RMB Articles

Planning Matters: The Debate About Planning

The Debate about Planning

Planning matters. It is a simple as that. There is presently a lively academic and professional debate over the best means to achieve the ends of spatial planning policy. This debate has raged for years without leading to a consensus position. Perhaps this is because land use planning systems are intrinsically linked to the history and culture of a society. We have been building cities for millenniums because civilized people want to live in urban areas. Mostly we build cities because, functionally, they have proven to be the best means by which we can earn a living. For much of this time market forces determined the built form outcome. It has only been in comparatively recent years that we have allowed ourselves the luxury of thinking that we can have an opinion on how best to create these organic places.

In essence, the debate in planning is about power. It is about who ‘owns’ the neighbourhood. In NSW we have a land title system derived from our colonial history whereby individual parcels of land are alienated to a property owner as freehold title. As owner, that person enjoys the right to develop the land. Yet the fact is that individual parcels of land have no utility unless they are related to other parcels, to infrastructure such as roads and to a legal frame of reference to secure the benefits of ownership. Aggregations of separate parcels, linked to community infrastructure, create neighbourhoods. These are dispersed throughout the city from the residential silos in the centre and stretching to the dormitory suburbs on the greater metropolitan fringe. In regional areas a similar process occurs. Where ever they happen, these neighbourhoods are the places we live and in which we make our home. In NSW the granting of freehold title has meant that people want more than just a say in the process. I believe that what the people want is power to affect the outcome.

It could have been very different. In a place like Hong Kong, the land title system that developed was derived from the fact that the British occupied much of the territory pursuant to a 99 year lease granted by the Chinese Emperor under threat of force. So unlike the situation in most of Australia, freehold title was not granted to the property owner. Instead, the British government granted a limited crown lease of fifty to seventy five years duration. Despite the lack of a perpetual title, this has not prevented the development of the city but it has occurred in a very different fashion.

If you live in Hong Kong, you like living like this:


Because of the hand over from the British in 1997, a large proportion of the leases which were renewed just before the handover will come up for review in 2047. At this time the title will revert to the Chinese government. No doubt the city will continue to evolve but the looming impact of the title reversion moment will need to be managed. Presently, at the end of the lease, the state is required to pay some compensation for the capital improvements built on the land but the state will control the future development of the city. Just how that will impact on the economy of Hong Kong is not known. In an interesting article in 1999 Carolyn Cartier viewed the development of Hong Kong through a lens which she described as ‘buildings as material representations of social relations of production.’ This enabled Cartier to argue that the population of Hong Kong was ‘surrounded by the State’s authority embedded in the built environment. It is an interesting way to consider the planning system. It is a theme picked up by proponents of the placed based theory of planning like Hague and Jenkins in Place Identity, Participation and Planning (2005). They suggest that land use planning is ‘a set of institutions, ideas and practices that sits within a social context and is embedded in power relations.’

In NSW, our built form environment is a product of not only our colonial history - which gave us a particular type of land distribution, but it is also a product of our legislative history – which gave us the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. This act regulates development in NSW. It is the means by which we facilitate the delivery of our built form. According to the current NSW government, despite all our efforts to facilitate development we are still some one hundred thousand dwellings short in the Sydney area. This demand for housing has spawned novel solutions, most recently the idea of building pre-fabricated skyscrapers stretching from Central Station to Strathfield http://www.smh.com.au/data-point/swap-you-chinese-skyscrapers-for-a-motorway-20130628-2p2qk.html. The idea was that in return for building the M4 East motorway for the community a consortium would be given the right to develop land along the rail corridor. The state government has rejected the idea.

Giving away such valuable property rights is not consistent with the government’s fresh approach to land use planning. The New South Wales government is in the thick of a process to reshape the planning system created by the EP&A Act. According to the White Paper ( http://www.planning.nsw.gov.au/newplanningsystem), the government wants to place ‘people and their choices at the heart of planning decisions.’ This is a revolutionary approach to land use planning which, up to now, has been firmly captured by a bureaucratic process. It highlights the Gordian knot that has bedevilled the land use planning debate for years. Just who is best placed to determine the public interest? Is it the market, the government or the people? Up to now, the public interest in determining where development should occur has been the responsibility of the government. Since the 1940s the minister, on behalf of the government, has made land use planning instruments which were intended to control development by identifying what if any development can occur on a given parcel of land.

Under the new planning system laid out in the White Paper, it is intended that there will be ‘greater community input into the planning processes, shaping the future of our suburbs and towns.’ It is suggested that this will lead to better decisions because of an ‘up front’ process ‘based on sound evidence and strong community participation.’ But will the people and the market follow the government’s lead? To achieve the vision set out in the White Paper, it will be crucial that the planning reforms result in a greater percentage of the people actually engaging in the discussion than is the case at present. If the community is to be something more than just the consumer of the built form supplied by the market regulated by the government, then the processes to be introduced into the new planning system need to be meaningful and not tokenistic. Inviting the public to make a submission about the nature of development to occur in a neighbourhood is not participation. It is paying lip service to the ideal. If that is all the new planning system achieves then it will risk being seen as a mere siphon for development.

I have been studying the work of the British academic Patrick McAuslan for some time. It was McAuslan who first articulated the ideologies which underpin land use planning systems. In his 1980 book The Ideologies of Planning Law, McAuslan identified three key ideologies: the ideology of Private Property, the ideology of Public Interest and the ideology of Public Participation. At first blush, it would seem that the government is moving towards the ideology of public participation. If it were, then this would be a revolution in thinking because, as McAuslan suggests, the ideology of public participation has up to now lacked a constituency. However a close reading of the White Paper leads to a different conclusion. At the present time the EP&A Act has as a central objective the aspiration ‘to provide increased opportunity for public involvement and participation.’ Under the new proposed legislation this aspiration is reduced to ‘providing opportunities for early and ongoing community participation in strategic planning and decision making.’ The reformulation of words is significant.

Land use planning is about more than just economic development. The debate should be about more than how we can build more dwellings. It should be about the places we want the market to build for us. The government talks in the White Paper about building a partnership with the community yet the Director General of Planning, Mr Haddad, recognised in his evidence to the Standing Committee of the Legislative Council in 2009 that community engagement was a particular area that the department was ‘struggling with.’ Despite the best efforts of the bureaucrats, the department had comprehensively failed to engage the community in the strategic planning exercise. Indeed, it could be said that the community, at times, became not engaged but rather, enraged, over the planning system.

A change of government means we have a fresh approach. We live in hope that things can be turned around. The early signs are not promising. NSW has a population of some seven million people. At the close of submissions on the White Paper on 28 June 2013 only some 6000 people had made a submission. On any measure, that is a low participation rate for such an important reform. That doesn’t mean to say that we are an apathetic lot. It just means that being involved in strategic planning it is not yet that important to us as a community. Or does it mean that as a community we have already learned that we have no power in the process? The government should be careful creating a planning system. If the new system does not resonate with the people that can matter. After all, who would have thought that a proposal for a themed shopping mall in Taksim square would become the impetus to a revolution?

Grant G