The Covid 19 outbreak has provided an opportunity to reset what we think is important in planning to deliver great places - that grow wealth, jobs and strengthen communities.
At the onset of Covid 19, this agenda could only be sustained by immediate action to protect human life and wellbeing. This meant temporary suspension of any planning controls that stymied health services or the operation of logistics chains for essential products.
The COVID-19 lockdown restrictions have made us more aware of neighbourhood amenity, especially the quality of our local retail centres and the provision of parks and public places. This has already translated into programs for funding improved pedestrian and cyclist facilities, open spaces and social housing. There is enormous opportunity for these programs to expand to offer broader community benefits and generate significant local economic activity.
While we endure rolling COVID-19 outbreaks, governments are developing and testing economic recovery ideas in real time. Stimulating investment in property and infrastructure to sustain activity in the construction sector is an obvious tactic. The sector typically delivers 9% of GDP annually and employs over 1.1M people in jobs that can mostly continue during a lockdown.
It is worth asking how the planning system can add value here? It has a role in maximising the economic stimulus potential of new construction projects – and by ensuring that their delivery continues to offer benefits for the productivity and resilience of our cities into the future. The Planning Ministers of every Australian State and Territory have adopted public interest principles to apply when considering changes in response to Covid.
Many government and industry players are involved in identifying aspects of the planning process that might be removed or shortened to enable development to procced directly where and when needed. The underlying theme is that planning is a drag – and that its ‘red tape’ must be cut.
But what is this ‘red tape’? does it really tie up projects? And does it work against the ‘public interest’?
The Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) sees good planning as an enabler of development. Without development, a community’s’ strategic plan can’t be fulfilled – and without planning, orderly and predictable investment decisions can’t be made.
Communities have entrusted government to make sure that new development shapes places to make them better able to accommodate growth in ways that are safe and attractive to live in and for businesses to operate. Planning translates this into rules and incentives so that decisions and investments are made as fast as possible in ways that reflect the public interest.
The trick of good planning is to design these decision-making pathways with the least obstruction and with the greatest respect towards achieving the communities’ goals.
During Covid times we are interrogating our planning decision making systems much harder to see where they can be streamlined, improved or better resourced.
It is significant that the proportion of development approved in relation to applications submitted has remained high and stable. It seems that the right developments are being approved – and the more speculative ones that don’t work are still being refused.
It is also becoming apparent (eg NSW) that there has been a large increase in the amount of applications, approvals and value of development in the second quarter of 2020 in comparison to the last four quarters. The rate at which this increase flows into construction commencements is a question of access to finance and the strength of demand – rather than a planning system issue. However, the decision to commence construction is always easier to make when an orderly planning process has led to infrastructure and community services being available at the right place and time.
Good planning is an enabler of sound development and productive economic activity. Asking where to cut ‘red tape’ is only a small part of a much more important question on how planning can best ensure that the proponent, occupants and the public get lasting value from new development.
The planning industry is capable of shaping this legacy – and PIA is advocating reforms that both drive economic activity as well as reflect emerging community values. These include streamlining assessment and referral processes among agencies, adequately resourcing strategic planning and assessment and by investing in multiple localised initiatives for open space, active transport, social housing and the circular economy.
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