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Developing democratic town planning

By Brad Ruting - posted Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Urban development in New South Wales is in strife. Glossy planning documents abound and, at least in theory, the system is consultative and democratic. But it’s flawed.

Sydney is a growing and groaning city, expanding faster than its infrastructure and transport networks can keep up. It’s not that old Sydney town doesn’t want to grow; most people accepted this fact of life long ago. It’s that urban growth has been so poorly managed. Plans, strategies, visions and regulations abound, but with so many exceptions and exemptions the good ideas are being suffocated.

Urban planning, of course, is a normative discipline. It involves imposing visions and rules onto society to structure its spatial existence and control individual behaviour to maximise collective wellbeing over time. Yet attempting to achieve this through haphazard planning strategies that are riddled with loopholes is making a farce of the whole process.


The main problem is part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment (Infrastructure and Other Planning Reform) Act 2005. Under this, the NSW Minister for Planning, Frank Sartor, can assume Development Authority (DA) for any development he deems “state significant”.

The 3A DA is too powerful, and inherently undemocratic.

State significance, according to the legislation, relates to any development related to any form of agriculture, mining, manufacturing, tourism, healthcare, transport, electricity, water or waste disposal. All that leaves is offices and residential buildings, and they’re “state significant” too if their value exceeds $50 million, or if they’re deemed crucial for achieving state planning objectives. Doesn’t leave much, does it?

The intention wasn’t wholly bad. Incompetent, slow and corrupt councils, often engaging in NIMBYism and pandering to vested interests weren’t good for development - especially if you’re trying to put waste sites, prisons, power stations and the like in the optimal places. Yet the legislation got carried away. There’s not much that can’t be called “state significant”, and the liberal wording of the laws has meant such declarations are nearly impossible to contest in the courts.

The pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction.

Technically, thresholds and criteria within the legislation keep the minister in check. Exhibiting plans, seeking local feedback and consulting with councils are mandatory. In practice, however, these have been vague at times, and feedback has been ignored on many occasions. “State significance” is largely at the minister’s whim.


Indeed, this all makes one wonder why we both with three levels of government. What’s the point of local councils if they aren’t scrutinising big development projects properly or giving all the stakeholders a say? What’s the point of state government if it’s merely rubber stamping proposals, pocketing the taxes and doing little to improve public transport and infrastructure?

The 3A legislation does have has some merit, though, and has been used for hospitals and wind farms. Most of the controversy lies in the residential and commercial applications. How individual residential developments can be significant to the economic and social wellbeing of New South Wales isn’t quite clear to many people, although it is to the Planning Minister apparently.

There have been some well managed cases. Rhodes Peninsula, an emerging high-density master planned residential development on the edge of Homebush Bay is one.

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About the Author

Brad Ruting is a geographer and economist, with interests in the labour market, migration, tourism, urban change, sustainable development and economic policy. Email:

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