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Scrapping sustainable planning principles is dystopian

“It’s now or never.” That’s the stomach-turning warning on climate change that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change boldly issued on April 4, 2022.

On the very next day, Planning Minister Anthony Roberts announced at a lunch hosted by private financiers and property developers that the NSW government is scrapping the proposed liveability and future-focused Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) established under his predecessor Rob Stokes.

These draft planning rules, which were crafted with the lessons of Covid-19 in mind, would have ensured all future developments were held to the principles of sustainable and green design, ensuring long-term liveable, healthy, resilient, and diverse places for communities across NSW.

Similarly, in March, Roberts announced that Stokes’ Planning Principles, which detailed nine strategies for addressing the climate crisis in housing developments and prioritising proactive resilience against future natural disasters would also be dumped. These principles were described by Roberts as “utopian”.

When announcing the abandoning of these principles, Roberts told a room of private developers, “I’ve heard you – the government’s heard you.”

And who wasn’t in the room to have their voices heard when these plans were scrapped? Homeowners and future homeowners, renters and future renters, the very people who will be expected to buy or lease developments in years and decades to come. And the very people who will reasonably expect homes that will be safe, secure, and adaptive to future climate emergencies.

We have witnessed the impacts of unregulated property developers, focused on quick, cheap and corner-cutting builds that are defended as the solution to the ongoing housing crisis.

Horror stories like Sydney’s Opal Tower cracking apart in 2018 and Melbourne’s Larcosse apartments flammable cladding blaze in 2014 were a warning of what would come if new developments continued without regulatory requirements and good design principles.

It is not utopian to believe that we can all deserve affordable, safe and high-quality housing that is designed with the future in mind. It is not utopian to believe that our homes should be developed with strong sustainability and amenity at their core.

In fact, we already know “Australian developers and builders don’t have to choose between sustainability and saving on costs,” as Clean Energy Finance Corporation CEO Ian Learmonth said. According to the CEFC’s 2021 report Australian buildings and infrastructure: Opportunities for cutting embodied carbon there are opportunities to achieve as much as an 18 per cent reduction in embodied carbon and save as much as 3 per cent on material costs for construction projects.

Putting the short-term savings aside, what house or apartment will be valuable or safe in 15 or 20 years if it doesn’t take into consideration the reality of global threat we face? Not only will these properties be unliveable, but they will also put livelihoods and, indeed, lives at risk.

Having worked and contributed on the development of this proposed Design and Place state policy at the height of the pandemic in 2020, it was an opportune time to finally address better housing and urban design through policy.

For many, it wasn’t until the pandemic unfolded that we began to truly consider what well-designed space meant. It has opened opportunities for the need for passive design, renewable energy solutions, better air quality, green open spaces that provide for all. Our health and wellbeing is delicately intertwined with the environment, and that includes designed spaces.

It is in the interests of us all to consider what high-quality, sustainable and liveable housing can look like, now and into the future. We do not have to wrestle between the immediate nature of the housing crisis and the similarly immediate nature of climate change. What we do need is to facilitate policy and urban development that includes everyone. Everyone – where not only private developers feel they have been heard by government.

The time for utopian thinking is now.

HY William Chan is a registered architect, executive of Climate Emergency Australia and independent councillor at the City of Sydney.


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