JOHN MANT. It’s not less population but better planning.

Apr 2, 2019

‘It’s not the excessive population growth, it’s the failures of city planning’, it is said in defence of high immigration levels. Planning has been a mess for a long time. But in NSW there may be signs of hope with the Greater Sydney Commission now reporting to the Premier.

One way of understanding the current design of our cities is to recognise them as a patchwork of the minimum standards and simplistic products of archaic but powerful colonial silos.  Better designed and fairer cities can be achieved by creating effective urban management units at the centre of state and local governments. As well as moving from ineffectual urban planning to effective urban management, a fundamental reform of how new development is designed and regulated could result in significant improvements in the qualities of urban design.

Archaic Planning Agencies

Strong outcomes management is missing because both state and local governments continue to be dominated by colonial style bureaucracies (the silos), which are organised to produce and/or regulate simplistic outputs. Surprisingly, included amongst these colonial style relics are today’s planning bureaucracies.

Created in each state following pressure from the post-war Labor federal government, the planning agencies adopted the traditional colonial organisation model – a division of professionals (in their case, the new profession of Town Planning) supported by separate divisions of clerks and, in states where there was centralised control over subdivision, technical officers. Typically, these new silos were supported by legislation that established a specialist regulatory system, designed to be operated by the members of the new profession.

Ever since they were created, planning agencies have fought, and inevitably failed, to be treated as a power at the centre of government, a position from which they would attempt to coordinate the other silos. Whenever the pretensions of planning authorities have led them to expand too far beyond their legislative role – that of producing coloured land-use zoning maps and exercising certain discretionary decisions – rival silos have been able to push the planners and their Ministers back in their boxes.   Despite the limited nature of their actual role, semantics tend to support the planners’ pretensions. The zoning map is called ‘The City Plan’ while the legislation is entitled ‘The Planning Act’.

End-state zoning maps

Originally the planners’ desire was to subsume the then existing patchy controls over land use exercised by building inspectors and subdivision engineers and surveyors. However, at the same time, in the burst of post-war idealism, they were charged with preparing plans for the major cities. The solution was a plan for the future metropolitan areas presented as comprehensive land use zoning maps, designed to be both the Cbe ity Plan and the core of the new regulatory system to be run by planners.

To prepare their City Plan the planners projected the population for some arbitrary future date. (Sometimes, where a State Government had unrealistic ambitious for growth, or where mates had far-flung sites to rezone, the projection was provided.) The Plan would be positive because the political assumption was for growth, not stasis. The natural and built geography of the area of responsibility was assessed and, on the geography available, the predicted land uses were laid out. The product became the comprehensive metropolitan land use zoning map – the City Plan.

Planning regulations were written to translate the plan into law. For each of the standard zones the regulations listed the land uses that were permitted, or were prohibited, or for which discretion could be exercised to grant consent.

The management of cities is not always assisted by a plan for the future being presented as a comprehensive end-state map showing separate land use zones. While certainty can support investment and some community interests, what is merely just a point in time prediction unnecessarily can turn into long term error or stagnation. Land values become inflated on publication, limiting flexibility and raising the expectations of public and private investors.

Nor has it been good for the urban design of our cities for the system of development control to be directed at enforcing regulations that support what often are state-wide standard zones.

Presenting the land use zoning map as The Plan for the City implies that the central objective of planning is to separate land uses, with the same patterns of separated land uses being imposed everywhere. By associating development control with such a rigid zoning pattern, we have finished up with development patterns where unique geographies are cleared and moulded to accommodate standardised urban products that have not been designed to respond to their particular place, environment, community, time or market. The resultant patterns and design of development are generally poor. For the most part, architects and urban designers have not been required.

Urban management – more than zoning maps

Apart from the failures in urban design, the successful management of a city needs much more than the publishing a metro wide zoning map and writing some detailed but standardised planning regulations.

