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Nov 18, 2012

Health and society fail to rate in planning blueprint

As the prevalence of obesity continues to balloon in Australia, infrastructure planning designed to spur community health has been one of the great missed ta


As the prevalence of obesity continues to balloon in Australia, infrastructure planning designed to spur community health has been one of the great missed targets of policy-makers.

The growth in car-dependency, the decline in pedestrian opportunities and the triumph of tollways over public transport are all roads to ill-health.   Yet such development continues while the implications for social wellbeing are often left off the planning agenda.

Now the NSW Government, in its drive to cleanse planning of shonky developments under the previous Labor administration, is leaning towards changes which, while more transparent, take little account of community interests, like living.

Here Peter Sainsbury, Associate Professor, School of Public Health, University of Sydney and past president, Public Health Association of Australia, questions the lack of emphasis on the pursuit of a better society in NSW’s planning revamp.


A planning system for a better NSW, not for developments at any cost

Peter Sainsbury writes:

Brad Hazzard, the NSW Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, is currently preparing a White Paper that will outline the government’s plans for new planning legislation in NSW.

This follows widespread disenchantment during the latter years of the last Labor government with the current planning act, the NSW Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979,and the way it was administered.

In 2011 the new Coalition government initiated a review of the act and the planning system. After a year of consultations with stakeholders and the community, in July 2012 the government released a Green Paper that, without being definitive, indicated the government’s preferences.

The Green Paper contains many good ideas, particularly the emphasis on strategic planning, community and stakeholder involvement in the planning system, infrastructure planning and making the development application process as straightforward and transparent as possible.

There are, however, significant problems in the Green Paper that must be tackled in the White Paper if NSW is to have a planning system that serves the needs of the people. I will focus on five.

Foremost, the Green Paper fails to demonstrate any awareness of why governments and societies need a planning system: it fails to recognise the potential, indeed the obligation, of the planning legislation and system to contribute to the creation of a better society in NSW.

That should be the central purpose of the planning system and it should be explicit in the legislation. Consequently, the Green Paper fails to differentiate the goals of the planning legislation from the strategies needed to achieve those goals. In fact, what should be strategies for goal achievement, for instance efficient development application procedures, are mostly presented in the Green Paper as actual goals.

Obviously, however, there is no point in efficiently achieving the wrong thing.

A strong economy, job opportunities and adequate housing are all essential to a well functioning society but the focus of the planning system should be on whether and how they individually and collectively contribute to the creation of a better society, not simply on whether each one can be achieved for its own sake.

For example, no one would dispute that NSW needs an adequate supply of housing but any housing anywhere is not desirable. Poorly planned housing developments lead to more social, environmental, health and even housing problems than they solve.

Second, the Green Paper pays very little attention to the significant contribution the built environment makes to people’s health and welfare. For instance, individual and community health is promoted by: affordable housing located close to jobs; access to public transport; walking and cycling facilities; and high quality public open spaces and recreational facilities. A good planning system can help to deliver these.

Focus should go beyond bricks and mortar

Third, the Green Paper makes some references to protecting the environment but these are overshadowed by references to economic growth and sustainable growth. With a growing global population and finite natural resources, economic growth is not compatible with environmental sustainability, and hence not compatible with economic or social sustainability or ultimately the survival of humanity.

NSW must recognise that sustainable economic growth cannot exist and it is unrealistic and negligent to develop a new planning system that does not require environmental sustainability (e.g. low carbon emissions,
biodiversity, water conservation, waste minimisation).

The new state planning legislation will probably exist for the next twenty years and it beggars belief that a planning system being devised in 2012 rests on the premise that economic growth is possible over that period.

Fourth, the Green Paper gives considerable attention to depoliticising decision making. The corresponding emphasis on evidence, independence, expertise and transparency is commendable but it is unrealistic, if not disingenuous, to suggest that planning decisions can be depoliticised.

Planning policies and the design and location of specific developments are not purely technical issues; because they affect individuals’ living conditions and property and society’s welfare they are frequently contested, and hence highly political, issues.

For a planning system to be successful and to have the confidence of the community, the political nature of planning should be recognised and appropriately accommodated and managed in the system, not artificially suppressed.

Finally, the Green Paper asserts that ‘[t]he government’s clear intent … is that [development controls, standards and guidelines] should facilitate outcomes desirable to the market, not dictate solutions that preclude choice and flexibility’.

The market clearly is an important factor in building developments but it is because we cannot rely on the market alone to provide solutions that are in the best interests of (current and future) communities that we need planning systems.

The new planning system must ensure that choice and flexibility are available and that the market is able to play its part, while still ensuring that public interests, including the interests of neighbouring communities, are appropriately promoted.

Brad Hazzard has a choice. Does he create a planning system that focuses on bricks and mortar, satisfies developers and tackles problems in a piecemeal manner? Or does he create a system that is responsive to the
challenges of the twenty-first century; one that builds a healthier, more environmentally sustainable NSW, a better NSW for all?


• See recent parliamentary research paper,  NSW planning reforms: the Green Paper and other developments


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