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Does town planning over promise and under deliver?

By Ross Elliott - posted Tuesday, 29 March 2016

After several decades of increasingly sophisticated strategic town planning, community angst and confusion - along with industry annoyance - continues to test new lows. Things are getting no better and many would suggest that planning is increasingly becoming a process-ridden exercise more concerned with vague platitudes and politically correct language than delivering on outcomes. Is there something that could change this trajectory?

Urban development and urban growth in this country was largely a laissez faire model for much of the period since white settlement to perhaps the early 1980s. By this time, in response to community interest and also to try better manage growth, regulatory planning was having a greater say in land use and development permits. Town planning departments at various levels of government were still in the main small(ish) sections of the bureaucracy. Governments of the day were more interested in seeing things built and delivered than debated and delayed. Town planning was more focussed on granting permits than denying them.

But as the years progressed since, regulatory town planning has taken on a much greater role as a strategic 'command and control' centre within governments of all political persuasions. As community concerns and NIMBYism becomes more widespread, planning has become much more focussed on process and on managing politics. Outcomes have become increasingly expressed as a collection of motherhood statements, often cobbled together to appease various politically active constituencies. It's now less about laying out land use and infrastructure plans in a businesslike manner. Instead, it seems more about making promises for political purposes.


Modern town planning has some wonderful achievements to its name but is it also now in danger of over promising and under delivering? Does this explain why the community and industry are losing faith in the process? I know many senior town planners are equally as frustrated that their profession is at one end becoming more about petty rule book regulation while at the strategic end, more prone to flights of esoteric fancy that promises more than it can realistically deliver.

By way of example of an over promise, take this statement contained in the 2013 version of the Draft Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney which promised: "A home I can afford. Great transport connections. More jobs closer to where I live. Shorter commutes. The right type of home for my family. A park for the kids. Local schools, shops and hospitals. Liveable neighbourhoods."

Wisely, future versions of that set of heroic promises were expunged from the Sydney Metro strategy. Housing affordability, congestion and housing choice have all since deteriorated in Sydney to a significant extent, with little sign of improvement on the horizon. Why did town planners preparing that draft feel obliged to promise so much in the first place? It was an over reach, which only serves to raise community expectation to unrealistic levels.

Another example of a town planning promise that got carried away with the narrative is taken from a recent planning document that deals with an inner city neighbourhood of another one of our larger cities. The 'Vision Statement' for the local Structure Plan promises to: "Provide for (the area) to become a higher density mixed use community that exemplifies inner city sustainability, social inclusiveness, sub tropical design excellence and innovation in its urban form. It will be attractive, affordable, public transport oriented, convenient and comfortable for pedestrians and cyclists, provide public spaces for local amenity and recreation and accommodate a diverse range of people. It will also take full advantage of its strategic location and maintain its role as an employment node."

Wow. That pretty much covers everything. Perhaps the authors could have added: "Under this plan, no child will live in poverty" just for good measure?

This isn't trying to single out either example because they are no longer exceptions but fairly typical of the sort of tone that seems expected from strategic planning documents. If these politically motivated sentinments aren't included, political leaders are faced with potential community outrage from the semi professional objector lobbies. The problem is that measuring the performance of motherhood statements is impossible, and plans are frequently re-made (often in line with political cycles) before any performance assessment is carried out.


And this is the point: how often can you recall reading or seeing or hearing of any strategic planning document, strategy or paper being subject to any sort of rigid performance assessment? For example, "this plan promised to deliver "x" volume of new dwellings with y% of them at a multiple of four times average incomes for the area but it achieved only "z" number of dwellings and none of them were available for less than 6 times avarege incomes." Or what about infrastructure targets? Plans that propose to collect infrastructure levies as a result of development activity in line with that plan, could also identify what infrastructure will be provided, at what cost, where and by when. Performance assessments could identify successes and failures on defined KPIs, and suggest explanations for the failures – with remedies in turn reflected in future planning schemes. A process of constant improvement based on performance assessment. Much like a business plan does.

This lack of agreed, measureable outcomes or KPIs in much of what passes for strategic planning today also means that performance assessment is limited to ambigous or fluffy language. How often do we now read things like "this has become a vibrant community featuring sustainable design principles and a cosmopolitan lifestyle which enhances livabliity, connectivity and inclusiveness." Just what does that really mean? And how on earth could you measure it?

Perhaps our approach to town planning – and to being realistic with community and industry expectation – might benefit if we began to include measureable KPIs and objective outcomes as part of our planning schemes, along with the community consultation that goes with them? By creating a clear picture of the outcomes we intend, and the ability to measure progress toward those outcomes, is it possible that some of the "over-promise and under-deliver" that seems to feature in strategic planning could be addressed? By treating strategic town planning as a business plan for a region or community, could we shift the focus from 'vision statements' as an end game to the nuts and bolts performance objectives that feature in good business planning models as the measureable outcomes of the vision?

It at least could be an idea worth exploring. If not, we must think the current trajectory is fine and that more of the same can only make things better. Who seriously believes that?

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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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