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Time to rethink urban planning and development

By Ross Elliott - posted Monday, 28 November 2011

The famous physicist, Albert Einstein, was noted for his powers of observation and rigorous observance of the scientific method. It was insanity, he once wrote, to repeat the same experiment over and over again, and to expect a different outcome. With that in mind, I wonder what Einstein would make of the last decade and a bit of experimentation in urban planning and development assessment? 

Fortunately, we don’t need Einstein’s help on this one because even the most casual of observers would conclude that after more than a decade of ‘reform’ and ‘innovation’ in the fields of town planning and the regulatory assessment of development, it now costs a great deal more and takes a great deal longer to do the same thing, for no measureable benefit. As experiments go, this is one we might think about abandoning or at the very least trying something different.

First, let’s quickly review the last decade or so of change in urban planning and development assessment. Up until the late 1990s, development assessment was relatively more straightforward under the 1990 Local Government (Planning and Environment) Act. Land already zoned for industrial use required only building consent to develop an industrial building. Land zoned for housing likewise required compliance with building approvals for housing. These were usually granted within a matter of weeks or (at the outset) months. 


There were small head works charges, which essentially related to connection costs of services to the particular development. Town planning departments in local and state governments were fairly small in size and focused mainly on strategic planning and land use zoning. It was the building departments that did most of the approving. Land not zoned for its intended use was subject to a process of development application (for rezoning), but here again the approach was much less convoluted that today. NIMBY’s and hard left greenies were around back then, but they weren’t in charge. Things happened, and they happened far more quickly, at lower cost to the community, than now.

In the intervening decade and a bit, we’ve seen the delivery and implementation of an avalanche of regulatory and legislative intervention. It started with the Integrated Planning Act (1997), which sought to integrate disparate approval agencies into one ‘fast track’ simplified system. It immediately slowed everything down. It promised greater freedom under an alleged ‘performance based’ assessment system, but in reality provoked local councils to invoke the ‘precautionary principle’ by submitting virtually everything to detailed development assessment. The Integrated Planning Act was followed, with much fanfare, by the Sustainable Planning Act (2009). Cynics, including some in the government at the time, dryly noted that a key performance measure of the Sustainable Planning Act was that it used the word ‘sustainable’ on almost every page. 

Overlaying these regulations have been a constant flow of land use regulations in the form of regional plans, environmental plans, acid sulphate soil plans, global warming, sky-is-falling, seas-are-rising plans – plans for just about everything which also affect what can and can’t be done with individual pieces of private property.

But it wasn’t just the steady withdrawal of private property rights as state and local government agencies gradually assumed more control over permissible development on other people’s land: there was also a philosophical change on two essential fronts.

First, there was the notion that we were rapidly running out of land and desperately needed to avoid becoming a 200 kilometre wide city. Fear mongers warned of ‘LA type sprawl’ and argued the need for densification, based largely on innocuous sounding planning notions like ‘Smart Growth’ imported from places like California (population 36 million, more than 1.5 times all of Australia, and Los Angeles, population 10 million, roughly three times the population of south east Queensland).

The first South East Queensland Regional Plan 2005-2026 was born with these philosophical changes in mind, setting an urban growth boundary around the region and mandating a change to higher density living (despite broad community disinterest in density). It was revisited by the South East Queensland Regional Plan 2009-2031, which formally announced that 50 per cent of all new dwellings should be delivered via infill and density models (without much thought, clearly, for how this was to be achieved and whether anyone particularly wanted it).


Then there was the South East Queensland Regional Infrastructure Plan 2010-2031 which promised $134 billion in infrastructure spending to make this all possible (without much thought to where the money might come from) and a host of state planning policies to fill in any gaps which particular interest groups or social engineers may have identified as needing to be filled.

The significant philosophical change, enforced by the regional plan, was that land for growth instantly became scarcer because planning permission would be denied in areas outside the artificially imposed land boundary. Scarcity of any product, particularly during a time of rising demand (as it was back then, when south east Queensland had a strong economy to speak of) results in rising prices. Which is just what happened to any land capable of gaining development permission within the land boundary: raw land rose in price, much faster than house construction costs or wages. 

The other significant philosophical change that took root was the notion of ‘user pays’ - which became a byword for buck passing the infrastructure challenge from the community at large, to new entrants, via developer levies. Local governments state-wide took to the notion of ‘developer levies’ with unseemly greed and haste. ‘Greedy developers’ could afford to pay (they argued) plus the notion of ‘user pays’ gave them some (albeit shaky) grounds for ideological justification. Soon, developers weren’t just being levied for the immediate cost of infrastructure associated with their particular development, but were being charged with the costs of community-wide infrastructure upgrades well beyond the impact of their proposal or its occupants. 

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article first appeared at The Pulse on 23 November 2011 

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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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