Reforms to planning systems around Australia seem to be an endless merry-go-round of reviews, inquiries and agitation in the media by the usual suspects about lack of land supply, the urgent need for red tape reduction, and housing costs blown out by policies created to improve the design and quality of our homes and buildings.

Yet in all these reviews, there seems to be limited progress towards systems that truly work to address the challenges faced by our cities and regions from population growth, increasing infill, continuing car dependent sprawl at the edges and climate change. Instead, the emphasis is on efficiency, regardless of the outcomes from speedier approvals.

When we get close to improved policy competing interests work to obstruct or water down it down, like what occurred with the scrapping of the NSW Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy. This result caused outraged reactions in the planning and design community across the country, but was welcomed by the property industry.

In South Australia, where other states may turn an eye to learn and adapt approaches, there is mixed success when it comes to implementing reforms that have seemingly been ongoing since I started my career more than 20 years ago.

In early August 2022 the South Australian Labor Government established an Expert Panel to undertake an independent review of the implementation of the Planning, Development and Infrastructure Act 2016 (PDI Act), the Planning and Design Code, the e-planning system and the Planning Portal website. With the PDI Act now approaching six years since it was first enacted after debate through parliament, and 18 months into its full implementation, it is timely to review how it has been applied.

This review is the fulfilment of an election promise of the then Labor Opposition, following community concerns regarding how urban infill, heritage, character, car parking and trees were addressed in the Code under the leadership of the Liberal Government (2018-2022).

Having listened to and read much of the commentary surrounding these issues, I believe much of the concern comes from the lack of contextual approaches to design in development assessment and a feeling of communities being unable to influence good design in their own neighbourhoods. Despite aspirations to have the community involved upfront in planning decisions, most people only encounter the planning system when they build a house, undertake renovations or are directly impacted by a notifiable development next door.

But people see and feel the cumulative impact of planning decisions in their neighbourhoods.

Of course, this isn’t the first expert panel as part of contemporary reforms to the SA planning system. The reforms themselves arose out of the Expert Panel for Planning Reform established by the previous Labor Government (2002-2018) in February 2013, chaired by prominent barrister Brian Hayes KC, himself one of the architects of the Development Act 1993. That Expert Panel conducted an extensive stakeholder and community engagement program, documented in the What We Have Heard report (pdf, 3.3MB), which canvassed many of the issues that have led to the current review.

At the conclusion of their tenure in August 2014, the Expert Panel for Planning reform provided Our Ideas for Reform (pdf, 5.4MB) to then Planning Minister Hon John Rau MP, documenting 27 reforms covering system governance and mechanics, plans and policy, assessment pathways, community engagement and culture. Some of the reforms aligned with recommendations under an earlier Planning and Development Review for the State’s Economic Development Board led by Jennifer Westacott in 2007 and 2008.

A consistent state-wide menu of planning rules was a key reform idea (Reform 8), which has resulted in the Planning and Design Code. Fully implemented in March 2021, the Code replaced the previous system of 72 Development Plans for individual local government areas and various areas of the state outside of a council boundary. Reforms to Development Plans considered by Reform 8 were started with the Better Development Plans program in the early 2000s, were considered by the Westacott Review, but were never completed. So, the implementation of the Code is a significant achievement!

Importantly, the next reform idea (Reform 9) was to build design into planning, with the Expert Panel suggesting form-based approaches to zoning, specific design features for streetscape, townscape and landscape character, and incorporation of design guidelines with statutory recognition. The Panel also advocated the ability of councils to use urban design approaches, such as structure plans, master plans or urban design frameworks, as visual means to improve desired character statements.

However, whilst the Code provides a consistent suite of planning policy that applies across the state, the reforms have been less successful in applying design thinking or approaches and improving on the design policy of the previous Development Plans. As currently implemented, and somewhat at odds with the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Planning Reform, the Code provides no local variations to reflect particular circumstances or desired character. This might be a boon to the development industry that has certainty on policy for the same zone in different council areas, but somewhat problematic in aligning planning policy and design considerations to the local aspirations of a community and council.

Desired character statements tailored to local circumstances and aspirations in Development Plans were reduced to desired outcomes in the Code, which are simply high-level statements to align to their state-wide applicability. There is no question that desired character statements needed improvement, and the Expert Panel in 2014 recognised this in its recommendations to Minister Rau, but their deliberate omission from the Code leaves the question of contextual design harder to assess.

As the Presiding Member of a Council Assessment Panel, I know that it is harder for my fellow panel members and I to assess an application contextually without clear guidance of what is being sought in a locality beyond high-level statements. There is no spatial differentiation, and the general Design in Urban Areas policy context is insufficient when development is subject to performance assessment on balance against all the provisions of the Code.

So where should design sit, and how do we better reflect the community’s concerns over many review processes, that we still haven’t resolved? And how might the rest of the country learn from South Australia’s experience?

Design aspirations might be established through strategic planning processes such as a structure plans or master plans, which could help to resolve how communities will respond to the pressure of population growth, infill development and climate change. There has been a noticeable lack of strategic planning in South Australia in the recent past due to the necessary emphasis on establishing the Code. So, there is an overdue need to consider the changing urban form and its impact upon local communities. But design-led structure plans that also consider the form and design of buildings in a form-based approach would provide greater clarity to proponents and the community about the expectations of development and the nature of change.

Such plans could have relevant spatial and urban design direction reinforced by desired character statements incorporated into the Code, as contemplated by the Expert Panel. This needs to be supported by further refinement of existing policy to better address design issues of site layout and built form, and the development of Practice Guidelines related to design. This in turn would support the Local Design Review process that has been adopted by South Australia and give greater confidence to relevant authorities, including Council Assessment Panels, in assessing and determining the merits of development and what constitutes good design.

Ultimately, reform to planning systems is an important part of improving the quality of our urban and regional environments. But reform should be about the continuous improvement of the outcomes of development, not the system itself in a rush to efficiency. Quicker decisions do not necessarily mean better decisions, particularly when more complex design consideration is needed.

Submissions to the Expert Panel closed on 16 December.


By Michael Davis

Michael is Principal Design Integrator in Aurecon’s Integrated Design practice based in Adelaide, working across the country on complex strategic planning and city shaping infrastructure projects. He is the Independent Presiding Member of the City of Marion Council Assessment Panel and is a Registered Planner with the Planning Institute of Australia.