Urban working group listening to the Minister of PNL on the SEPP project

The NSW Government’s proposed State of Design and Place (SEPP) environmental planning policy has come under the spotlight again as the government feels pressure from property developers to drop the proposal in its entirety.

Emails obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald say the Urban Task Force, made up of a number of property developers and funders, lobbied against the policy launched by former planning minister Rob Stokes and NSW Government Architect Abbie Galvin (top photo). The SEPP proposed by Stokes and Galvin was designed to reduce emissions and promote sustainable design, with the goal of reducing state emissions and mitigating the risks of climate change and the urban heat island effect. .

Anthony Roberts (pictured below), who replaced Stokes, told developers at an Urban Taskforce event in April that he chose to remove the proposal. Given the NSW government’s recent track record, a la Barilaro and Ayres, the government’s willingness to bow to outside pressure becomes an extreme concern, particularly in the run-up to an election.

The urban working group considers the proposal to be unworkable. Given that it’s made up entirely of profit-margin-conscious property developers, that’s hardly a surprise. In an email to Planning Department Undersecretary Brett Whitworth, Galvin raises concerns about the group pushing his agenda.

“I think it’s really critical that they don’t get priority treatment just because they have the loudest voice,” she wrote.

Urban Taskforce Chief Executive Tom Forrest’s position on SEPP is made clear in meeting notes from a meeting between the executive and Whitworth in April. Forrest said that “architects should not play a role in planning”. In an email to Whitworth and fellow Undersecretary Marcus Ray, Forrest writes that “the overwhelming view of the construction and property development industry is that the Design and Place SEPP should be abandoned entirely”, with people like the Property Council of Australia and the Housing Industry Association named as opposed to SEPP.

Roberts’ inclination to side with the task force is a concern that is being felt at the highest levels of government. Galvin writes in an email to Whitworth that a ministerial adviser told him the new planning minister “didn’t have a great climate reputation”, which the government says needs special attention.

Considering how Rob Stokes was hijacked at the end of 2021 in favor of Roberts, the finger must now be pointed at Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet. Stokes’ background in urban design and his tendency to create climate-conscious policy was evident when he was Minister for Planning and Public Spaces. Given Roberts’ position on the proposed SEPP and the government’s admission that the minister’s position on climate is wrong, it becomes clear that the reshuffle was a step backwards.

“This SEPP is the result of years of hard work by experts, including within the planning department, to make NSW more sustainable and climate resilient, and now we are back to square one,” said the Greens MP Cate Faehrmann at the Herald.

Premier Perrottet reportedly told Roberts to focus on housing supply and affordability issues, with sustainability taking a back seat. A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister says updates to the Building Sustainability Index (BASIX) are sufficient.

“(Roberts) will continue to develop elements of Design and Place SEPP that support the sustainable supply of housing that helps NSW meet its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.”

Design and Place SEPP is now in a state of uncertainty. While housing supply and affordability is absolutely the real concern in New South Wales and Australia, it remains imperative that the government implement policies that reduce carbon emissions in the built environment.

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