Having spent the last few years working primarily at the level of strategic policy-making and analysis, I’ve lately also been going back to my professional roots through some projects at the urban planning “coalface,” if you will.Â Affordable housing delivery is a core focus of this work, as well as a deep passion of mine. Living in London and then in Sydney -Â now two of the least affordable cities in the world – this focus looks set to continue.
I’m working with a number of developers producing schemes under the Affordable Rental Housing State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP), which was introduced in New South Wales in 2009. In seeing how the policy translates on the ground, the fundamental disconnect between process and outcome in our planning system has become increasingly apparent.
The complexity and bureaucracy of the system is not news to anyone in the development sector. It’s an ongoing source of disappointment and frustration that the best intentions are often reduced to the worst outcomes on the ground, due to the system’s multilayered regulatory frameworks.
To give one example: I was recently party to local planning officers threatening to refuse development consent to an affordable housing scheme, due to its failure to provide 6m setbacks from side boundaries on a 15m wide site. A child of seven could do the maths on that one.
The proposal is excellent in every respect. The developer and architect are both strongly committed to providing high quality affordable housing on a narrow urban infill site in an area of strong demonstrated demand. Clearly, rigorous adherence to regulations when their application is unreasonable, nonsensical or downright impossible, can never result in good outcomes.
It is a truism in any sphere – personal, professional or political – that decision-making frameworks weighted too heavily in favour of process over outcome stifle creative invention. In the property sector, this situation impacts our urban fabric by resulting in developments which tick all the boxes, yet fail spectacularly to inspire.
It takes courage and confidence to make decisions on the basis of outcome over process. We need to recognise the profound potential of simpler systems, implemented intelligently, thoughtfully and ethically.