The role of local government town planning for a better future

Liam Hogan is a history and heritage researcher

In 1919, the then Minister for Local Government, J.D. Fitzgerald, was responsible for the passing of NSW's Local Government Act. Exaggerating only slightly, the State has barely moved on. This nearly hundred year-old piece of legislation has had an incredibly strong influence over the direction and nature of planning in NSW, and indeed, Australia. Fitzgerald himself led the kind of interesting life that only the turn of the 20th century allowed: he was a typographical unionist, a reformist, female suffragist, and socialist in the late 19th century, was influenced by British Fabian ideas, was a town planning and municipal evangelist for Sydney, was a Federationist, and after the split of 1917, was a member of Holman's Nationalist NSW Government (which split from the Labor Party) and a Cabinet Minister. He is responsible for the layout of Daceyville, the worker's garden suburb in southern Sydney. He was a painter, he developed some of the basic ideals of town planning, and acted as a Commissioner for Chicago's famous 1893 World Columbian Exhibition. The influence of his Local Government Act, typically, has been long-lasting.

Local government is the 'missing level' of the Australian government landscape. It famously has no recognition in the Constitution (though getting that official status has been a longstanding project of the ALP and Greens). Councils kick along in a constitutional grey area, responsible for very many of the things that affect urban and rural lives - from roads, to childcare, to heritage paint schemes, to sewering, to bushfire protection - with little of the sovereign political power that the States and Commonwealth enjoy. Mayors and Councils are sackable. Gough Whitlam's brief foray into 'regionalist' policy was barely a blip on the established pattern of Australian governments; the Commonwealth raises money, the States provide services, and Councils do everything else that the first two find too insignificant, dangerous, difficult, tedious, or contentious.

And on that note, to the New South Wales planning system, which satisfies all five of those criteria. The statutory foundation of planning in NSW is the Local Environmental Plan (LEP), a document that Councils prepare under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. Local Governments were given the job of town planning properly only in 1945, in a burst of post-war civic enthusiasm, and have been statutorily carrying out its functions only the last four decades. Councils - after consultation with their communities, of course - are the ones who are supposed to decide exactly what their areas and places are going to look like into the future.

Councils exist in other places. In the UK they are very powerful, as that country has no intermediate level; in the United States 'city' government is notoriously underfunded, though it has even more responsibility, including policing. The Australian picture distinguishes itself by the sheer economic and demographic dominance of a few cities, Sydney in particular. (It's one of the oldest governance jokes that 'NSW' stands for 'Newcastle, Sydney, Wollongong'). Rural NSW councils are the core of their communities because of their relative isolation: councils are often a major job provider, and always a provider for training and education. The power of councils - through the statutory LEP, as well as by budgetary means - to shape the way their places will be, is serious, but localised.

Sydney's urban councils, similarly, are small. It's one of the serious ongoing preoccupations of the NSW State Government, over more than a hundred and fifty years, to make sure that they stay that way. In geographical terms, Sydney is a regional 'primate city' (as are most Australian capitals). It's large, economically powerful, and dominates the region. A disproportionate amount of State government revenue comes from the greater Sydney region, to the point where a functioning Council government with revenue powers would be a powerful political rival. It goes especially for the City of Sydney Council, one of the most frequently sacked municipalities, and the object of eternal politically motivated 'reforms'. The scandalous double-voting and business-franchise proposals of the former Baird government are just the last in cynical political attempts to control it, going back to the 1850s. It's precisely because city Councils do planning, and affect the way the city is and will be, that State governments are so interested in the local government planning process. 'Metropolitan' planning, for the whole of the city and metropolitan region, is, paradoxically, the State's business, which it does with arguably far less statutory basis than any local council. Confusing!

So the Local Environmental Plan, made by Council, is the document you must either comply with, or be exempt from, whether you want to build a billion-dollar infrastructure development, or you want to build another storey at the back of your house. LEPs are the supreme statutory instrument of town planning. Or are they? NSW's 'Gateway' process allows regional and State planning authorities (after community consultation) to alter them. 'State significant' large or expensive development can be called in by the Minister for Planning to be approved under a State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP), a process by which the notorious 'Part 3A' lives a ghostly half-life after its death. Councils, of course, have neither the budget, the capacity, or the geographic interest to assess whole-of-state or whole-of-Sydney projects, and their planning is done, in the end, opaquely, and by way of political fights between Ministers over the State budget. It is how we get unwanted motorway projects, airports without private bidders, housing developments without train stations or schools, and other such infrastructural strangenesses. Citizens these days look to Councils to defeat the State government in its regional planning capacity - a completely perverse situation. 

Furthermore, isn't every development significant to the State in its cumulative effects? A city is only a very large number of structures, an agglomeration of communities. Affordable housing in its many guises is the political theme of the moment, as it should be. We do not have enough cheap housing in the right places for working people; it is as simple as that. Sydney's cumulative failure to densify in the right places, and its gleeful alchemical magic in which landlords have turned other people's shelter into profit, has been the great planning failure of our adult lives. J.D. Fitzgerald's solutions to very similar problems were to use the fringe space of Sydney to create garden suburbs for workers, to give Councils the power and responsibility to plan, and beautify and make healthy the centre. It was a good solution for 1919, but it's not enough for now. Before we can work out how a planning system can be made better, we need to work out exactly what local government town planning for the first half of this century is to do.


This essay was first published in the Australian Fabian pamphlet A New Vision for NSW: Ideas for the next NSW Labor Government. 

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  • commented 2018-01-10 00:48:27 +1100
    Thanks Liam; timely and to the point. Of course, legislation governing municipalities and shires had existed since the 1860’s. The 1919 Act was an attempt at comprehensive NSW local government reform, but it was not the only one. A second and significant attempt was made in the 1980’s by J.A. Crosio (ALP), the first woman Minister of the Crown in New South Wales.

    The 1992 Act sought to untangle the roles and responsibilities of local councils and state authorities. It was partly successful, so that at last portfolio responsibility rested with the Minister for Local Government rather than being divided among relevant functional ministers (health, roads, public works, planning, etc.). But the state agencies often found other ways to sustain their suzerainty over council budgets, staff and functions. Janice Crosio’s attempts to separate the planning functions of local councils and the State were very strongly resisted, particularly by the business community and key bureaucrats, including Ms Gabrielle Kibble. In the end, the government changed, and under Nick Greiner, the reform efforts failed completely.

    The key reform proposal in relation to planning functions was that the State would establish regional plans under the EP&A Act and deliver major infrastructure, while local councils made judicially subordinate but administratively independent local plans under the LG Act.

    Perhaps it was an opportunity lost? At any rate, the Hon JA Crosio deserves due recognition.
  • published this page in Home 2018-01-09 12:44:18 +1100