Architects and urban planners have slammed a decision by the NSW Government to dump planning reform proposals which aimed to ensure that new developments are sustainable, resilient to natural disasters and offer high-quality living.

But the decision has been welcomed by development lobby groups.

Speaking at an industry lunch organised by the Urban Taskforce, NSW Minister for Planning and Homes Anthony Roberts announced that the Government would not proceed with the State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP) for Design and Place.

The state has also abandoned amendments to the Apartment Design Guide and a new Urban Design Guide which were proposed as part of the changes.

But it will proceed with tighter requirements for energy and thermal performance in homes through its planned updates to Building Sustainability Index system.

The tighter requirements will bring NSW in line with more stringent energy efficiency standards which are expected to be adopted nationally through the 2022 update of the National Construction Code.

Billed by former Planning Minister Rob Stokes as ‘NSW’s first comprehensive design policy’ when introduced in March last year, the Design and Place SEPP contained wide-ranging measures which were designed to make buildings, homes and communities more energy efficient and resilient to climate impacts and natural disasters.

Measures included pushing for new commercial buildings to be net-zero carbon emissions when opening, apartment blocks to be built with electric vehicle charging stations, minimum tree coverage for developments and ‘comprehensive hazard risk profiles’ including floods and bushfires for new construction.

The SEPP was to be accompanied by a new Urban Design Guide and revisions to the Apartment Design Guide along with the aforementioned BASIX changes.

Whilst the SEPP enjoyed widespread support from architects and urban planners, its cancellation follows opposition from lobby groups who represent large developers.

In separate submissions, each of the Urban Taskforce, Property Council of Australia and the Urban Development Institute of Australia called for the policy to be withdrawn.

In their respective submissions, these organisations argued that the policy would increase uncertainty, add to the cost and complexity associated with development applications and further exacerbate housing affordability concerns by acting as an additional roadblock to new housing supply.

These would arise from the SEPP imposing 51 issues for consideration in development applications and rezoning proposals, the Property Council said.

Pointing to the government’s own modelling, the Property Council said this will result in an additional cost burden to the industry and home buyers of $2.3 billion (although the modelling says this will be outweighed by benefits totaling $3.3 billion).

For its part, UDIA says a raft of new provisions would add up to six months to timeframes associated with development applications and approvals and would lead to greater complexity.

These include new standards under the proposed update to the Apartment Design Guide, the new Urban Design Guide, requirements to prepare site-specific development control plans, the need to provide more detailed technical information to design review panels and demonstrating compliance with the SEPP.

Finally, the Urban Taskforce has voiced concerns about the robustness and transparency involved with the modelling referred to above as workings behind this have not been made public.

Meanwhile, the cancellation of the SEPP follows a decision last month in which Roberts revoked a ministerial direction which outlined nine planning principles which were to guide planning and development decisions.

The nine principles were aimed at achieving outcomes to improve planning systems, design and place for quality of life, biodiversity and conservation, resilience and hazards, and maintaining corridors for transport and infrastructure, housing, industry and employment, resources and energy, and primary production.

The direction was introduced by Stokes as then planning minister in December.

Its cancellation came just two weeks it came into force on March 1.

In a statement, Roberts said the decision to not proceed with the Design and Place SEPP reflected concerns about the impact of the proposed reforms on housing affordability.

He said the BASIX changes would help to build homes which are more comfortable with lower emissions and energy costs.

As for resilience, Roberts says this is dealt with through several policies which are already in place.

These include a direction issued by the Minister for Planning and Homes to ensure natural hazards are thoroughly considered in decision-making on land-use, the Flood-Prone Land Policy, and the natural hazards toolkit for councils.

Additional changes may also be considered when recommendations regarding land-use planning arising out of the independent inquiry into floods currently being conducted by Professor Mary O’Kane AC and Michael Fuller APM are handed down.

The recommendations are due to the NSW Government on 30 June 2022.

