Planning reform initiatives are needed to get our economy back on track here in Australia. And while an initial round of reforms is sure to fast track building projects through the NSW planning system, the question is if it will be sufficient to propel private sector investment through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Urban Taskforce has been focusing on the stagnant condition of the NSW planning system for more than six months. They presented evidence that included the drop-off in DA approvals (of every kind) and a delay in the systemic processing of these approvals.

This delay was caused initially by the aftermath of the backdown on Council amalgamations, with the NSW Government releasing a mandate ordering the Department of Planning and the Greater Sydney Commission to avoid conflict with local Councils.

Why? Well the Councils had activated regional communities against what is perceived as the badly conceived and executed amalgamation process under former Premier Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian. In addition, Minister Stokes demonstrates a solid commitment to community consultation and participation in planning processes. This, paired with the GSC’s demand for a complete suite of strategic planning documents (District Plans, Regional Plans, Local Strategic Plans and new Local Environment Plans) to allow Councils a mandate to slow down their assessment processes and allow for the completion of strategic documents—which they followed.

In late 2019, the Urban Taskforce was casting a spotlight on a looming problem. Now the ABS reports this month that new housing development approvals for all categories of housing has descended to their lowest level since the year 2012. There is bound to be a decrease in construction – and this is bound to correlate with the incredible need for employment opportunities and economic advancement. Architects Australia is predicting a breakdown in the building and construction business.

The delay in DA approvals was initially rooted in political causes. The moratorium placed on DAs in the seat of Ryde before the election is an example, and the “independent” GSC facilitated that result. The same situation arose in Willoughby, North Sydney, Lane Cove and on the Northern Beaches. The message reached all Councils: Slow up on any activity which might cause problems politically. NIMBYs were granted a veto of employment progress and growth. This went on throughout 2019, while the GSC administered the development of strategic planning framework. Those documents at present are redundant and the slowdown connected to their development has contributed to the economic fallout we are poised to encounter.

It comes as no surprise that the NSW Treasury has served as the agency propelling planning reform in NSW. It was Treasury’s assessment of the NSW planning system that exposed its effects on the NSW economy, proving that the NSW system will stand among the slowest in addressing DAs of all types around the country. Then the Treasury contacted the Urban Taskforce and requested a list of projects that were sidelined in the planning system and could create employment and investment opportunities if made available.

Urban Taskforce replied with a complete list of more than seventy projects tied up in the NSW planning system, carrying a construction value worth billions. These include construction-ready projects awaiting hoarding approvals from RMS or Parramatta Light Rail, to projects halted by the Government’s on-again, off-again region of substantial transport corridor development (Crows-Nest to South St Leonards, Sydenham to Bankstown, Parramatta Road) and the tools-down response to applications for land re-zoning of land everywhere from Wilton to Pittwater; from Sutherland to the Hunter Valley.

However, DPIE and the Minister are now at work on these projects and are determined to implement planning reform. The Planning Minister and DPIE have joined this initiative. Since January, they have been devising a package of planning reforms to hasten the process. The first were announced recently, beginning with a focus on construction-ready projects and the formulation of employment and investment opportunities.

The Minister also has committed to:

  • Hasten assessments of State Significant Developments, rezonings and development applications (DAs);
  • Support councils and planning panels to put into action regional DAs;
  • Introduce a ‘one stop shop’ system for the building industry to hasten projects that may be delayed in the system;
  • Clear the case backlog tied up in the Land & Environment Court with additional Acting Commissioners.

These steps, although wise, may not be enough to correct the delay caused by the hiatus in planning approvals apparent in late 2019, before today’s economic situation.

In the era of COVID-19, we must innovate and revolutionise planning reform. We must determine if all components of the planning assessment and decision-making process are workable. This only can be accomplished through a COVID-19 Order or the gazettal of a Special SEPP. Panels and councils must get the job done—and faster than planned.

The economic imperative must be the main goal, with the ability to further and facilitate construction taking precedence over all other goals and objectives. Invest, mandate, build!