NSW planning laws overhauled to boost housing supply

Planning shake-up: The government wants to increase the supply of housing.
Planning shake-up: The government wants to increase the supply of housing.

Long-awaited changes to the state's planning laws will mean councils will determine fewer development applications, but will be responsible for more regularly and clearly devising planning controls for local areas.

The changes are being presented by the state government as another means to increase the supply of housing, particularly in Sydney.

Other proposals include requiring councils and state planning agencies to develop community participation plans, closing loopholes allowing developers to add size to buildings once they are already approved, and simplifying council codes determining the height and shape of local developments.

"We are not after headlong development of any kind," said the Planning Minister, Rob Stokes. "But we also need to provide more homes," Mr Stokes said, citing Treasury figures that there was under-supply of about 100,000 homes in NSW.

The changes proposed by Mr Stokes, which are on exhibit for consultation until March 10, follow the Coalition government's failure to enact more sweeping reforms to planning laws in 2013.

The latest proposed amendments to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act echo some of the elements of the earlier proposals, but in a more modest form. The controversial "code assessment" element of the 2013 proposals, under which buildings would be fast-tracked if they were in areas ear-marked for development and complied with agreed standards, has not been revived.

Developers will be promised incentives if they consult on new developments with neighbours and locals prior to lodging development applications. These incentives are not specified, but will probably include fee reductions.

The proposals also imply the increasing specialisation and professionalisation of decision-making among people granting approval for housing and other developments.

For instance, although some councils have already established independent assessment panels to make recommendations on whether or not to approve residential developments, Mr Stokes' proposals would allow him to direct a council to use an independent panel.

Those panels would be made up of two independent experts and a community representative from a pool nominated by a council.

"Under this model, elected councils set the strategy, policy and standards for development on behalf of their constituents, while technical assessments and decisions are made by independent experts in line with council's framework," the Department of Planning's summary says.

"The benefit of this approach is that it helps to depoliticise and improve the thoroughness and quality of decision-making and, over time, increase community confidence in the planning system."

Mr Stokes said his view was that councillors were better served developing over-arching plans for a community, while professional experts were better at determining compliance with those plans. 

The amendments would require parliamentary approval. The failed 2013 reforms, introduced by then planning minister Brad Hazzard, were defeated by the opposition and minor parties.

Mr Stokes said he felt it was better to try and simplify the existing planning laws, rather than create new laws that could lead to more uncertainty in the planning system.

"This is about evolution not revolution," Mr Stokes said.

Another proposed amendment would allow the Secretary of the Department of Planning to step in if major developments were being slowed by a failure of other government departments to response to planning applications.

And measures will be introduced to make it more difficult for developers to modify applications once they have already been approved.

"We don't want modifications to be a backdoor route for a developer to get what they always wanted," Mr Stokes said.

Mr Stokes raised the ire of his federal Coalition counterparts late last year, when he suggested changes to negative gearing. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has resisted changing the tax treatment of housing, in turn criticised the failure of Sydney councils to approve enough housing. 

  • NSW planning laws overhauled to boost housing supply appeared first in The Sydney Morning Herald.