The NSW Government has recently indicated that changes to the NSW planning process involving the assessment of local character are forthcoming, with the Department of Planning and Environment (Department) releasing a new planning circular entitled ‘Stepping up planning and designing for better places: respecting and enhancing local character’ (Circular).

The Circular is intended to provide guidance for local councils and planning authorities about the consideration of local character in both strategic planning and detailed planning for places. Its release indicates that an additional layer of local controls intended to protect local character in areas of significance will be introduced.

What is character and how is it protected?

The Circular discusses ‘character’ in terms of the distinctive look and feel of a neighbourhood’s built and natural elements, and emphasises that character should not be included within considerations of heritage and conservation.

Instead, there is a focus in the Circular on moving toward a design-led approach reflective of location, context and social setting, and recognising that new development does not have to be sterilised in the interest of preserving character, but may maintain and enhance it through carefully balanced planning decisions.

In light of the projected growth in NSW and the need to provide diverse and affordable housing and services, the Circular introduces a new approach where local character will be considered at every stage of the planning and development process. It also attempts to address community concerns about the impact development may have on amenity and character.

How will character be considered in planning?

The Circular identifies five elements of the NSW planning scheme which will now involve consideration of local character.

Local character will be included in the preparation of:

  1. Regional and district plans.
  2. Local housing strategies.
  3. Plans for areas that have been identified for renewal and investment as Planned Precincts. Local character will also be involved in the development of local strategic planning statements after public consultation, an initiative that will be introduced by the recent amendments to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979.
  4. Local environmental plans (LEPs).
  5. Development control plans.

Of most significance is the way in which local character will be included in LEPs. The Department will soon begin to prepare amendments to the Standard Instrument LEP which will establish overlays - statutory maps that will apply in addition to the standard zoning of an area - for additional consideration of local character in areas of significance. This is significant because overlays have traditionally only been used to allow for additional considerations or standards relevant to particular environmental qualities or natural resources present on the land that require a more intricate planning response (e.g. water supply catchments within land zoned for rural use).

The Circular does suggest that these effects will be somewhat minimised because local character overlays will only be permitted if a Council can:

  • demonstrate that the character of a local area is significant in accordance with guidelines to be issued by the Department; and
  • ensure that the local government area will meet the dwelling targets for future growth as established by the relevant Regional or District Plan.

Further guidance

The Circular also refers to a policy prepared by the Government Architect NSW, which is intended to provide guidance for communities, local councils and Government agencies about designing and building better places that reflect contextual local character. The policy, titled ‘Better Placed: An integrated design policy for the built environment of NSW’, can be accessed here.

A copy of the Circular can be accessed here.

The content of this publication is for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. This content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication.