment and Conservation. “There was a view that there was an environmental issue we had to address that delayed the project for over a year. We were disappointed but we worked through that,” says Marra.

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