Planning to Fail

In the depths of a housing crisis, the Federal Government decides to override the planning approval granted in 2014 for a $1.4 billion makeover development with 3,600 dwellings stating environmental impacts require the area to remain undeveloped. The developer is now given 10 days to respond. Irrespective of whether you are for or against a particular development, this planning processes has taken 10 years and significant costs and stress for all parties. That’s unacceptable. Our whole society needs to balance ideological NIMBY-ism against destructive greed by providing much better forward planning and efficient approvals processes. How?

I very rarely sit on the fence (don’t like getting splinters!), but on the above Toondah Harbour project at Cleveland I am one of those people probably too disengaged to stay up to date with the detail over 10 years. On the one hand, the development would have destroyed a section of mozzie infested mangroves that are an essential part of the ecosystem for eastern curlew migratory birds (migrate every year between Russia and Australia for summer, as well as home to other species). On the other hand was a master planned 59 hectare community with 3,600 waterfront dwellings (up to 10 stories high), ferry terminal, marina for 400 vessels and a retail precinct to be developed over 20 years. Peel Island, a short 10 minute boat trip away, is one of my regular weekend destinations (which would become even more overcrowded with this development), so I am to an extent a NIMBY myself, and truly conflicted on this particular development. Should this go ahead, it sets a precedent also for other developments. The current Straddie ferry terminal already sits on this land and the mangroves aren’t a particularly impressive gateway to the Bay, which is why I’ll focus on the bigger picture of overall development planning instead.

Before this project even received Priority Development Area approval in 2014, it was well known that there were mangroves that were home to animals. Over the next 10 years, the developer has spent substantial time and money submitting 3 different development proposals, the last one containing a 5,600 page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) addressing the environmental questions from previous submissions (plus all the other plans etc). 26,000 people over the 10 years have sent responses to the prior EIS’s. Now late in the process, Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek overrides the State and Local approvals based on community feedback and will likely stop the development. She then gives the developer Walker Corporation 10 business days to respond to the proposed decision. 10 years of stuffing around, and given 10 days to respond?

New Hope Coal faced a 15 year delay-of-process through ongoing approval delays and green lawfare legal disputes for the extension of the existing mine (New Acland Stage 3), which apart from considerable cost meant that the mine basically closed down (costing lots of local jobs), went into care and maintenance (also costly) and when the approval finally went ahead has to then ramp up more or less from scratch. There are many more examples of projects that simply get dragged out, probably with the intention that the developer side goes broke or calls it quits. This is one reason Australia is now seen as a country with very high sovereign risk, and why we have had a significant drop in mining and other development feasibility studies and investment.

So what should happen? We have Governments at all levels that are driven by the 3-4 year political cycles. There is no forward planning. China uses 50 year forward plans, but don’t face democratic election issues. We have a Federal Minister (one of the better ones, Plibersek) who has been Minister for Housing (2007-2010) and is now Minister for the Environment and Water presiding over a Government that has let in over 1 million immigrants in the 18 months since coming to office (more than twice the population of ACT/Canberra), but stops development of housing for people to live in, whilst simultaneously not having any plan to increase water capacity to meet this growing population. The same Government has no issue approving the worlds largest pumped hydro project in North Qld, which will dislocate a much greater amount of wildlife than this housing development (and still doesn’t add a single litre of water storage for us all to drink etc). And also have no problems approving sea based wind farm areas that are the equivalent of Melbourne to Sydney (1,000km long) and 1 km wide tract along our coast line, impacting significantly on wildlife and shipping, a lot of it visible from shore.

What we need is Government to plan say 30 years ahead, irrespective of what politicians are in. That plan would have to take into consideration population growth and all other factors, then designate what infrastructure (roads, power, water, sewerage, industrial areas etc) will be required to meet those needs. They would then set clear parameters of how this will be achieved, for example to increase the population of a city by 50% will require these specific areas to have higher density housing, and for the city to expand into these specific directions. The population and developers alike would then be given clarity well before deciding to buy or move to a certain area. We’ve been led to believe that Governments already have these plans (just one example being the 2018 Redland City Plan in this case), but clearly when these plans can be overruled at the whim of any Minister, they aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

The next essential improvement has to be to address the approvals process time frames. If there are clear frameworks in place of the conditions required to develop within an area, and those conditions are met, then there must be a cap on how long the process can be delayed. If 10 days is sufficient for a developer to respond, the same KPI must apply to Government response time frames. It’s unbelievable that it takes longer to submit paperwork and get approvals to build a standard house, than it does to physically build them. Maximum of 6 months back and forth would seem a reasonable total time frame for an outcome on approvals.

The final change must be to address the ability to use courts to delay developments. There is an increasing chorus of people suggesting that to take a development to court should mean that the person has “skin in the game”. This could mean being immediately affected by the proposal such as being an immediate neighbour. In order to stop lawfare with the purpose of costing the developer time and money, consideration should also be given to ensuring that the party taking the matter to court puts up a bond equivalent to the estimated legal and delay costs for the developer (if the action is deemed frivolous) before the matter is commenced. On the flip side, mines already have to put up bonds for end-of-life remediation works, so it would be reasonable that in order to protect the environment those same rules are extended to also cover all renewables projects and the like that also have a finite life.

To a large extent, I think every person is a NIMBY (supportive of most types of development for the betterment of society overall, so long as it’s Not In My Back Yard). We might disagree on what that betterment looks like, but irrespective of ones stance on a particular issue (for or against), both sides deserve clear rules and an efficient process to work within. It appears we have neither.

Words from the wise

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail” & “You may delay, but time will not” – Benjamin Franklin

“People who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt those who are doing it” – Bernard Shaw

“I’m not a procrastinator, I’m just extremely productive at unimportant things” – unsure source, but seems to be part of many job descriptions.

As always, Onwards and Upwards!

Fred Carlsson

General Manager

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