Interview with Jim Betts: Why the days of cranking the planning handle are over
“Cranking the handle” on planning applications must make way for a more “strategic approach” says NSW’s new planning chief Jim Betts. He’s determined to transform the state’s planning system, and he says the property industry can help.
The NSW planning system has long been characterised by delay, cost, uncertainty and lack of transparency. But four months into the job as secretary of the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, Betts is on a mission to transform the system into one that is accountable and transparent “so people can have more confidence that they won’t get lost in years of regulatory uncertainty”.
There have been more than 100 attempts to change the regulatory framework since the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act was passed in 1979, but Betts says the challenge ahead is “one of cultural transformation” not regulation.
“People differ in their views as to whether the system is broken and to what extent, but there is an alarming unanimity that the issues are around culture rather than legislation,” he says.
“We have a culture that is more regulatory than enabling.”
Betts joined the new mega-department, established on 1 July, after almost six years as leading Infrastructure NSW and five years as secretary of the Victorian Department of Transport. He reports to six ministers – including Minister for Planning and Public Spaces Rob Stokes – and oversees a portfolio that includes environmental regulation, local government, primary industries, agriculture, fisheries, forestry, food, farms and energy.
He’s not about to throw out provisions that protect the character of neighbourhoods or our natural environment, but Betts says he’s determined to resolve the tension between environmental sustainability and the need to accommodate a growing population.
Sydney is expected to accommodate an extra 1.7 million people over the next three decades, and this population growth “can’t come at the expense of those things that people value most about their communities”.
Parks and cycling trails, museums and libraries are “critical battle grounds”. Betts says the planning system must protect public open space, or what he calls the “blue green grid”, and to nurture the development of high-quality cultural institutions and activities. “If we don’t build that into the front end of the planning system, we will lose the social license to grow”.
Subsequently, he’s appointed a new deputy secretary for place, design and public spaces, Alex O’Mara, who is focused on excellence in design, respect for local neighbourhood character and “welcoming” public spaces.
But he also emphasises that “what goes in Woollahra doesn’t necessarily apply in Wagga Wagga – our communities are very different and we need to be mindful of that”.
People in regional NSW want jobs, and the planning system has a role to play in ensuring that investment in these regions can be made with confidence, he explains.
Local governments play a critical role, and the state government must “think carefully about what its value add is”.
“Local government is at its best when it contains thought leaders who can think outside their municipality and can see the big picture. The state government works best when it listens to what local government has to say – because local government thinks more about place.”
Betts talks about “getting in at the front end” to give local governments and local businesses the opportunity to attract inwards investment “without having the complexity of the planning system contaminating the task”.
Transforming the planning system requires a multi-pronged approach – and top of the list is to simplify the “alphabet soup” of documents, processes and planning instruments.
Betts says he is looking to strengthen his department’s sense of accountability to instil confidence, to build a “solid evidence base” and a “simple and legible set of strategic principles” that provide guidance at the earliest stages of development so “people don’t get lost in years of regulatory uncertainty”.
While the state government may have been focused on “cranking the handle on planning applications” in the past, those days are over. Ahead is a more “strategic approach” to planning.
The Greater Sydney Commission has started the reorientation “by ensuring we don’t just deal with planning applications on an isolated basis”.
What can Australia’s property industry do to support this shift to strategic planning?
In the first instance, Betts wants the industry’s frank and fearless opinions on the system’s shortcomings. “Work with us to identify the priority areas for reform – including the quick wins that will get us in the habit of working together towards reform”.
But he also wants to see “progressive leaders” in the property industry to “explicitly set benchmarks”. He says controversies around building defects make it difficult for governments “to defend the industry”.
“We see community anxiety about cheap, low-quality development, and that makes it harder for everyone trying to enable a pathway to population growth that is acceptable to the community.
“The property industry needs to enable reform and set the priorities, but also provide its own thought leadership and model high quality outcomes – in terms of both design and community engagement”.
Betts’s message is clear. “We are up for reform. Rob Stokes and I are in a hurry. We don’t want four years to elapse and to have missed the opportunity to transform the planning system into something much more principles- and place-based.
“But we need the development industry to come on the journey with us – and you can do that through the quality of your work and through your engagement with the community.”
Responding to Betts’s signal towards a more strategic approach to planning and the need for cultural reform, Property Council’s NSW executive director, Jane Fitzgerald, argues that fixing the current NSW planning system is a huge job.”.
