Moving from reactive COVID measures towards innovative planning reform

By Kim Samuel, Director, Urban and Regional Planning

in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity – Albert Einstein

This has certainly been the case with the COVID-19 pandemic, which generated profound health, economic and social impacts across Australia. At the same time it provided a glimpse of the innovative and collaborative ways the Government, business and not-for-profit sectors can mobilise in the face of extreme adversity to implement urgent measures to protect the Australian community.

This was demonstrated in the swift action to shift essential services online which ensured the continued delivery of key services during the pandemic. It also enabled a rapid cultural acceptance of online service delivery and legislative change that would have taken far longer to implement in the absence of a crisis. This revolution has particularly benefited those living in remote and regional communities.

The inevitable question that arises is whether any of these measures can remain in place as we return to a new normal? And, if we are able to respond so quickly and proactively during a time of crisis, is it not possible for us to be as agile and innovative all the time?

In NSW, the Minister for Planning and Public Spaces implemented a broad range of changes to the planning system to ensure the ongoing viability of the construction sector, allow essential planning functions to continue, and to fast-track development and construction projects that create jobs and tangible public benefits for the community.

A number of these measures are in place until expiration of the ‘prescribed pandemic period’ – initially to 25 March 2021 but now extended 31 March 2022. Now is an excellent time to consider these measures and whether any of them should remain in place longer term.

What planning changes were implemented in response to COVID?

On 25 March 2020, the NSW Government introduced the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Bill 2020, which made changes to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. The key temporary planning changes are summarised below:

Summary of temporary planning changes

In addition to the above temporary measures, there were a number of other great planning outcomes introduced in response to the COVID health and economic crisis including:

  1. The creation of a new Planning System Acceleration Program to accelerate the assessment and determination of projects that inject investment into the NSW economy and keep people in jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. Greater acknowledgement of the importance of public spaces and the need for reform in the way we design, deliver and fund these spaces.
  3. Implementation of a Planning Reform Action Plan which seeks to:
    – introduce a new class of appeals for rezoning in the Land and Environment Court
    – enhance the ePlanning platform to ensure all councils adopt an online DA system by 1 July, 2021
    – introduce complying development reforms to support emerging industries and to fast track government projects

Work on the Planning Reform Action Plan has already commenced and may provide an excellent opportunity to make successful, temporary planning measures implemented during the COVID pandemic, more permanent.

Reform action right now is very timely with the expiry of the temporary COVID planning measures, and the publication of the Productivity Commission’s information Paper on the Plan to Identify Planning and Zoning Reforms. This Paper was commissioned in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the recommendations made by the Productivity Commission (see figure below) align with the NSW Planning Reform Action Plan.

The COVID pandemic was devastating in many ways. At the same time it provided a call to action that galvanised all levels of Government to implement long-awaited reform. It is essential that this momentum to improve the planning system continue as we move into recovery.