By capturing the semantics of ‘plans’ and ‘planning’, however, and by producing the comprehensive zoning map, the planners present themselves as having done all you need to create a great city. It is assumed the planners have it all in hand. Unfortunately, they don’t.

Managing a great city needs more than a professional group skilled in deciphering complex planning regulations and exercising such limited discretions as are available. And managing a city is a complex task that should not be limited to a particular professional grouping.


Planners will say they do more than exercise development control. For example, they attend many interdepartmental coordination committees. Complex outcomes are seldom achieved by making decisions at the margin at IDC meetings. Inevitably officers of silo agencies are sent charged with protecting standards designed to achieve the simplistic outputs of their agency – standards such as the average vehicle speed down the arterials, or the numbers of dwelling approvals.

More than just planners

Effective urban management needs integration, not merely coordination. As well as planners, city management needs demographers, geographers, environmentalists, sociologists, economists, engineers, historians, urban designers and architects, public administrators and human beings, all employed in an organisation structure that is professionally neutral through the use of administrative rather than professional positions.

The design of an organisation structure based on a common neutral classification enables the flexible allocation of responsibilities for pursuing the key strategic outcomes that are identified from time to time. Such a structure encourages teamwork, flexibility, creativity and collaboration, internally, with the staff of the silos, members of the community and with their representatives.

A Central Agency

This article argues that urban (and regional) management units should be an important part of a state’s central agencies. Similar outcome-focused units also should exist at the centre of local government organisations. A successful urban central agency has to be able to do what it takes to achieve the outcomes required to make a great city, region or municipality. That means doing much more than publishing a statutory land use plan, exercising development control and attending interdepartmental coordination meetings.

Effective urban management means being involved in assessing budget bids of the silos and the demographic assumptions supporting them. It means assessing the effect on the operation of the city of policies for financing, pricing and taxing and taking action to have them reviewed if found wanting. It means reviewing the roles, the organisation designs and the staffing of state and local government agencies and how they measure success and reward staff. It means assessing the advantages and disadvantages for the future city and the respective roles of public and private sectors. It means digging down to understand why the ideals for our cities are not being realised. It means being in a position to justify and actively facilitate change or, if necessary, arrange for it to be imposed.

Strategic Planning and Development Control

And yes, if there is market failure, it may be necessary to exercise control over development. The exercise of development control should not seen as ‘planning’, but merely as one of the tasks that may need to be done to achieve an agreed urban outcome.

If, at the centre of government, there is an effective urban and regional management unit, the metro wide coloured zoning map is not needed. Instead, like any complex management task, an on-going strategic planning process is needed. Maps may be useful to illustrate, but the metro plan need not be a static land use map for some end-state future. It could be just a document, endorsed by Cabinet, that identified the rationale for the initiatives to be taken by the many agencies that make up state and local governments.  And that document should be essentially a working document for the central urban agency. It does not need to be presented as a PR glossy where waffly good news text is set amongst pictures of happy children gambolling in ideal settings.

While future objectives need to be articulated and agreed, the strategy does not need to be a static solution. It should be capable of responding to events and opportunities, and kept relevant as identified objectives are achieved. Of course, to provide economic and community certainty, certain strategic land uses, reservations and development patterns will need to be identified on a cadastral map with use being appropriately controlled.

Reforming Development Control

Such development controls as are shown to be required can be written taking advantage of today’s powerful digital cadastral information systems. Instead of layers of coloured maps (the legacy of the Metro Plan pretensions) and hundreds of pages of often overlapping regulations requiring a skilled planning lawyer to discover what can be done on your block of land, the relevant controls and guidelines can be summarised and authorised using a parcel format and delivered digitally.

In NSW at present there is a digital cadastral information system but it gives reference only to the multitude of documents that may or may not have an effect on what can be done on a parcel of land. This system imposes no discipline on planners to work out for the users of the system exactly what the constraints on a parcel are and then provide that information in a concise and authoritative form. If done properly in the first instance and updated by ensuring that any amendments specifically amend the parcel formatted record, there would be clarity and certainty for property owners and their neighbours.

