The Urban Taskforce has been complaining long and loud about the NSW Planning System – but it’s not all their fault.

The NSW Productivity Commission was called upon to review the Planning System in detail and it found in its Green Paper that the NSW Planning System is not delivering for NSW.

So why is it that when the Reserve Bank of Australia; the Commonwealth Productivity Commission; the NSW Productivity Commission (and, dare I say, the Urban Taskforce) all say that the planning system in NSW is holding our economy back, pushing up housing prices and represents a handbrake on NSW economic growth, that reform of this area is not the number one policy imperative for the NSW Government?

A clue can be found in the NSW Premier’s Priorities.

Even though the Premier’s introductory blurb states that her first priority is “a strong economy”, none of the actual priority areas nominated below address this imperative:

  1. Bumping up education results for children
  2. Increase the number of Aboriginal young people reaching their learning potential
  3. Protecting our most vulnerable children
  4. Increasing permanency for children in out-of-home care
  5. Reducing domestic violence reoffending
  6. Reducing recidivism in the prison population
  7. Reducing homelessness
  8. Improving service levels in hospitals
  9. Improving outpatient and community care
  10. Towards zero suicides
  11. Greener public spaces
  12. Greening our city
  13. Government made easy
  14. World class public service

These policy priorities are not directly related to productivity reform, taxation reform, economic reform or economic growth.  Many may deliver a long-term economic improvement by increasing inclusion, improving quality of life, equality and participation; but they represent a soft non-economic agenda. Perfect when the times are good – but now in need for review.

The “Premier’s Priorities” are critically important to the allocation of resources and decision making in the NSW public service.  Public service agencies are measured against their delivery against these priorities.  Cabinet submissions are written with explicit reference to the Premier’s priorities. In the case of the Department of Planning Industry and Environment, only three of these priorities stand out as being relevant: Greener public spaces; Greening our city; and, Government made easy.

COVID-19 demands new priorities that place economic growth at the front and centre. The Premier’s introductory spiel on the Premier’s Priority webpage ( is very clear in stating the “a strong economy” is the number one priority – but this is not reflected in the list of priority areas for action.  It reads like the Treasurer was not invited to the meeting where these matters were determined.

The Minister for Planning, Hon Rob Stokes has split his efforts and those of his Department between the three policy priorities and there has been an effort to link reforms to improving the speed of the NSW planning system.  For example, they established a $250 million fund for greening and improving public open spaces.  Up to $5.5 million is available to Councils, provided they also sign up to a planning fast track program.

Further, DPIE championed a number of short-term changes to assist the development and construction sector continue working during COVID-19. These measures were very welcome.

But if “a strong economy” is the number one policy priority, what is the NSW Government doing to drive that outcome?  Population growth will be a key driver of economic growth – so what is being done to prepare for a return to migration? For example, the Government could:

Fund hotel quarantine and subsidise additional flights to:

  • safely repatriate all ex-pat Australian back home if that is their choice;
  • target migrants with a capacity to invest in Australian jobs and businesses;
  • target skilled migrants to drive our economic recovery.

Why has nothing been done to increase the capacity of our public transport?  Where are the free masks? The CBDs of Sydney, North Sydney and Parramatta are shedding jobs at an alarming rate

The support for the construction sector has been welcome, but NSW is burdened by high new home prices (thus largely excluding it from the Commonwealth HomeBuilder package). While other States have stepped in with additional and complementary subsidies, NSW has not.

We eagerly await the NSW Productivity Commission’s final report on the NSW planning system as well as their review on infrastructure contributions.

In the meantime, however, NSW DPIE continues to deliver against the Premier’s stated set of priorities. The focus of consultations to date regarding the new Housing Diversity SEPP is a case in point.  The priority is not is delivering enough houses, at all price points, in all areas, to meet current and projected future demand.  The focus (quite reasonably) is on the areas nominated in the Premier’s Priorities.  Lots of discussion regarding green public spaces, landscaping, architectural principles; but very little on reducing homelessness by providing more affordable homes (increasing supply and improving the feasibility of investment by eliminating the myriad of highly prescriptive development controls).

Planners need to plan for change and this means planning for a change to the character of local communities.  Consulting with local communities will not deliver such a change.  Planners need to establish the imperative of economic growth as a key priority (in fact – this is number one in the Premier’s blurb). The development community can work with government to deliver jobs, new homes, greener public open spaces; provided the department and planners in Councils see it as part of their role to enable feasible development with height.

The planning system includes all those involved in decision making.  Council staff, councillors, local and regional independent panels, the Independent Planning Commission, DPIE, the Greater Sydney Commission, the Minister, other government agencies where consent or concurrence is required, and the Courts. All need to consider their role in driving economic growth against any local NIMBY objections.

Strong economic leadership is needed from the Premier, the Treasurer and the Minister for Planning.  These three central agencies drive the economy of NSW.  These three portfolio areas determine what gets built and where.  They determine what infrastructure is funded and what local Councils can do.  They can inspire private sector investment and collectively, they can scare it off.

Planners are the facilitators of economic growth – but the Premier’s Priorities do not drive home that point.  In the world of COVID-19 and the recovery from it, they really should.  It’s time for a re-think.

Tom Forrest, CEO Urban Taskforce Australia