As Hon Rob Stokes, the NSW Minister for Planning, prepares for his much anticipated portfolio change to the joys of heading up the NSW Transport and Roads portfolio, he has used the time before his departure to lock in as much of his planning policy agenda as he possibly can.

Fair play to him: if given the opportunity, why wouldn’t you do that.  No-one wants to chip him, or tell him he can’t do this because the Government fears any further exposure to a by-election – even in safe Liberal Party seats like Pittwater.  The rise of community based independent candidates like Zali Steggall has cast a shadow even the safest of conservative seats.  With the support of only 4 colleagues in the leadership contest to be Premier, there were genuine fears that with even the slightest degree of criticism, Rob Stokes could walk (he has strongly denied that this was ever the case).

Minister Stokes, as Planning Minister, has made an artform out of promoting policy reform while delivering more red (and green) tape.  There are two very recent examples.


1. Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy

The newly exhibited draft Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) is a much-improved document particularly when it comes to the Apartment Design Guide component of the SEPP. The rough edges appear to have been removed through a series of technical working groups and stakeholder engagement. A lot of these improvement were driven by industry representatives and the NSW Productivity Commission.  Ultimately, the protests were considered and a full regulatory impact assessment and cost benefit analysis was undertaken (as required by NSW Treasury Guidelines).

Well, that is what we thought.  Turns out …we were wrong.

Deloitte were commissioned to undertake a cost benefit analysis – but only on the Apartment Design Guide component of the SEPP was subjected to scrutiny.  Two other critical components, which have enormous potential to increase costs or reduce yield, were not considered: the new BASIX provisions and the Urban Design Guidelines.

The Urban Design Guide (UDG) will have its impact at the rezoning stage and its application adds time to the planning approval process by, in many cases, requiring design reviews by architects (even for industrial sheds)!.  A full analysis of the impact of the UDG is needed before we will know if the new Guidelines are in fact a genuine reform, or a cover for more red and green tape!  The Minister’s new planning principles now permeate the UDG obligations (more on the impact of this below).

The Department of Planning Industry and Environment (DPIE) argue that the UDG will not impact on yield nor add significantly to costs.  If this is the case, it should be no problem for it to be subjected to independent scrutiny of a Deloitte analysis.  That is what we thought was already happening.


2. New Rezoning Reform and Local Environment Plan Amendment Guidelines

A further example of the Trojan Horse reform comes in the form of the Rezoning Guidelines – part of DPIE’s response to the NSW Productivity Commission and their condemnation of the performance of DPIE and their failure to ensure enough approvals to ensure that supply at least met demand for new housing.  The plan was that new timeframes would be established for each stage of the pathway for a planning proposal to rezone land.  The process was streamlined and the accountabilities at each stage were clarified.

A new typology was established for rezoning applications to enable a fast-track process for simple and standard rezoning applications.  So far, so good!

However, the recent release of the Minister’s 9 Planning Principles, and their intended implementation through a new Section 9.1 Direction (Ministerial Direction) – yet to be made – means that these Principles must be specifically addressed by applicants when applying for the re-zoning of land.  The principles are so vague that they may be harmless.  On the other hand, if a Council (for whatever reason) is of a mind to frustrate an application for the rezoning of land, there is plenty of scope in these new Principles to facilitate a blocking strategy.

The new Guidelines for amendments to a Local Environment Plan (a Planning Proposal for the rezoning of land) require that Section 9.1 Directions are addressed as part of the Strategic Planning justification for the planning proposal (the re-zoning application).

So, we have a situation where we have a solid step towards a reduction in red tape, improvements in the process, reductions in duplication and clarity on what is required for differing levels of complexity of rezoning applications – all up – an improvement in process.  These improvements will also see the establishment of timeframes at each stage of the rezoning and pathways for appeal.

But all this quality work could be undermined and frustrated by new Ministerial Directions which relate to the Minister Stokes own newly released Planning Principles.

Under the leadership of the erstwhile DPIE Secretary, Jim Betts, DPIE oversaw a collapse in planning approvals.  Without approvals, there was a collapse in housing supply.  This has been a substantial contributor to the record price rises. We now have a housing supply and affordability crisis.

It is time the planning system in NSW established a clear direction at the front and centre of its raison d’etre: economic growth, jobs and housing supply.

With a Ministerial reshuffle imminent, there is hope that clarity of purpose and mind might be realised in 2022.