“At the moment, we are being told what we can’t do.”

“ … the COVID-19 response is explicitly focused on what we can’t do. We can’t go the cinema or the theatre of the gym or have a knock-off drink with friends or dinner at a restaurant. We can’t operate certain businesses or come within 1.5 meters of the next person…

“ … In planning, our duty is to think about what we can do.”

So declared New South Wales Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes in a webinar address to the property and construction sector hosted by the Committee for Sydney last Friday.

In his address, Stokes acknowledged that the COVID-19 response had placed significant restriction upon our society and economy.

But he stressed the need to be proactive and do what we can to position ourselves for recovery. The Spanish flu of the early 1900s, he points out, was followed by economic recovery and social and cultural growth.

In development and construction, Stokes said the New South Wales Government was acting on several fronts.

Most immediately, the Government has amended the Environmental Protection and Assessment Act to enable the Minister to issue orders which override normal planning controls during the COVID-19 pandemic where such orders are necessary for health, safety and well-being.

Already, several orders have been issued. Supermarkets and pharmacies are now able to operate around the clock and to receive deliveries and conduct waste removal at any time. Provided they observe social distancing requirements, home based businesses are now allowed to accommodate up to five workers at the owner’s residence. To assist catering and restaurant businesses, food trucks are able to operate on any land at any time provided landowner consent has been given. Dark kitchens or ghost kitchens can be set up in any commercial kitchen: community centres, church halls  Finally, construction sites are now able  to operate according to workday hours on weekends and on public holidays.

Along with helping industry, Stokes says the orders have important public health outcomes.  Allowing construction sites to operate on weekends will facilitate greater social distancing by enabling work to be spread over a greater number of hours and fewer trades to be operating simultaneously. Enabling supermarkets and pharmacies to dispose of waste at any time will help to address a growing challenge these companies have faced in waste build-up.

Going forward, the government aims to cut red tape and fast track processes.

This will happen by:

  • Fast tracking assessments of state significance, rezoning and development applications.
  • Supporting councils and planning panels to fast track locally and regionally significant development applications.
  • Expediting the COVID-19 planning response by expanding the list of works which can be undertaken without the need for planning approval or under the fast tracked complying development pathway.
  • Introducing a one-stop-shop for developments which are currently stuck in the system.
  • Introducing acting commissioners to help clear a backlog of cases in the Land and Environmental Court.

The government is also pouring $70 million into co-funding new assets such as roads, drainage and public parks in north-west Sydney to help facilitate planned delivery of thousands of new homes.

According to Stokes, the slowdown in new applications represents an opportunity to clear the backlog of existing developments in the system. In the last two weeks alone, he says the planning department has approved nineteen projects which will create up to 1,900 jobs and inject $1.2 billion into the state’s economy. Over the next six months, he expects fast-tracking measures to generate 30,000 new construction jobs.

Stokes says he will work with bodies such as the Committee of Sydney and the planning department to determine which projects can be fast tracked. Priorities include developments which will generate employment and help to rejuvenate retail and commercial districts.

Despite Stokes’ optimism, developers tuning in to the webinar raised concerns about several areas. Some major projects have become stuck before the state’s Independent Planning Commission which issues consents for state significant developments amid an interpretation that online mechanisms are not a legally valid forum for Commission hearings. Additional frustrations surround delays with projects that require assessment from the state’s Road and Maritime Services (RMS). In some cases, there has been concern that delays are happening as major projects have been put back to local government for assessment without councils having capacity to manage these. With the push to get projects through, some worry that the thoroughness of assessment may be compromised. Finally, concern remains about potential sector-wide shutdowns as part of future restrictions.

Addressing the first point, Stokes said his understanding is that online hearings for the IPC are valid and that there is no legal impediment to hearings being conducted in this way. Courts, he said, have used online evidence and testimony for years. There was no reason for the IPCC not do likewise.

On a related note, Stokes says calls to delay project assessment and community consultation until in-person meetings can again be conducted are misguided. In fact, now is an ideal time for hearings and consultation as many who would usually be preoccupied with study or work are able to participate.

On RMS approvals, Stokes said this will be addressed through a newly announced ‘one-stop-shop’ concierge service within the planning department for proponents whose projects had been held up with different agencies. Though giving few details, he said those frustrated with different agencies would be able to take their concerns to the department – Stokes himself being prepared to take up cases at a ministerial level if need be.

On major project assessment having been pushed back from state to local level, Stokes says the state has intentionally streamlined the number of precincts in regard to which assessment is undertaken at the state level. Previously, he said the state had taken responsibility for as many as 55 precincts – a recipe for inaction as state resources had become too thinly spread.

On concerns about assessments being rushed and developments with poor or inappropriate designs being approved, Stokes says the process and rigour surrounding development assessment under SEPP 65 and other planning instruments remained the same. The only difference is that more resources are being put into the system and thus development applications will proceed more quickly to a decision point.

Finally, in respect of a construction shutdown, Stokes cautions that he cannot foresee what further restrictions may be necessary but says there are no current plans for this to happen.

Stokes challenged developers to rise to the occasion.

“My message to everyone listening … (is that) our sector has a real responsibility right now,” he said.

“People around the country are looking to us. It’s a real moment of patriotism … We have a duty to work our guts out to keep people in jobs now, to provide vision and to inspire people who are scared or who are uncertain as the seasons change as we run out of daylight savings and go into winter. There are some bleak months ahead.

“It’s up to all of us to work our guts out like it has never mattered before to provide that vision, to provide direction for people who are scared and vulnerable and to make sure we create a whole series of opportunities to power our recovery in the 2020s.”