As 2019 draws to a close, Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Minister for Planning and Public Spaces Rob Stokes have announced that planning reform will be a major focus in NSW in 2020.

The Premier and Minister have recognised the lack of certainty provided to investors and the extensive period from lodgement of an application to determination. So the goal of reform is to develop a system that it is simple and effective. According to Minister Stokes, this "is about demystifying and restoring confidence in the planning system so we can get on with the job of delivering fantastic new places right across NSW."

The objectives for reform they set out are:

  1. cut red tape, increase transparency, reduce assessment timeframes and make e-planning mandatory for metro councils;
  2. supercharge new hubs across NSW to ensure people can live in communities close to their work;
  3. fix the uncertainty of developer contributions to boost investment; and
  4. preserve our heritage, create beautiful new public places, and promote good design.

Clearly, it’s an ambitious program! However, most would agree we need to be ambitious with planning reform.

Very little detail is available at this stage. We have outlined below some thoughts on the information we have available, together with some comments on the recently released Productivity Commission discussion paper which deals with planning reform – “Kickstarting the Productivity Conversation".

Cutting the red tape

Delays in assessment and the cost of compliance need to be balanced with providing certainty, and ensuring any submissions from the community are properly considered and developments are assessed to maximise long term benefits both socially and economically.

Preparing and progressing a development application can be a heavy burden. Developers may have multiple projects on foot, and the complex process is not assisted by different requirements imposed by different councils.

Supercharged new hubs

To reduce the time taken to get to work (and deliver on the proposal for "30 minute cities"[1]), the NSW Government plans to create a network of development hubs which will provide work opportunities to people "on their doorstep". The Premier says that the hub "strategy will provide regions with the resources and infrastructure needed to NSW to compete nationally and globally, while enriching the lifestyle of local residents." According to Planning Minister Rob Stokes, a series of reforms will be introduced over the coming months, including fast-tracking development in high-growth areas.

A few weeks before the Premier’s and Planning Minister’s announcement, the Department pf Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) announced a new approach to 48 priority precincts across Greater Sydney. This proposed 4 pathways for strategic planning in key precincts:

  • Strategic planning: The State Government will continue high-level strategic planning for large growth areas and renewal corridors, including Greater Parramatta to Olympic Park, the North-west and South-west Growth Areas, St Leonards – Crows Nest, Macquarie Park, Westmead and Greater Macarthur.
  • Collaborative planning: Precincts which have unresolved strategic environmental or infrastructure related issues will undergo collaborative planning led by DPIE together with councils and State agencies, to resolve challenges. This includes precincts such as Wilton South, Bays West, and Camelia. Once the strategic issues are resolved, a precinct will move to State-led or council-led rezoning.
  • State-led rezoning: DPIE is leading the rezoning for 12 precincts, which will be rezoned within a two year period. These include Glenfield, Wilton Town Centre, Crows Nest, Rhodes, Central Station, Ingleside, Marsden Park North, West Schofields, Frenchs Forest, Cherrybrook, Bays Market District, and North Eveleigh.
  • Council-led rezoning: This is rezoning that is led by Council for straight-forward precincts that have undergone strategic planning and collaborative planning. This will be supported by an MOU to drive compliance with agreed time frames. This includes precincts such as Waterloo Estate, as well as Riverstone West and Schofields Town Centre.

While a co-ordinated approach to precinct planning is welcomed, it will be important to ensure this leads to timely precinct rezoning and the change sin approach do not slow down progress.

Changes to Infrastructure contributions

Currently the NSW Government can impose a requirement on any development that will or is likely to require the provision of or increase the demand for public amenities and public services within the area to make a contribution towards the provision or improvement of such services. This may be satisfied through the dedication of land or a monetary contribution.

Though these local contributions have previously been capped, since 2017 they have been either entirely uncapped or are moving towards being fully uncapped in certain areas, with full uncapping to occur (for IPART reviewed contributions plans) on 1 July 2020.

It has been suggested that uncapping of local contributions, together with State-level special infrastructure contributions (SICs), particularly for greenfield development projects, could result in development becoming unfeasible due to diminished marginal returns. Industry research suggested that infrastructure contributions in Sydney are currently already double those of some other State capitals.

Given the focus on facilitating development in order to meet housing demand and the recognised need for certainty in this area, we anticipate that substantial reform in this area may be proposed in 2020.

The Productivity Commission’s views on planning reform

The Productivity Commission's Paper calls for submissions on the approach to planning reform. It raises a number of mechanisms that may be implemented or expanded as part of an efficient solution to delays in approval processes and improving certainty. We have outlined these below, together with some comments on their applicability in NSW:

  • standardising application requirements as well as other parts of the process, like development control plans and engineering standards: the Western Sydney Partnership (a working group set up under the Western Sydney City Deal as part of the Aerotropolis initiative) is looking to achieve consistencies across several western Sydney councils, and this could be rolled out across the State;
  • State-wide provision of pre-lodgement services: currently available in some NSW councils, this could reduce delays by ensuring all documents are in an acceptable form at the time of lodgement;
  • introducing a cut-off date for public submissions on development proposals (as is the case in other jurisdictions): currently, many councils provide a lot of flexibility in cut-off dates, which can draw out the assessment process;
  • introducing a Tribunal to handle minor planning disputes/appeals: NSW already has a specialist tribunal function in the Land and Environment Court, and it’s not clear yet whether further reform is being considered here;
  • expanding the scope of exempt and complying development assessment tracks: various attempt to do this in recent years have faltered, and a renewed emphasis would be a positive step; and
  • a mandatory ePlanning system for all councils.

With respect to ePlanning, there are several services already online including the submission, tracking and determination of development applications, and a Concurrence and Referral service. There is scope for this platform to be further integrated and for its functionality to be expanded to include the collection of contribution payments and the engagement of Sydney and Regional Planning Panels.

The Productivity Commission’s Paper notes that the "ePlanning Program has significantly improved public confidence in the New South Wales planning system. It is reducing application determination times, improving planning process transparency and ensuring greater stakeholder accountability."