Planning review stalled in the Upper House for three months - what could possibly go wrong now?

Ooooooh, the developers aren’t happy now, are they.

In August 2012 depaNews we criticised the possibilities illustrated on page 57 of the Green Paper for letting developers file applications that fell well, well outside the boundaries of any planning instrument. Nearly everyone else in the world was doing similarly.

In June 2013 (effectively our White Paper submission) we argued that certainty for developers meant uncertainty for everyone else, as protection and checks and balances are removed. The only people who weren’t saying that were the developers and their lobby groups - clearly because they preferred to sit quietly and smugly for fear of revealing their excitement.

The risks of code assessment and the fundamentally hazardous planning system that the inappropriately named Brad Hazzard (and we were not fooled by the two zeds) was pressing was met with overwhelming community opposition - as well as from Local Government NSW and planners in the industry who understand that certainty for developers means trouble for everyone else.

The hazzardous Mr Hazzard wanted more than certainty. He wanted big developments to be considered primarily on narrowly-defined “economic benefit” and current arrangements about environmental sensitivity and sustainability to be jettisoned.

We want the old non-hazzardous Mr Hazzard back. All those wonderful quotes of his in October 1997 (which we produced in our June issue) attacking Craig Knowles and the Labor Government’s proposals to remove community consultation, the need for an ongoing say for neighbours on what should be built on their boundaries, “getting the planning right, such that our environment is protected” and his earnest belief, at the time, to establish that “the environment has to be an absolute priority”. He was good, we liked him.

But it’s a bit like Frank Sartor, who as Lord Mayor at Sydney City Council had scoffed at the folly of introducing private certification and how this compromised the quality of buildings, but then found himself the Minister for Planning, responsible for managing its accreditation and role. It’s hard to know what these people really believe.

Wouldn’t it be nice if politicians had principles that didn’t vary between Government and Opposition? Let’s not forget that John Howard as PM, if he hadn’t been knocked off by Kevin 07, would have introduced an emissions trading scheme and it would have now been operating for years. Now he agrees with Tony Abbott that climate change is crap.

But while the planning legislation easily found its way through the Legislative Assembly, it didn’t have an easy passage through the Legislative Council, the NSW Parliament’s Upper House.

A coalition of Labor, the Greens and the Shooters and Fishers made significant amendments to reinstate important considerations about the environment and environment protection and they sufficiently gutted the legislation of developers’ certainty, that the developers didn’t like it anymore.

And, if the developers didn’t like it, then neither did the Minister, nor the Government.

So, three months later it will return for further argument. What could possibly go wrong?

We have an office full of submissions we drafted and campaigned on in the 1990s against the introduction of private certification. Knowing what we know of private certification now, the goals expressed by Government for that initiative and the Green Paper “Regulatory Innovation - Regulation of the Results” in 1996 must surely have been a joke.  

Knowles’ boast of competition policy driving down the costs of housing and development were never delivered.

Then, Integrated Development Assessment in 1997 and with every reform came unnecessary complications in what had been, in the old BA and DA process, an easy and predictable system that matched the complexity of a building to the complexity of its assessment. Boasted goals, never delivered. And the concept of assessment being proportionate to the complexity of a building still doesn’t get embraced.

In 2002 the private certification system and the planning reforms had imploded with a speed and ferocity that surprised even their staunchest critics and the Government tried to cover its nether regions with the Campbell Enquiry - the Joint Select Committee on the Quality of Building.

Even though this enquiry was established because of problems with private certifiers, it still managed to attract people who just didn’t like councils and the regulations which they administer. No wonder that quite against the run of play in the evidence, we ended up with the bleeding BPB. Hasn’t that body enriched all of our lives.

Then the move to expand complying development with the Local Development Task Force in 2003. While it escaped the builders and developers, as well is the Government and DIPNA as the Department of Planning was called then, we knew that generally across the State and in inner city councils in particular, 10% or more of applications were so bad that they were incapable of amendment and up to 75% of the remainder required amendment before they were capable of approval. Someone was missing the point.

It’s hard not to despair when you look at what developers and academic and virgin planners in the Department of Planning, doing the bidding of Government, have done to planning.

And clearly we did despair. In August 2004 we published “A no-holds-barred diatribe by depa against the latest in a long line of stupid, half-baked and misconceived ideas” – a submission in response to a proposal to expand complying development.

Enough, enough. There is a limit.

This year, nine years later, a scholarly and comprehensive report by the School of Building at the University of New South Wales lambasted the decline in the standard of buildings and blamed, amongst other things, private certifiers. The problems identified with private certifiers in the Campbell enquiry in 2002 continue – despite the BPB and compounded by get-rich-quick developers cutting costs by working without clerks of works and others to focus on the quality of construction.

How could people be surprised that the more removed is local government from assessment and compliance that there follows a decline in the quality of development and building?

What could possibly go wrong in 2014?

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