A few weeks before the NSW state election in March 2019 the Department of Planning slipped a new planning document into the public realm titled “Local Character and Place Guideline” dated February 2019.

The title sounds harmless enough but on reading the text the purpose is explained as ‘empowering local government to establish what is important in their local context’, the guideline goes on to say that Development Control Plans ‘often seek to preserve or replicate the main architectural or urban design elements of a place.’ The clear implication is that local character means existing local character in a suburban sense. Nowhere in the document is there any mention of heights above 3 storeys and while there is a chapter titled ‘Local character in infill versus greenfield areas’ the text however  only refers to greenfield development. 

So infill seems to be ignored yet the main location for new apartment buildings is in infill areas around railway stations or in town centres. The local character of these precincts with their urban densities is mysteriously missing from the Planning Department’s document. It is therefore interesting to see that a number of recent planning decisions by the NSW Government or their agencies have used the impact of a new development on the existing local character as a key reason to reject the proposal. The first of these is the proposal for a 6 star Ritz Carlton Hotel tower next to the Star Casino. After 4 years of working through the planning system the NSW Planning Department proposes that the project be not approved because it was at a different scale to the existing local character of low to medium rise buildings. The new building is proposed to be 62 stories high in a very sculptural building form and there are 40 storey buildings nearby with more likely to come.

Another recent decision by a government agency is the Independent Planning Commission’s decision to reject Lane Cove Council’s proposal to rezone an area at St Leonards South, close to St Leonards station and to a future metro station. And one of the main reasons for rejection was that the new proposal of buildings stepping up from 4 to 18 storeys was not consistent with the existing character of the area which is mainly two storey detached houses. So a classic example of a Transit Oriented Development located next to St Leonards Station should not occur and the two storey existing character should remain.

The debate between the future and the past, the global and the local or protection of existing character compared to a vision for the future has even played out in the NSW Cabinet. The NSW Treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, has come down in favour of the Star’s new international hotel and its impact on tourism and the energising of a new destination while Planning Minister, Rob Stokes, has come down in support of the few hundred residents who preferred no change and his Department’s preference to maintain the local character.

So a worrying trend in the state planning hierarchy to favour local character over future development seems to have evolved. Yet the same Department of Planning says Sydney needs 725,000 new homes over 20 years and that Sydney will grow from 5 million today to 8 million over the next 40 years. Somehow new homes need to be build along with new offices and shops and clearly these will have an impact on the existing local character. There seems to be a hope that the growth will go away if communities argue to protect the existing local character.

The former Reserve Bank Governor, Glenn Stevens, raised concerns a few years ago in a paper on housing supply about a lack of advocacy for the future compared to the position of most councils to keep their house owners happy by rejecting change. The Mayor of North Sydney, Jilly Gibson, in a bold opinion piece some months ago attacked the predominantly elderly members of anti development groups in her council area as stopping the aspirations of younger generations to live a different lifestyle.

An intergenerational tension is developing as Australian cities grow and younger people prefer a more shared and cosmopolitan lifestyle in apartments generally in taller buildings near rapid transport nodes. But if the planning system favours the old over the young, the past over the future by advocating for the protection of local character we will go backwards. What is needed is multiple models of future urban characters as well as the existing low rise suburban model. Planning must be about diversity and the creation of new characters.