The character of Byron Shire’s built environment is likely to change over the next decade as recommendations emerging from the various town Masterplans take effect.
Change can be beneficial if development proposals are lawful and, more importantly, address real community needs such as housing affordability, and are sensitive to local character.
Inconsiderate, poorly designed proposals are another matter. Emotive, occasionally ill-informed community commentary is often a consequence. But even justifiable opposition has little effect when a proposal complies with the letter of planning law and can withstand Land and Environment Court challenges.
Sadly, Australia lacks the design-aware culture typically enjoyed, for example, by the Scandinavian countries. Instead, the focus of most development is on expediency, cost and profit. These crude business parameters are prioritised leading to the exclusion of good design.
That said, good design is a loaded term that could be about aesthetics, process, philosophy or all three and more.
I use the term in its aesthetic sense and in the relationship of design to the quality of the built environment.
The role of design has been elevated through a new object in the NSW EP&A Act: ‘To promote good design in the built environment.’ An object is intended to assist decision-makers to interpret how to exercise their statutory powers. As I understand it, an object has precedence over all other elements of the Act and any related but subsidiary policies.
Announcing these changes in October 2016, then Minister Stokes said, ‘Good design is critical to creating liveable, productive, sustainable and resilient communities, and we want to champion good design through a new policy and give it weight through legislative changes.’
The Act’s design object is supported by a government architect-developed policy called Better Placed. Its aim is to clarify the government’s understanding of good design and thereby underpin the new EP&A Act object.
It is not just how a place or building looks, but how it works and feels for people. The document is worth reading and provides a sound basis for the review and assessment of proposals. It ought to assist everyone involved from the design phase through to development application assessments.
So, in the Shire’s sometime fractious development assessment environment one question arises: Who should assess significant projects where good design and responsiveness to local conditions are crucially important? There is a solution Council may like to consider. In addition to good design, recent EP&A Act amendments include the concept of local Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs). IHAPs are mandatory for all Greater Sydney region councils and Wollongong City Council but the legislation permits a local council to establish one. Each is made up of three minister-appointed independent expert members and a council-appointed community member.
IHAPs are intended to provide a transparent and accountable assessment process for projects valued between $5 million and $30 million.
Importantly, development applications receiving ten or more objections from different households, accompanied by a Voluntary Planning Agreement, seeking to depart by more than 10 per cent from a development standard or for a development associated with a high risk of corruption are also included.
Establishment of a Byron Shire Council IHAP that determines high-value development applications might be beneficial for both the community and Council. This is not intended to unfairly criticise the skills and dedication of Council’s officers. They would still determine other applications and provide high-standard reports and recommendations on proposals going to the IHAP or the Regional Planning Panel.
A Byron IHAP could be a way to take the heat off Council when significant development proposals are assessed. One would hope it could also be a means to independently address community needs, local character and good design in the process.