Starting, not with a standard state-wide set of controls, but with the objectives for each place, for many parcels, the policies could be short and simple.

Potential development and, say, heritage places, might require detailed policies. Some development sites, such as green fields, on the other hand could have merely lower and upper limits of development, leaving the form, detailing and even uses to the entrepreneur, any relevant communities and a design competition and judging panel. More often we should provide developers and their urban designers with development challengers and rewards, rather than just require them to keep repeating the same standard solutions, regardless of the qualities of the place or the market.

‘All development requires consent’

Instead of, as the current legislation does, giving government the power to introduce regulations controlling development, a new development control act should impose control in the first instance. The act could state, up front: All development requires consent.

The parcel formatted controls then would become not regulations but policies that guide and, depending on the wording, limit the exercise of discretion in the granting or refusing of consent.   Appeals would be more of an administrative/merits hearing, rather than an argument about the meaning of complex regulations. The role of expensive lawyers hopefully could be reduced. For simple developments the policies could, in effect, assume consent to have been given.

While the all development requires consent provision appears draconic, giving too great a discretion to government, it merely reflects the position the current NSW legislation has reached following its many amendments. Effectively now everything is subject to consent. Developers are able to apply for the spot rezoning of so-called ‘prohibited’ development and to appeal if unsuccessful. The criteria to be applied in these spot rezones is often vague and non-specific.

If this is where the NSW 1979 legislation has arrived, then it is time to be open about it.  There can be simplicity and increased transparency. Transparency should be enhanced by providing for Third Party Appeal Rights, which the ICAC has recognised as an effective weapon against undue influences on development decisions.  TP Appeal Rights support governments having the wide discretions necessary to encourage the employment of designers who can be challenged to achieve excellent solutions that enhance rather than destroy the qualities of a place.

And the new legislation should be called what it is: the Development Control Act, rather than the pretentiously labelled Planning Act. The change in the title could assist in incorporating the development regulatory systems that have proliferated as newer groups of experts seek, as the planners did, legislative packages that grant monopoly roles for their particular professions.

What now for NSW?

The reform of our cities requires state governments to ensure there is a strong urban management unit in a central agency, preferably in the Premier’s Department. The move by the NSW Premier to have the Greater Sydney Commission report to her is a positive example.

The Planning Department should be reviewed to identify what functions could be transferred so that the GSC could become a department and the basis for an effective central agency. A rebadged Planning Department could then concentrate on becoming an excellent urban design facilitator.

While the urban central agency is about effectiveness and efficiency, the urban design department should concentrate on transparency, due process and encouraging design excellence. Without a suitable adjustment of their respective roles, the two organisations will, if they do not already, trip over each other.

In councils, a unit of outcome-focused staff should report directly to the General Manager. Given their expensive salaries, GMs should manage actively, not merely chair meetings of rival silos and handle difficult councillors. Planning Divisions in councils should become multi-skilled development control operatives where architects, landscape architects, urban designers and environmentalists, heritage experts and community facilitators, as well as planners, are employed in teams to exercise the highly skilled work of fitting new development into the wide range of different places in our cities and regional towns.

No longer should our cities be a jigsaw pattern of standard zones, minimum standards and the  simplistic works of the colonial agencies that continue to dominate state and local governments. By creating post-colonial, outcome-focused, urban and regional management units at the centre of state and local government and by reforming the development control system, simplistic attacks on population growth may shift to the discussion of more positive issues.

John Mant is a retired lawyer and planner. He has been a ministerial adviser and has worked in several federal, state and local government departments. As a consultant, he has been involved in numerous strategic planning and organisation change exercises and in writing of legislation for planning and local government.  His most recent role was as a Councillor of the City of Sydney where he chaired the ‘Transport’ Committee, an IDC beholden to the RMS.

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