NSW’s new planning chief Jim Betts is in a hurry. He’s determined to transform the state’s planning system, and he says the property industry can help. But how?
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 says the challenge ahead is “one of cultural transformation” not regulation.
There have been more than 100 attempts to change the regulatory framework since the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act was passed in 1979, Betts says.
“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.
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.”