Throughout this week (from Monday 20 May), EDO NSW looks at five major changes of the NSW Government’s New Planning System – White Paper. Changes that – as currently proposed – could undermine the Government’s efforts to restore accountability and public trust in the State planning system. In highlighting these issues, EDO NSW also seeks out solutions to give NSW residents, businesses and the environment a positive and sustainable future. So we’ll conclude this series with five essential improvements needed for the NSW planning reforms.
3. Strategic Planning Principles – locking in an imbalanced approach?
EDO NSW supportsa comprehensive strategic planning framework set out in legislation. The White Paper and Planning Bill set out 10 strategic planning principles to guide a cascading series of state, regional, subregional and local plans. Several principles deal with appropriate governance measures, including community participation, accessibility and evidence-based planning. Other principles have a clear economic focus.
Critically, none of these principles deal with improving or maintaining environmental outcomes, assessing cumulative impacts (of multiple projects and environmental pressures) or preparing for climate change. This is despite recommendations from the Government’s independent planning review panel to include these factors. A recent Productivity Commission report also noted that ‘a range of instruments could be used to manage climate change risks in land-use planning.’ The Commission encourages a ‘risk management approach’ and ‘transparent and rigorous community consultation processes’ to get there. Despite the White Paper’s commitment to evidence-based planning, the Planning Bill remains silent on climate change and cumulative impact assessment.
Turning to the strategic plans themselves, the challenge for state and local governments will be to meaningfully engage communities on multiple levels, without overwhelming them. There is also a broader concern that, applying the principles above, the various Plans will prioritise economic targets without sufficient integration of social and environmental values. We address each level briefly below.
High level NSW Planning Policies will set critical standards on key issues that must be followed by lower-level strategic plans. However, they will not be subject to parliamentary or judicial oversight. Also, if these Policies do not adequately protect the environment and foster social outcomes, subsequent plans will be ‘locked in’ to growth-focused policies, rather than an integrated approach to ecologically sustainable development (ESD).
Similarly, we believe Regional Growth Plans should require balanced and ecologically sustainable development that promotes community wellbeing. The draft legislation gives authorities broad discretion on whether or not to incorporate environmental aims and targets, including native vegetation targets, biodiversity strategies and pollution limits. With significant time having been invested by agency resources and the community in developing environmental strategies and targets, we must ensure they are embedded in the planning system if we are serious about the idea of ‘evidence based, whole of government’ strategic planning.
Subregional Delivery Plans should build in urban sustainability, climate change responses, and a triple bottom line focus. Subregional Planning Boards should be required to exercise their functions to achieve ESD, as the new overarching planning objective.
Given the propopsed ‘line of sight’ through levels of strategic plans, the system needs to minimise the risk of top-down determinism in Local Plans – where local preferences could be shoe‑horned into pre-set State priorities. Also, the White Paper’s new approach to zoning (fewer, broader zones) and development guides requires further practical explanation and analysis. Any zoning system must ensure sensitive environmental and heritage areas are protected, particularly in translating existing protections under Local Environmental Plans.
Finally, communities may be sceptical of a strategic planning process that calls for upfront engagement and certainty on their part, while providing additional developer rights at the local level – to vary, ‘spot-rezone’ and appeal, or seek ‘strategic compatibility certificates’ to leapfrog the local planning phase. A more equitable approach would restore public trust.
On Thursday we turn from strategic planning to individual project assessment. How will the NSW Government achieve its bold vision for 80% of development approvals through code-based criteria, instead of giving the neighbours a say? Will the community and environment be at the centre or the periphery, and what safeguards will apply?
*Nari Sahukar is a Policy & Law Reform Solicitor at EDO NSW.