The Sydney Morning Herald

By Leesha McKenny

Perhaps Brad Hazzard should call on Silverchair. The Planning Minister could get the one-time Newcastle rockers in the classroom, and get families singing about development applications.

According to planning lore, this is what Seattle did when it wanted to change its planning system in the 1990s. It hired Pearl Jam. ''Who wouldn't listen to Eddie Vedder?" said Jane-Frances Kelly, a planning expert from the Grattan Institute. According to Kelly, the Seattle grunge group were signed up to create educational videos for schools.

As yet, Hazzard hasn't signed up any hard-driving musical acts. But he has this week unveiled the state's biggest planning changes in more than three decades, in an overhaul that will live or die depending on how closely the community pays attention to what he is proposing.

Hazzard's changes are in the form of a 212-page setlist that promises to blast away 30 years' of legislative accretion and complexity. He has been rehearsing for months.

''Forgive us,'' the minister pleaded as he took to the stage at a preliminary reform workshop last year, which had rapidly descended into argument. ''It's not absolutely perfect today,'' he conceded.

Hazzard's is an ambitious plan, and he faces a tough sell. Planning has for decades taxed the patience of Sydney's renovators, developers, builders, NIMBYs and the public servants who pick among its fraying strands to manage the city's growth — or, in many cases, lack of growth.

The state government hopes to cure this often adversarial system by turning it on its head. In the jargon, this means it wants to ''front-load'' the planning process. In practice, this means emphasising early consultation about what sort of structures are appropriate for different communities — a process aimed at speeding up construction of certain development types in designated areas.

''We want to see a shift from the pitched battles over DAs [development applications] to seeing the community engage upfront and take ownership of plans that will set the direction of growth and change in their areas,'' Hazzard said this week.

After more than 30 years' of planning wars, his scheme is an attempt at getting localised peace treaties drawn up before the skirmishing even starts. The community will be given a much greater say in the strategic planning of Sydney's suburbs, centres and streets — a role enshrined in the legislation — extending to where development will go, and what it looks like.

Feedback sessions, citizens' juries, site inspections, online forums and public meetings will be among the methods councils will be required to draw on to get people to pay attention. And people really will need to pay attention. Because the flipside of the deal is that once a community decides what it wants, it has to step back.

Under the new scheme, once the strategy for an area is locked in, as much or little public consultation is set out for an individual apartment block as for a barbecue — that is, none. This has alarmed opponents, including Labor and the Greens, which decry it as shifting power to developers at the expense of locals.

The community group coalition the Better Planning Network labelled this a ''developer's dream'', while the Nature Conservation Council of NSW called it ''the most significant backward step in a generation''.

''The Premier promised to give people a real say on issues affecting their local community,'' the council's chief executive, Pepe Clarke, said. ''The government has broken that promise … four out of five developments will be assessed with no public consultation and limited environmental assessment.''

For its part, developer's lobby the Urban Taskforce, which welcomed the plan, returned the salvo. Its chief executive, Chris Johnson, questioned whether the strategic consultation would draw beyond the questionably representative few already enraged or engaged enough to take an interest in local government: ''It seems that the selection of who is the community is left to local councils, and this could lead to anti-development groups dominating the formation of strategic plans.''

The major change in the way these new plans will be enacted is through a new development ''track'' called code assessment, to sit beside existing fast-tracks of complying or exempt assessment. (The leftovers and state significant projects will be bundled under ''merit'', an assessment similar to the present system.)

If a development meets all the agreed requirements of an area's plans — the building type, heights, setbacks, as well as environmental and design standards — it will be found to meet the code, which may be revised only after several years.

Code-assessable development could be a townhouse, office block or apartment building. If it complies it must be approved by council, and within 25 days. By contrast, current council approvals average 71 days.

Performance will be monitored. Councils that consistently fail to meet the benchmarks will be forced to hand over development decision-making powers to independent hearing and assessment panels who will. Speed is a premium, but the government says it is necessary to get the sluggish state economy moving.

''Within five years, we are aiming for 80 per cent of applications to go through a faster code or comply assessment process, which has the potential to save the community and business around $174 million a year through reduced delays,'' Hazzard said. The plan also promises to deliver infrastructure alongside development by overhauling the system of developer levies.

This includes abolishing the cap that councils now collect of $30,000 per dwelling in greenfield areas and $20,000 per dwelling in infill areas. They will now be able charge higher amounts, but the uses they can put them to will be narrowed.

By contrast, state infrastructure levies will draw from a broader base, to be collected and applied in a ''subregion'' — a geographically clustered coalition of council areas. This means new apartment blocks in Rose Bay will pay an amount yet to be determined to help fund roads, say, in Strathfield.

Edward Blakely, an expert on urban planning at the University of Sydney US studies centre, says the changes are a step forward. He doesn't think this new model robs power from communities, but he understands the cynicism.

A decade ago — before a later stint as New Orleans's ''recovery tsar'' after hurricane Katrina — Blakely chaired a planning panel for the Carr Labor government. Its plan for an independent regional commission to guide strategic development never eventuated; instead the minister assumed the role of the commission under what became the controversial Part 3A of the Planning Act, which Blakely says ''destroyed the credibility of the process''.

Blakely thinks Hazzard's latest plan should go further to put more planning decisions in the hands of independent experts. He says developers will always instinctively try to ''beat the game'', but a well-constructed system should be able to keep them in line while delivering what the community wants.

''We should know what's going to go on … right down to how wide the sidewalks are going to be, and then the developer comes in and delivers that,'' he says. ''Our developers have never even thought about that, because that's not been their role; their role has been to present to councils with what they would like to have.'' What is required, he says, is a more sophisticated planning approach at the bottom of the process — with better educated mayors and planners, as well as communities. ''They have to know the consequences of a dwelling in one location over another, in terms of light, shadow, sustainable outcomes, environmental outcomes.''

If it's some consolation for Hazzard, even in areas where similar systems are regarded as working well — New York, Portland, Vancouver — they have at times proved hard to implement. Even with Pearl Jam on board, Seattle's head of planning was once advised to wear a bullet-proof vest to a community meeting.

But Sydneysiders aren't looking overseas. They're looking in their own backyard — and usually only then when someone's blocking the view. That, Hazzard acknowledges, is the challenge. ''One of the problems today is that the community have often felt their views were not valued,'' he said. ''Overseas experience says if you engage communities with 3D-modelling, social media and all the traditional methods of street corner meetings and so on, that you can get very good involvement.''

That remains to be seen here. Last month's draft metropolitan strategy setting out Sydney's growth target sets out some bold numbers.

But only 240 people attended sessions across Sydney, and fewer again (56) of those who dragged themselves to an online forum felt compelled to say something.

The report didn't even bother to list the number of social media ''discussions'' on Facebook and Twitter. It was a platform named by Hazzard at this week's big launch, where he called for more public feedback before the reforms become law later this year. The Department of Planning and Infrastructure, meanwhile, has just 596 followers on Twitter and only three ''likes'' on Facebook.

Getting people involved in planning their local neighbourhood before they get angry is not going to be easy.

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald