We’ve Already Lost Control
I am often approached by people who are seeking to better understand our planning system. In particular, they want to know why certain buildings have been allowed, or why their local council has approved something despite community opposition, especially when the council has apparently sided with the community and rejected the development.
The answer is simply that local communities, and their democratically elected local councils, have had their powers eroded away and replaced by NSW State Government regulations. The influence of the views of a local community has been diminished in favour of a statewide vision and plan. We are no longer in control of our own backyards.
The provision for ‘spot rezoning’ by the NSW State Government is one such example. This regulation enables developers to circumvent local planning rules and request a ‘Rezoning Review’ directly with the NSW Department of Planning. This loophole and deliberate policy change by the NSW State Government means that when a developer asks for a rezoning of a property (notwithstanding that the Local Environment Plan (LEP) review is years away), when the local council says no, developers can go behind the back of the council directly to the NSW State Government to secure what it wants. This loophole is only available to developers – not to normal citizens – and can produce results contrary to the wishes of a local community.
There are two examples of this currently occurring in the Eastern Suburbs that people will be familiar with. The first concerns the over-development of 194-214 Oxford Street, Bondi Junction, which has been opposed by both Waverley Council and the local community since 2015. The proposal included an increase in height standards from 15 metres to 36 metres (from three storeys to 13 storeys), resulting in monstrous towers that would overshadow Centennial Park. Despite Waverley Council rejecting this development numerous times, the developers were able to receive approval by going directly to the NSW Liberal Government Minister.
The second example is that at Little Bay, where Meriton sought a rezoning to increase the number of dwellings from 450 to nearly 2,000, and to increase the maximum building heights from five to 23 storeys. Despite considerable community opposition, the NSW Government, while acknowledging that 23 storeys might be a bit too high, has signed off on a whopping 17! Despite the historical importance of the area and the significant heartfelt community opposition, the NSW Liberal Government has approved the construction of an entirely new town centre at Little Bay, complete with a hotel, shopping centre and gym. This is a totally over the top, comprehensive, garden‑variety overdevelopment.
Local Environment Plans and Development Control Plans are meant to be strategic documents designed by local councils in collaboration with their communities to guide development approvals in their local areas. However, those powers and documents mean little today because developers are not required to comply with them, because they now have backdoor access to the NSW Government Minister.
Most of us recognise the tension that exists between our own local interests and those of the broader state, federal and global communities. We understand that sometimes our local interests need to be curtailed in the context of broader societal needs, but do we have the balance right at this moment in time? Is it really okay that developers have the power to influence State Government decisions that override community interests? I think not, but I would like to hear your views.