More on the threats facing Ku-ring-gai

This page provides further detail on urban consolidation and overdevelopmentpolitical donationsstate environmental planning policies, complying development, Ku-ring-gai Council’s planning policies and documents, independent hearing and assessment panels,  and population policy.

Urban consolidation AND OVERDEVELOPMENTGo to top of page

This policy appears to have no justifiable rationale.  Quite the opposite – others, such as Save Our Suburbs, have mounted strong cases that demonstrate basic flaws in the policy; flaws that the State Government has not even attempted to rebut.  In FOKE’s view, a policy that threatens so much built and natural heritage, that steals so much amenity and property value from existing residents, deserves not mere justification, but should be required to show compelling net benefit to the NSW community.

The use of the Greater Sydney Commission as the public relations arm of the NSW Planning Department urging strident development across Sydney under their Metropolis of Three Cities vision to meet a population growth target that is unsustainable. Community consultation on the plan resulted in perceptively few, if any, changes to the plan irrespective of the fact that submissions against the existing plans were extremely high!

The result has been rapidly increasing house prices, removal of older units and houses to make way for luxury apartments, reducing housing affordability, highrise apartments across the suburbs, traffic congestion, overcrowded schools and public transport.

But this simplistic rationale has many flaws.

  • The infrastructure of older suburbs was designed for low densities.  Greater density requires retrofitting infrastructure upgrades to water, electricity, sewerage, telephone, etc.  Such upgrades are much more expensive than starting from scratch in a new suburb, and cause much disruption to the lives of affected residents.
  • On the face of it, concentrating more population near rail stations and other transport hubs will reduce traffic problems, pollution, etc.  But in practice, each new dwelling uses an average of two cars, whether next to a station or not.  Fact is, the large majority of car trips are not to somewhere serviced by rail.  And the poor quality of public transport services – frequency, timeliness, comfort, overcrowding, cancellations, breakdowns – means that many people, otherwise well motivated to use public transport, often choose not to.
  • More dwellings per hectare means more hard surface and accordingly more stormwater run-off.  With Ku-ring-gai’s high rainfall, steep slopes, readily erodible soils, and adjoining national parks, it is most important that run-off not be increased, in order to protect bushland and watercourses from erosion, and to prevent harbour pollution and siltation.  Low built-upon ratios are also important to preservation of the tree canopy and bio-linkages used by wildlife to travel between the parklands adjoining Ku-ring-gai.
  • Overflows of sewage during heavy rain are another risk to bushland, watercourses, and harbour, quite apart from the risks to public health they entail.
  • The carbon footprint of medium- and high-density dwellings is greater than single residential dwellings, due to the greater use of concrete, reinforcing steel, construction cranes, carpark excavation, heating and air-conditioning, lifts and other services.
  • With climate change, this increase of hard surfaces will further increase the ‘heat island effect’ already occurring in the CBD areas, whereby hard surfaces increase temperatures in summer, resulting in increased energy use for air-conditioning.

Political donationsGo to top of page

In the absence of any proper justification of urban consolidation, it is not surprising that many believe that the policy has its real basis more in the flow of donations and favours from property developers to major political parties, individual politicians and particularly to the government of the day.  There have been many recent revelations of corruption, influence-peddling, and illegal donations that appear to coincide with planning decisions of doubtful probity.  These have led many to question whether political donations should be allowed at all, or should be capped at very low levels.  Not only are such donations a threat to proper planning process, they bring politicians generally into disrepute, and strike at the foundation of transparent political process.

Political donations allow developers and others to wield influence on those with responsibility for:

  • formulating planning policy,
  • formulating planning instruments such as Local Environmental Plans (LEPs) or Development Control Plans (DCPs), or
  • negotiating or approving development applications

People with such responsibilities may be found at many levels – local councils (both staff and councillors), planning panels (staff and panel members) and the Department of Planning (ministerial and departmental staff, plus ministers).

The NSW Government has made useful changes to some features of the political donation regime, but has also foreshadowed the possibility of reverting to something closer to the former regime.  Whatever, problems will remain unless the root of the problem is addressed.  All significant donations should be disclosed on the Election Funding Authority web site in timely fashion – daily in the period immediately preceding an election, not six months after the event!  Voters deserve to know, when they vote, who is paying the piper.

Penalties for non-disclosure and late disclosure should effectively treat amounts that are disclosed late, or are not disclosed at all, as bribes.  Penalties for politicians should include loss of office.  Until then, many will continue to treat their disclosure responsibilities as minor, if not with contempt.  Penalties that invite comparison with a slap on the wrist are nothing less than an invitation to laxity, malpractice and corruption.

To explore the extent of political donations and timing “coincidences” between past political donations and planning decisions, plus links to other useful sites, see democracy4sale.org.

State Environmental Planning Policies (SEPPs)Go to top of page

Just as important a threat to transparent planning policy is the existence of State Environmental Planning Policies (SEPPs). These allow the exercise of centralised and potentially arbitrary power. For some time, the use of SEPPs have allowed the State Government to exercise very significant planning powers with little accountability. Unlike legislation and regulations, SEPPs are issued with effectively no parliamentary scrutiny. Most vest very significant power in the Planning Minister.

In particular, there is little if any opportunity to challenge whether a Planning Minister’s decisions have been reached reasonably, having regard to the facts, or after due process. No matter how arbitrary a decision may seem, how capricious the exercise of power may be, how tainted a decision may appear by an apparently associated political donation, decisions are effectively final.

