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The lucky group enjoying fewer constraints under COVID: developers

The world is in shutdown, yes? Well, actually, no. You and I are in shutdown, strapped to the chair, straitjacketed and muzzled. But the land-clearers, fossil-fuel extractors, single-use plastic waste generators and grabbit-and-run developers are more avid than ever. They’re not just proceeding apace. They’re revving up. Having a ball.

Artist's impression of Meriton's plan to build 1900 apartments at Little Bay in towers up to 22 storeys.
Artist’s impression of Meriton’s plan to build 1900 apartments at Little Bay in towers up to 22 storeys.Credit:Meriton

Many people hope the pandemic will make humanity soften its damaging ways. And perhaps we will, we small guys. But the rules are different up there. Chances are, when this COVID nightmare ends, we’ll be Rumpelstiltskinned back into a world hurtling to oblivion.

Governments impoverished by mass wage subsidy, tax loss and ballooning unemployment will be more than ever in thrall to big business. This may seem insignificant now, compared with the immediate life-and-death fears of virus land, but remember. Big Business need you to think that. It needs you passive, glued to the couch, frightened.

And no, to be clear, I’m not saying rip off your mask and rush out into the streets. I’m saying exercise your mind. While you and I are dutifully swallowing our daily dose of Stan and Netflix, remnant forest is being logged, Adani is undermining the Galilee Basin, coalmines are being approved and extended and developers are rejoicing as government empowers itself to speed approvals, supercharge ministerial discretion and diminish protections.

Just when you thought our cities had been thoroughly trashed by a decade-long onslaught of towers and motorways, it’s set to get worse. Just when you thought NSW’s new building commissioner would surely respond to tower buildings that crack and burn without warning by re-regulating construction, the government tips the board the other way. For government, cheered on – one might even say led – by the development lobby, has removed virtually all planning constraint during the crisis.

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While we stewed, housebound, through Easter, greater planning change was effected – with more haste, less fanfare, less discussion and the potential for far more dramatic consequence – than at any time since Sydney landowners ganged up on Governor Macquarie and told him what the rules really were.

First, on March 24, came the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Act 2020 (NSW), which slid through both houses of Parliament and became law, all in a single day. That sketched a new superpower landscape. A week later, Planning Minister Rob Stokes dug a little hole and tucked into it a landmine called the Planning System Acceleration Program.

It sounds innocent. Well, natch. The amended act gives Stokes between six and 12 months of virtually unlimited discretion to authorise any development on any landwithout the need for any approval under the act or consent from any person”. No agreement is required from Parliament, cabinet or the department, and definitely not from the public. Nor need other legislative controls apply – heritage, environment, water. It’s just nice Mr Stokes in consultation with the Minister for Health.

Those who yearn to trust government note that the minister can only make such orders if he is “reasonably satisfied” that they’re necessary to “protect the health, safety and welfare of members of the public during the COVID-19 pandemic”. I say, define reasonably. Define health.

The trusters murmur gently (while sloshing umbrage over any suggestion of non-COVID priorities) that such absolutism is only to enable building of hospitals and testing stations. It’s necessary, they say, to allow the conversion of a convention centre, say, to an emergency hospital. The minister would never abuse such powers.

Wouldn’t he, though? Just how safe is it to bestow our trust on government in such generous quantities? Is unfettered ministerial power really good for our health?

Consider. Construction was already deemed an “essential activity”, which is why half the traffic in our newly deserted streets is construction trucking. One of the minister’s first orders under the new law, on April 2, was to expand building hours so that commercial and infrastructure construction can continue through weekends and public holidays.

That might still sound pretty innocuous, especially given the standard jobs-jobs-jobs catch-cry. “The extended hours allow the industry to facilitate social distancing on construction sites,” said the minister, “while minimising the potential for lost productivity during the pandemic.”

So, yes, the new regime came in full PPE, guised as an essential health measure. Similarly clad was the minister’s next-day announcement of the acceleration program. The government says fast-track planning processes will keep people in jobs and the construction industry moving throughout the COVID-19 crisis. If that were the priority, though, you might expect similar support for the arts sector which generates $16.4 billion to NSW GDP and employs 118,000 FTE workers.

You might think Sydney’s recent transformation by the biggest building boom in its history – leaving it strewn with cookie-cutter clumps of resi-towers and communities that, from Parramatta to Frenchs Forest, feel overwhelmed and underconsulted – indicated a lack of planning.

Apparently not. Apparently Sydney is asphyxiated by red planning tape – according, at least, to developer lobby group Urban Task Force, which not only welcomed but pretty much took credit for the decision to “cut red tape and … fast-track reforms”.

“We have been calling for a fast-track system for assessments of big projects for six months,” crowed the taskforce’s Tom Forrest. Six months. That’s well before anyone had heard of COVID-19. And there’s more coming. “Today’s announcement represents the start …”

Apparently at Treasury’s request, the taskforce sent the government a list of 70 projects requiring the fast-track treatment. These include many that are “stuck” in the planning system because, let’s be frank, people detest them. Meriton’s proposal for a clutch of towers up to 22 storeys at Little Bay Cove, Bilbergia’s 440-apartment development at St Leonards, Mirvac’s proposal for West Pennant Hills and Walker Corp’s $16 billion proposal for 4000 dwellings in the Greater Macarthur Growth Area.

Stokes is a nice guy. He’s also the pretty face for the much more ruthless Dominic Perrottet, whose agency – says the Urban Task Force – has been “driving planning reform in NSW”.

Trust them with such unchecked power if you dare. Hand the public interest to a government that has flogged or destroyed many of our finest public assets and developed public land with enthusiasm. I say, good luck with that.

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