“There have been some terrific reforms - the establishment of the Greater Sydney Commission, the Sydney-wide strategic plans, the independent hearing and assessment panels – to name a few. But, the challenge of deep and sustained reform is enormous. The Property Council looks forward to working closely with Jim to realise his vision.”
NSW Building Reforms Update
Following strong leadership by the Property Council at a national level and the release of the NSW Government’s Building Stronger Foundations: Discussion Paper, the Government has recently appointed David Chandler OAM as the NSW Building Commissioner.
The Commissioner will have input into the current reforms which were outlined in the discussion paper as well as making further recommendations on issues related to cladding and building defects.
It is still unclear what the scope of his role will be, however he has announced that he will be engaging Bronwyn Weir to assist with the first stages of the reforms and creating a Building and Construction Stakeholder Advisory Group. It is also expected that he will announce recommendations in relation to cladding in the next few weeks.
At the same time, the NSW Legislative Council is holding an inquiry into the regulation of building standards, building quality and building disputes and we expect an interim report to be delivered by October. The Property Council has provided a submission to the Inquiry and the discussion paper.
The NSW Government has committed to introducing the Parliament legislation related to the reforms outlined in the paper this year, and Property Council will continue to work closely with Government on their approach.
NSW Retirement Living Buy Backs
Following the NSW Government’s release of the discussion paper Retirement Villages – Exit Entitlements and Recurrent Charges Cap, strong advocacy and consultation has continued on this policy with industry and members.
The Property Council has provided a submission in relation to the discussion paper, which outlines the concerns and significant impacts that the current six-month timeframes in metropolitan areas and 12-month timeframes in regional areas will have on in investment in seniors housing. The submission also includes an alternative proposal solution in which the Property Council believes addresses the concerns of the NSW Government and the residents impacted.
The Minister for Better Regulation and Innovation, Kevin Anderson, recently attended a Property Council board room lunch with industry where members were able to outline their concerns in detail and discuss the matter with the Minister.
Engagement and advocacy with the NSW Government and members on this matter will continue over the coming weeks, and it is hoped that the feedback provided in Property Council’s submission will be used to help shape the reforms and ensure that they reflect the needs of residents and village operators.
NSW Planning Portal – New 24/7 ePlanning Program
The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) has reached a significant stage in the delivery of its ePlanning Program, which is a new digital solution to assist the development process from DA lodgement through to the granting of Occupation Certificates. The program enables 24/7 application lodgement, tracking workflow for use by applicants, councils and State agencies.
The system provides a simple integrated alternative to the complex array of manual processes used across NSW. The three latest digital services on the NSW Planning Portal enable people to apply for a Construction Certificate, appoint their Principal Certifying Authority and apply for an Occupation Certificate online. At this stage only one of these services is mandatory – the Online Concurrence and Referral service, which must be adopted by all NSW councils by 1 January 2020.
DPIE are working with councils to assist them in their transition to the online Concurrence and Referral service and taking this opportunity to encourage them to consider adopting the full range of integrated services. Benefits of the ePlanning Digital Services include:
- Reduction of assessment times
- Improvements in the transparency of planning processes
- Ensures greater accountability of all stakeholders
- Improves the customer experience for all users.
The data drawn from the integrated services will also feed into the Department’s Development Data Analytics warehouse, which can be organised in to reports and be made available, enabling industry, community and Government to make better evidence-based decisions. Explore the Application Tracker and the Open Data section of the Portal to see how this data is already being used.
The Online DA service has received more than 1420 DAs across 19 councils since going live in December 2018. A full list of councils using this service is available here.
The Online Concurrence and Referral service, which enables councils to request State agency advice online, is being used by 43 councils and 24 State agencies. More than 1000 requests have been submitted since the service went live in January 2019. The more telling figure is the average assessment time – it is down to 19 days, from 40+ days previously.
A full list of councils using the Online Concurrence and Referrals service is available here
NSW Building Approvals Update
The latest data from ABS has shown that the number of dwelling units approved in NSW has fallen 6.5 per cent in July, the trend estimate for private sector houses was also flat in July.
On a national level, the trend estimated for total dwellings approved overall fell 3.2 per cent in July, and the trend estimate for private sector houses fell 3.3 per cent.
The trend estimates of the value of total building approved fell 1.0% in July and has fallen for four months. The value of residential building fell 1.9% and has fallen for 19 months. The value of non-residential building rose 0.3% and has risen for 11 months.