Complying developmentsGo to top of page

In recent years the list of complying developments, as well as SEPPs have expanded to allow for faster approvals and less Council oversight. In 2018, the Medium Density Code significantly extended these types of developments to allow medium density in R1 and R2 residential areas.

What is the Medium Density Housing Code? The Medium Density Housing Code, extends medium density development throughout current low density single dwelling (R2 zone) residential areas as complying development. As complying development, developers will not need to get development application approval, with neighbours only required to be informed of these developments without the right to object.

This code, also referred to as the Missing Middle, is so flawed that already four councils have been granted a 12 month delay from its July 2018 introduction, with another five councils seeking deferrals and more to come. Minister Roberts states there was extensive consultation, with FOKE among hundreds of submissions. However, the Planning Minister never altered the proposed code as complying development in the face of nearly universal opposition, from both communities and councils!

These medium density complying developments include townhouses, terraces, manor homes (2up, 2 down) and dual occupancies. This proposal applies an extended rezoning for medium density (with minor exceptions) to low-density residential land. It does not take into account the cumulative effects of intensifying development on local infrastructure, services, traffic, street car parking, social services and amenities. It overrides local environment plans and planning controls to the detriment of residents. Also please read FOKE’s Media Release Low Density Residential Zones to Disappear.

Ku-ring-gai Council’s planning policies and documentsGo to top of page

To complete the range of planning policies and documents affecting building and development in Ku-ring-gai, you should also check out Ku-ring-gai Council’s own planning policies and documents, accessible on its website.

A number of these items include provisions thrust upon Council by the Planning Minister or his department, notwithstanding that some of them appear in stark contradiction to SEPP No. 65 – Design Quality of Residential Flat Development.  Moreover, new or changed Local Environmental Plans (LEPs) require ministerial consent before they can be formally ‘exhibited’ – the first step towards ‘gazettal’, which also requires ministerial consent.  The zoning within an LEP can also be challenged by a developer or proponent when a development is not approved by Council, with a decision made by one of the Minister-appointed panels.

However, Development Control Plans (DCPs) remain basically a matter for Council.  The controls set out in LEPs, however, take precedence over those in DCPs.

Independent Hearing and Assessment PanelsGo to top of page

From 1 March 2018, the NSW Planning Minister announced that Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs) are mandatory for all Sydney councils supposedly to ‘guard against corruption and lead to better local planning decisions.

This imposition applies to all Development Applications with a value greater than $5 million up to $30 million. However, we are already burdened with the Sydney North Planning Panel established in 2016 to determine regionally significant development applications with a capital investment value of more than $20M, and can also conduct rezoning reviews where a developer is denied a rezoning request by Council.

The Independent Planning Assessment Commission (PAC), also under delegation from the Minister, then reviews and approves major developments above this value. Currently, the PAC to date has a rate of approval close to 99% in favour of developers vs the community.

There has been widespread community concern regarding the mandatory imposition of IHAPs on all Councils, which takes more development approval decisions away from local council and elected councillors into the hands of unelected State Government appointees.

The standard model for IHAPs comprises three independent expert members from law, government, planning, architecture and one community member. The community member will represent the geographical area within the Local Government Area of the proposed development. No councillors are allowed to be included. Therefore, there will be only one member with a local perspective on the development.  We believe IHAPS have been put in place to facilitate development which may not always be in keeping with the local area and which will have less scrutiny by the community.

The NSW Liberal State Government is increasingly taking development planning out of the hands of the community. IHAPs will be able to handle DAs where they seek to depart from a local development standard or have numerous objections. The idea that this government-controlled body will reflect community concerns and uphold local development controls against developer interests is naive. This has not been the experience with other government bodies. These panels have the potential to bring huge change to Ku-ring-gai and its residents, affecting heritage, environment, streetscape, traffic and amenity, as well as the ability of existing infrastructure to cope.  Much of the cost of necessary infrastructure upgrades will fall on residents.  And all these decisions are now being made by people who have not chosen to live in Ku-ring-gai, and who won’t have to live with the results of their decisions.

Residents deserve to have their views on Ku-ring-gai’s town centres heard, treated with respect, and heeded.   But quite the reverse has applied.  Residents’ views have generally been treated with a mix of condescension, scorn and contempt.  Such ‘consultation’ as has occurred has been superficial.  Residents have been effectively disenfranchised.

It is simply not acceptable that suburban residents – in Ku-ring-gai or anywhere else in Sydney – should be required to accept massive change to their town centres and suburban streets because some ‘planning experts’ have decided they know better than residents how our areas should be allowed to develop!

POPULATION POLICY  Go to top of page

There appears to be a complete disconnect between

  • the population increases that are driving the need for more housing, on the one hand; and
  • on the other hand,
    • the ever-increasing evidence that our road, rail, power, water, stormwater, sewerage, hospital etc infrastructures are unable to cope with the existing population, let alone an increased one; and
    • the concerns relating to “climate change” and “peak oil” that suggest that energy-hungry medium- or high-rise apartments will be part of the problem , not part of its solution.

All this points to the need for a serious national debate on immigration levels and the larger number of temporary visas issued. A debate in which the views of Federal, State and Local governments are all reflected as well as those of all our residents and citizens, not just those of the developers and their lobby groups whose interests lie in profit before environment and amenity of existing and new residents.

Otherwise, State housing strategies will increasingly be seen to serve the symbiotic relationship between major political parties and the developers of apartment buildings.  Current strategies and policies, unjustified or arrogantly imposed, threaten the democratic process, and democracy itself. See Dick Smith’s AGM presentation on Population Policy video.