Last Friday, Queensland State Planning Minister and Deputy Premier, Steven Miles recognised that physical planning in Queensland is broken, evidenced by the wreckage from recent flooding of properties built in the wrong places. In saying something that no previous planning minister over the past decade has dared to acknowledge, he declared the clear need for a planning system that can take account of well-founded projections that disasters will become more frequent and more severe. Having visited flooded areas in recent days, he acknowledged that many “frankly, should not have been built upon”. He recognised the needs, not only to work with residents and councils on how to mitigate existing flooding risks, but also to “ensure that going forward we’re not building new homes on locations that are prone to flooding or other natural disasters.” He went on to look forward to “talking with local government mayors about how they can better incorporate into their planning schemes, these likely impacts.”
This is timely. Successive Queensland Planning Acts have been, literally, disasters waiting to happen – and now they have. Ignoring labels of Neighbourhood, City, Regional and State planning, it’s all actually been about Development and Infrastructure – about allocating convenient areas where new residential, commercial and industrial development can take place in locations that will attract developers and keep costs down for local and state authorities. In the jargon of modern economics, its overdue to start looking at the supply side – the environments that are being developed, their shape, vulnerabilities, habitats and unique characteristics – before resorting to the diagrams indicating site coverage and height permissions in different precincts that now masquerade as Neighbourhood and District Plans. Current environmental planning under the Environmental Protection Act 1994 is reactive, not proactive, and therefore lacks powers to shape new development to fulfill environmental objectives. And land-use planning legislation is simply about managing and promoting development.
Reinforcing Minister Miles recognition of current realities, the 6th IPCC Report on Climate Change Risks and Challenges for Australasia recommends:
“shifting from reactive to anticipatory planning, integration and coordination across levels of government and sectors, inclusive and collaborative institutional arrangements, government leadership, policy alignment, nationally consistent and accessible information, decision-support tools, adaptation funding and finance, and robust consistent and strategic policy commitment”.
Such future-proofing of our communities against accelerating annual flood and fire disasters can be assisted by a mixed scanning approach to policymaking. This would combine long-term visions, goals, and sustainability concerns with short term problem-solving to manage current market demands and community needs. The results would be phased programs laying out feasible paths to take us from here to there – from currently increasing proneness to disasters into a more sustainable future in which settlements might be cradled within conserved natural environments, protecting the habitats of species with whom we share finite spaces.
Such environmental planning has a distinguished history worldwide with influential policies such as green belts, urban growth boundaries, creek corridors, catchment coordinating committees, wetland conservation, regional open systems, and urban farms and community gardens. There are even excellent examples of such plans being developed by our own local governments. The award-winning Sunshine Coast Environmental Strategy, for instance, links overall resource allocation to specific action by various agencies and departments of the Regional Council. But it is powerless to channel the future growth of this very rapidly growing (and particularly flood-prone) locality into appropriate flood-free areas or to designate river valleys and creek corridors for flood swales, habitat zones, conservation zones and recreation facilities. Rebooting of Development Planning would be required to do that.
In reforming the planning system to become fit for the purpose of matching social progress with habitat conservation, we have to link global awareness with local sensitivity and human needs. We need to think and plan “glocally.” Global issues like climate change, pandemic proneness, responsible accommodation of asylum seekers, and management of predatory international investment, all need to be translated into specific provisions and controls at the most local scale. That is another aspect of the mixed scanning that the scale, pace and technology of the contemporary world demands.
We also need to ground-truth general rules by reference to their specific local impacts and outcomes. Brisbane’s celebrated inner-city suburb of West End – or Kurilpa – is a good case. The current South Brisbane Riverside Neighborhood Plan , for instance, crams capacity for a population increases of nearly 100,000 people into a very flood-prone area, much of it fronting the Brisbane River. Not surprisingly, the streets of these newer parts of the suburb are now lined by sad piles of flood devastated furniture, household and kitchen equipment and ruined beds, awaiting collection and disposal by the volunteer “Mud Army”, once current squalls and storms have passed.
Local groups like Kurilpa Futures and West End Community Association have been campaigning for years for a major review of the local plan, taking account of local topography, floodways, appropriate densities and needs for adequate open space. These are currently all sadly lacking and becoming daily more so because of the huge population increases that the plan allows and encourages. In looking for a testing ground for new planning methods, integrating topography, hydrography, human need and community participation, the Minister could partner with Brisbane City Council by starting in West End.
In doing so, he could also remove the iniquitous development accelerator of “Performance-based Planning”, under which planning controls can be routinely exceeded on the basis of beguiling add-ons like “greenwash” proposals and promised beautifications in exchange for many storeys of extra height.
In the new planning for truly sustainable settlements, we need to set firm standards of place and elevation and human needs for space, sunlight, and air unpolluted by noxious fumes. In the words of the “Me too” movement “No” should mean “No”. Communities and citizens, as well as developers, should know what areas will be safeguarded and what site coverages and heights will be allowed.
The outcomes of such a planning system would be a process that is inclusive, investigative and science-based, guiding investment to create developments that fulfill human needs and conserve natural habitats. It is worthwhile identifying the physical outcomes that would become possible. New settlement growth would be clustered on well-drained slopes and healthy uplands overlooking creek corridors devoted to swales and flood routes providing conservation pathways linking state and forest parks in the hinterland with coastal wetlands, protected by International Agreements such as the Ramsar Convention.
The transition to this sustainable future would take time, which is why it should be started now. The first step is to require a progressive review of all adopted plans over the next 5-7 years – the recommended time for official review. There should be mandated requirements to identify development spaces that avoid flood-prone land, protect flood paths, do not create heat island impacts, stay within urban growth boundaries and promote community participation.
The recurrent crises of our current period of “Punctuated Equilibrium ” – when continuing multiple and cascading change can be expected – would justify limiting compensation for developers whose expectations of development prospects had been reduced in the public interest.
Public acquisition of such land at the current owners’ acquisition costs would assist conservation and open space provision. These necessary reforms will require changes to state planning legislation. These could take the form either of major amendments to the current 2016 Planning Act or the introduction of an entirely new act, or both, one after the other. They should focus on translating goals of sustainability, inclusion and social justice into processes of community participation, progressive problem solving, and scientific analysis and projection.
We should not miss this opportunity.