“Following extensive consultation with industry and stakeholder groups the NSW Government will not introduce the State Environmental Planning Policy for Design and Place,” Roberts said.

“We want to make it easier to build quality, affordable homes – not harder. As I’ve said before, my focus is on changes that help us pave the way for more homes in livable communities.

“We need to optimise land for homes while building communities that are sustainable and resilient.”

Not surprisingly, the decision has been welcomed by developers but widely criticised by architects and urban planners.

On the development side, Urban Taskforce Australia CEO Tom Forrest says the proposed changes would have added to the cost of new home delivery without improving design quality.

“The decision not to proceed with the draft SEPP is a clear sign that the new Minister for Planning is serious about cutting red tape and driving efficiency through the NSW planning process,” Forrest said.

“The draft Design and Place SEPP was placed on public exhibition and drew unanimous criticism from industry.  The Minister has listened and acted.  This is great news for housing supply and for affordability.”

However, the decision has been widely condemned by architects and urban planners.

Describing the move as a ‘slap in the face’ to communities, a spokesperson for NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects said the moves were a backward step in delivering homes and communities which are sustainable and resilient to natural disasters.

The spokeswoman noted that the announcement took place at an Urban Taskforce event – a phenomenon which spoke volumes about a government desire to kowtow to large developers.

“The planning policy and guidelines were a positive move towards a more sustainable, affordable and resilient future for the built environment,” the spokeswoman said.

“To downgrade these sensible policies now is a slap in the face for our communities, especially those recovering from extreme weather.

“We know the science tells us these events will become more common and more severe. To scale back these practical requirements for sustainability and livability is unfathomable.

“In removing these guidelines, the government has chosen not to support sustainable, resilient places and good design.

“We cannot understand how the government can support this position.”

Sharon Smith, President of the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) NSW Division, described the shelving of the SEPP as a ‘real shame’ as the policy had the potential to lift design standards, create more resilient suburbs and create a greater connection between First Nations people and planning.

Smith said tools such as those which would have been included in the policy are critical for addressing urgent issues such as suburban tree canopy and access to open space.

She expressed frustration that the policy was being shelved after more than twelve months’ consultation.

“The Government Architect’s office brought in experts from across industry to develop this policy,” Smith said.

“It’s a waste of that effort and insight to simply walk away.”

“While we understand that the policy had proven contentious in some circles, simply setting aside good design and resilience thinking to maximise housing production is not sound policy.

“Times have changed.”

Dr Marcus Spiller, Principal and Partner at SGS Economics and Planning, says the SEPP would have given communities robust design standards at the suburb and precinct level as well as within individual homes and apartments.

Spiller says the importance of designing suburbs properly and effectively upfront should not be underestimated as poor decisions in suburb planning and design are difficult to unwind once communities have been built.

“The Design and Place SEPP would have given people higher quality public realm, more useful parkland, more canopy cover to protect against climate change and better connectivity to local transport and services,” Spiller said.

“It’s a pity the Government will no longer be pursuing this policy”.

Finally, the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) says it is ‘deeply disappointed’ about the decision.

In a response provided to Sourceable, the AILA said the SEPP’s focus on sustainability, environmental protection and connection to country will be sorely missed.

Meanwhile, the AILA is concerned about the lack of details in addressing these issues through an update of the outdated BASIX standards.

“It is difficult to see how window dressing applied to the existing systems will increase livability and contribute to net zero targets when we can see in real time the effects of climate change on our cities and towns,” AILA CEO Ben Stockwin said.

“A business-as-usual approach is just pushing the can down the road for future governments and generations.”

Speaking of the Government’s decision to remove the nine planning principles, meanwhile, AILA NSW Chapter President Tanya Wood said this ‘defied logic’.

“These principles behind SEPP were aimed at creating healthy, green, livable places across NSW,” she said.

“To remove these ideals lacks common sense and indicates a concerning approach to future state planning.”