(4) The ladder of public participation

Quick tutorial in city planning (4):
Making engagement impossible

Fifty years ago Sherry Arnstein published an article that resonated with planners and remains one of the most quoted articles on planning. She constructed a ‘ladder’ of public participation, pointing out that when governments claim to encourage public participation, in reality their purpose might range from manipulation through informing and consultation, to partnership, delegated power and citizen control.

Where does NSW stand? Not far up the ladder, and there is no sign that anything will be done about it.

For a larrikin state like NSW, there is a remarkable tendency to put up with bad choices in public policy, or to work around and exploit bad legislation rather than fix it.

There’s a current example of this: Planning Minister Rob Stokes says he wants an end to spot rezoning, but he’ll wait until councils improve their LEPs rather than legislate (Jacob Saulwick and Megan Gorrey in the SMH, 15 May 2019).

In 1979 the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act set us on a wrong track, falsely asserting that land use planning is environmental planning, failing to include a simple and fundamental requirement for ‘development’ to be approved, and basing assessment on legalistic games rather than real-world outcomes — so a legal industry arose as a result, spending fortunes and epochs on distinguishing, for instance, between a ‘development standard’ and a ‘prohibition’.

Then in 2006 the Government of NSW adopted a ‘standard instrument’ that all LEPs were to strictly comply with. When one style of prescriptive planning, one set of standard zones, one set of rules and one set of definitions (thirty pages of them) have to apply everywhere — to CBDs, traditional inner areas, new and old suburbs, regional cities, country towns and remote settlements — it can only be a simplistic, inflexible, one-size-fits-all kind of device.

Paralysis and obfuscation are apparent in the current planning of St Leonards: for instance, in regard to spot rezoning and shop top housing. The barriers to public comprehension of plans are also apparent in the way the site at 617-621 Pacific Highway was rezoned.

  • The text of the amendment enabled a residential tower (where the zoning prohibits residential development) by the obscure and misleading process of adding the words ‘shop top housing’ to a schedule of ‘additional permitted uses’.*
  • The permissible height was raised from 49 m to 180 m, and an extraordinary floor space ratio of 25.4 was granted, by changing the colour of the land parcel on two maps, a change not explained in the text of the amendment!**

This looks devious. It’s certainly impossible for citizens to comprehend and participate in policy-making of this kind.

The Committee for North Sydney can’t fix such entrenched deficiencies in the planning system, but the Committee can encourage community discussion and debate of the future of North Sydney, it can explain and assist in engaging with planning processes, and it can press the North Sydney Council to be open instead of closed, and receptive instead of defensive.


* ‘Insert at the end of the Schedule… Development for the purposes of shop top housing is permitted with development consent.’

** ‘The [LEP] maps are amended … by the maps approved by [North Sydney Council] on the making of this Plan.’