Submission to the NSW Planning Inquiry

by Councillor Charles Jago, City of Canada Bay Council

Density and infrastructure

The government has set planning targets for each council in Sydney to approve new dwellings, so future population growth is locked in. However, the government has neglected the infrastructure that residents need – public transport, public schools, hospitals and more.

Key examples of the infrastructure shortfall in Canada Bay LGA:

  • In many places, the previous government did not give planning consideration for new public schools, including Canada Bay LGA. They simply gave greater funds to private schools and substantially neglected public schools. To solve this problem, the government will have to acquire land at great expense (possibly compulsorily, as possible school sites were simply zoned residential). Sydney needs some new public schools immediately, but finding land and building them will take time.
  • Similarly, while the government deserves credit for building new metro train lines, some established rail lines (eg the T9 Northern line) have reached full capacity. While COVID has provided a reduction (not necessarily permanent) in passenger numbers, these lines need to be upgraded; the metro lines do not substitute for these routes. The government is supporting even greater housing density along these lines, but must implement the greater rail capacity needed for the current population, let alone future population numbers. These major upgrades will probably take a decade – they must start now.
  • In many areas, green space is totally inadequate. For example, current plans will see Rhodes expand by some 10,000 people over the next ten years – a rise of well over 50%. Yet Rhodes at that time will still not have a single sporting field. Also, the yet-to-be-built Rhodes Public School will have a student density 11 times greater than Concord West Public School down the road!

The infrastructure shortfall will be different in different locations. The government should consider putting population into regional areas if it is unwilling to provide adequate urban infrastructure. This would make sense given the extensive expansion of regional employment in new solar and wind energy infrastructure and the growth of employment in other regional sectors.

High-rise is inefficient

High-rise is more expensive and a less efficient solution than medium density, because the both the construction and operating costs are higher, and also they are less energy efficient in both construction and operation.

High-rise construction requires extensive use of steel and concrete, creating higher costs than for lower buildings which use different – less expensive – building materials. High-rise buildings also show increased energy intensity (ie reduced energy efficiency), due to greater embedded energy in the steel, concrete and other components.

Similarly, the operational cost of high-rise is higher due to the additional building services – primarily water and sewerage pumps, lift operation, air-conditioning and security – which is more than for smaller buildings. Then in their operation, these building services also require greater energy to operate than medium density buildings. A four-storey building requires less power, and will also be able to harvest enough energy from its roof to power a lot of its energy needs, which is far less likely for much taller buildings.

In addition, high-rise towers are intrinsically less safe. In the event of fire or any other emergency, people in a tall building take longer to escape. People trapped on upper floors may be out of reach of rescue vehicles ladders. For these reasons, medium density buildings are physically better than high-rise.

Further, research shows real social problems tend to occur in high-rise. The greater scale reinforces social isolation. This is a generalisation, but buildings of lesser height find it easier to establish a higher perception of community.

Yes, we accept that there will be a range of building heights for different needs, but the love affair with high-rise benefits developers not the needs of Sydney.

Building efficiency and climate impact

The current BASIX targets (despite recent minor updates) remain inconsistent with climate science advice and Australia’s Paris Agreement (2015) commitments. The government must take strong action with much more effective building efficiency standards. With buildings built today expected to last 50 to 100 years, we are locking in climate failure.

In addition, NSW must legislate to phase out its reticulated gas network, which provides a product that is less safe, dangerous for climate, and more costly than than the electric alternative.

Housing supply

While many have focused on pushing for greater housing approvals by councils, the fact is that councils have approved a record number of dwellings (as required by the NSW government) but developers have not converted these approvals into completed dwellings, in large part because they prefer not to flood the market, thus reducing their sales revenue.

While the media has focused on housing as a raw supply problem, it was welcome to see Housing Minister Jackson acknowledge other factors affecting supply, including built housing which simply remains vacant, as well as the short-term housing market (eg Air-BNB) which leaves housing unused for a substantial number of days per year.

In addition, the focus at a federal level on providing investment incentives such as negative gearing and capital gains discount has largely failed to expand supply.

The most effective strategy for increasing housing supply remains the approach used in Europe (not to mention also used in Australia from the 1940s to he 1960s by the Commonwealth and all states) which is governments directly constructing housing. I understand that the NSW government wants to reduce pressure on its budget. Nevertheless, it should consider the extent of the housing crisis and the substantial failure of current approaches.

Taken together, the needs across NSW for social housing and affordable housing amount to some hundreds of thousands of dwellings. While immediate actions are required, the major approach of the NSW government should be to directly start building medium density housing – first social housing for those in dire circumstances, then affordable housing. Such a strategy will take time but will produce far more reliable results than the indirect incentives which have not been working, and at much greater scale. It will ensure much greater employment and skills development. By implementing higher building efficiency standards in its own large body of housing, the government will also be able to insist on a set of higher building efficiency standards across the building industry.

Council independence

The former Coalition NSW government failed on housing, with the nation’s worst housing crisis. Not to be put off, the current Labor government continues the same basic strategy with minor changes. Through it all, councils have been stripped of a large part of their powers through continued centralisation to the NSW government, especially in planning.

Councils in Sydney have been turned into appendages of government, with little discretion to set their own strategy where the NSW government has a different view. The government has forced uniform rules on councils, producing poorer environments. The focus on planning immediacy and expediency has especially failed. The idea of the NSW government as necessarily more competent than councils is rubbish.

Similarly, the idea that the NSW government must take power because of council corruption overlooks major integrity problems in the NSW government. Yes, ICAC has exposed corruption in some councils, and the issue is real. But three NSW premiers have resigned due to integrity problems in the last thirty years, one of them being found to be corrupt. And in its last term, the Coalition gave away some $500 million of politically motivated (ie corrupt) grants, as highlighted by the NSW auditor general.

In summary, the NSW Government cannot claim to be more competent or even more honest than local government. Councils must have greater independence to represent their constituents and their planning powers must be returned.

Note: the last section has been updated from the submission to the Inquiry.