Rob Stokes reflects on Sydney’s ever-expanding urban sprawl

“It’s a huge problem in Western Sydney developments – we have less space to plant anything around homes,” Pfautsch says.

“In 20 to 30 years the value of a house [in these areas] will potentially be diminished because they will be living in a hotbox in an environment where there could easily be five to six days a year at 50-degree temperatures.”

But he says Stokes has been pushing “a lot of buttons in the right direction”, particularly with a draft new Design and Place State Environmental Planning Policy, or SEPP, released on Friday after months of development.

The policy includes a new goal of 20-minute “walkability” to shops and parks for new neighbourhoods, better thermal performance for homes, revamped design rules that will make new apartments more appealing, and preservation of green spaces in greenfield developments.

Stokes says his challenge has been to try and turn “growth into progress” at a time when “growth in Sydney has been seen as almost malignant” and “progress became a dirty word because it was seen as growth for its own sake”.

He says he’s sought to use his formidable ministerial powers under the planning act to put greater emphasis on bushland and parkland renewal alongside urban and community renewal and is seeking to put a “metropolitan rural zone” – an agricultural periphery – around Sydney to underpin “organic food and those sorts of things”.

He may, however, have only days left in the portfolio, with a reshuffle expected before Christmas.

Gladys Berejiklian’s bombshell resignation led not only to Dominic Perrottet’s ascension to premier but to the departure of long-time transport minister Andrew Constance, leaving Stokes with possibly temporary custodianship of the problem-plagued transport and roads portfolio on top of planning.

Perrottet has also announced he’ll appoint a new minister for Cities, presiding over a “Six Cities” conurbation that will link the north-south axis of Newcastle, the central coast and Wollongong with the east-west axis of the CBD, Parramatta and the nascent western Sydney “city” of Bradfield. Which, if any, of these portfolio hats Stokes will wear after the reshuffle is not yet clear.

Stokes ruffled feathers within his own moderate faction by insisting on a ballot for the leadership in early October. He ran against Perrottet, garnering five votes to the now premier’s 39. But he says it was a matter of principle for him that there be a contest, and insists it has not had an impact on his friendship with Perrottet.

But if he has to let planning go, it will be reluctantly. While saying it’s in “good shape”, he’s “keen to hang on to it” because of “unfinished business.”

Stokes outside his home on hisway to do some volunteer lifesaving work with a then broken foot in October. He had announced he would be putting his hand up to be premier.

Stokes outside his home on hisway to do some volunteer lifesaving work with a then broken foot in October. He had announced he would be putting his hand up to be premier.Credit:Nick Moir

That includes the bedding down of nine new “minister’s Planning Principles” he unveiled a week ago. “God gave Moses the 10 commandments and I give the planning system Nine Commandments”, he declared at the launch, only half in jest.

They are startlingly ambitious in scope, encompassing everything from the design of public places, conservation of natural environment and heritage, and promotion of resilience in the face of hazard, to principles for transport, infrastructure and “resilient” local economies, and a commitment to the supply of “well located” homes and housing that is diverse, affordable and well-designed.

They run the risk of being seen as motherhood statements, I suggest. Stokes disagrees. He says under the powers he has as minister, the nine principles will be required under law to filter down to all levels of planning activity in the state – not as prescriptive rules, but as part of a “quiet revolution”.

He cites as an example of their practical effect the emphasis on designing more walkable communities when a new subdivision is being undertaken. Or the requirement for new housing to have light-coloured roofs to mitigate the “heat island” effects of climate change.

Another example he points to is the development control plan for the town of Wilton, on Sydney’s south-west fringe, “where we said to home builders that you need to ensure there is sufficient space, deep soil, to plant a tree in the backyard of a detached house”. Developers were outraged, he says, complaining it would impact affordability.

“We were able to say, listen to yourselves, this is a detached house – you are telling us it’s unreasonable to have space for a tree in the backyard? You are not going to win that argument in the court of public opinion.”

Against the backdrop of a rising housing crisis, Stokes is also keen to pursue housing reform, driven again by new planning policies designed to widen the variety of residential dwellings on offer, with design better attuned to place, and a broader range of tenure options. The latter, he says, should include construction of housing stock specifically for long-term rental, as happens overseas.

He’s impatient with federal coalition MPs pinning most of the blame for housing shortages on state planning policies, saying national tax policy – particularly negative gearing – is a significant contributor to the problem.

What would he want to change? “At a very simple level let’s have a tax policy that encourages everyone to get one house before we start encouraging people to acquire more houses,” he says.

“With negative gearing perhaps we could look at, if you are going to get a tax advantage, asking what’s the public benefit in that? Are you investing in social or affordable housing with a community housing provider for example? … But if you’re using that to buy yourself a $10 million beach house maybe that’s something you don’t need a tax break that everyone else [pays] for.”

He also wants to see the federal government use its “tax policy levers” to encourage listed property companies to construct more “build-to-rent” housing. “It is a generally accepted housing tenure in other [overseas] jurisdictions but it just hasn’t developed here because we have this fundamental focus on purchase at all costs,” he says.

Premier Dominic Perrottet and Stokes inspect the progress on the Barangaroo Metro Station and the completed railway track under the Sydney Harbour in October.

Premier Dominic Perrottet and Stokes inspect the progress on the Barangaroo Metro Station and the completed railway track under the Sydney Harbour in October. Credit:Rhett Wyman

His other beef with Canberra is the absence of a population policy. He says he is “pro a growing population” but “not for its own sake”; and that “pump-priming migration as an economic tool is lazy economics for starters”. There should be a national conversation about it, he says, linked into a national settlement strategy.

Stokes’ time in planning has not been without controversy. He’s clashed with local councils over changes to developer levies, used to fund local infrastructure, though a truce has recently been hammered out.

More controversially, Stokes has alienated community groups across Sydney, with his grand scheme for a Greater Sydney Parklands agency, now to be the peak decision-making authority for new major parks as well as existing parklands from Centennial Park in the east, to Callan Park in the inner west and out to the Western Sydney Parklands and Fernhill.

Opponents (uniting under the banner of the Alliance for Public Parklands) say the new body will be a monolith that diminishes the role of local communities in shaping much-loved parklands, and will open the door to their commercialisation in a drive to make them self-funding.

Stokes rejects this. He argues that the smaller individual park trusts “lacked real authority” and were “easy to ignore – they can get pushed around by government, particularly when you have things like Venues NSW organised and centralised … The whole point was to try and get the strength of a single voice for parklands”.

Critics are unconvinced. An upper house inquiry will examine the legislation underpinning the new authority early next year though by then, it may no longer be Stokes’ problem.

As to any future leadership aims, Stokes says “Dom has my complete support and will do a very good job … I would always stand ready if Dom were to fall under a bus or something like that, but I certainly wouldn’t be driving it.”

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