Five big challenges for the Planning White Paper – Challenge #4

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.

4. Code Assessment – all targets, no limits? The biggest change in the White Paper’s approach to development assessment is to introduce ‘code assessment’ as the new, and predominant, assessment track. Code assessment would transform community consultation on neighbourhood development across a range of residential, commercial and industrial projects, by requiring standards to be set upfront in the Local Plan (in part through community consultation), and removing site-by-site consultation. Projects that comply with a Code would have to be approved by local councils, within 25 days. The White Paper sets a mandatory target of 80% code assessed development (or smaller-scale exempt and complying) within 5 years. Under-performing council standards would be replaced with departmental guides.

It is a high-stakes proposal from a community engagement perspective – and it’s safe to say the wider public are not really in a position to know much about code assessment at this formative stage. No one wants a system where – say, two years from now – there is just as much angst about neighbouring development, but far less the community can say about it. There needs to be greater community understanding and input about codes (and their limits) before setting ambitious targets.

There is no doubt that code assessment could deliver faster approvals for developers – but the quid pro quo should be a commitment to high-quality building design and nation-leading sustainability requirements. Unfortunately, while the White Paper has a chapter on building design and certification, there is no commitment to update or expand the BASIX building sustainability tool to provide for better water, energy and material efficiency across residential, commercial and industrial codes. Nor does the White Paper start from the premise of fast-tracking environmentally friendly development through code assessment.

All that being the case, the White Paper’s assumption that 80% of developments can be code-assessed without any significant or cumulative environmental impact is given no evidentiary basis. If code assessment proceeds, clear limits and safeguards will be very important. For example:

  • Codes should be excluded from all areas of high conservation value, environmental sensitivity and cultural heritage significance;
  • Codes will also need to deal with cumulative impact considerations (the combined impact of thousands of fast-tracked medium-scale developments) and deal with interfaces between built-up areas and more sensitive areas;
  • The Government also needs to rule out code assessment for State Significant Development.

On Friday, this week’s final EDO NSW planning post looks at what rights will apply once developments are approved – or refused. Will the reforms restore an equitable balance of community appeal rights against bad decisions, and maintain open rights to enforce the law? Or will the pendulum swing further towards developer appeal rights? We look at these questions, and conclude this blog series with five essential improvements needed for the 2013 planning reforms.

*Nari Sahukar is a Policy & Law Reform Solicitor at EDO NSW.