26 Feb 2022

The Draft Design & Place SEPP aspires to improve design outcomes. But under the weight of more prescription, an abundance of guidance and a layering of complexity, are they achievable?

Striving for better design and amenity is critical as our cities become denser and taller, and our spaces become more highly valued and desired. At its core, the NSW draft State Environmental Policy (Design and Place) (DP SEPP) aims to do just that.

Urbis supports the Policy’s goal of improved design and space outcomes through best practice. However, to be effective, the policy must foster adaptive and responsive development within time efficient and streamlined processes.  The pathways for achieving better design must be clear, consistent, and feasible. 

What’s in the Policy?

The draft DP SEPP package incorporates a new principles-based approach, with new design considerations, more design review requirements and stronger sustainability targets. The Policy spans a range of development types and scales and will apply to many DAs, modification applications and rezoning proposals (on sites over 1 ha). 

Two significant changes include:

  • A revised Apartment Design Guide (ADG)
  • A new Urban Design Guide (UDG) applied to (with some exceptions):
    • development on land over 1 ha (with a CIV over $30 million if on industrial land),
    • where a master plan or Development Control Plan (DCP) is required,
    • or where a concept DA is proposed. 

Urbis assessment of the Draft NSW Design and Place SEPP

Will it work?

Pleasingly, the Policy was discussed and deliberated with stakeholders over the last year – and many of the earlier issues raised have been addressed. Urbis supports the proposed:

  • Design and Place principles
  • More contextual assessment for better outcomes on the ground
  • Streamlining the ADG objectives and a paring back concerning changes following consultation
  • Improving BASIX and increasing sustainability targets

However, we continue to question if the Policy can provide the balance required between flexibility and certainty to achieve the desired design and place outcomes.

What are we concerned about?

Layering and complexity

The DP SEPP package specifies that it aims to simplify the way that we plan for and design places, and to reduce complexity in the planning system. Conversely, we believe the package adds layers and increases the complexity, without assuring a better design outcome. 

Principle-based assessment along with 120 pages of new design guidance, council DCPs, design verification and design panel review processes, only add to delays and force lengthy reporting.

Urbis assessment of the Draft NSW Deign and Place SEPP

Prescription overrules flexibility

The principle-based approach intends to encourage greater creativity and innovation. This is a significant shift from the current planning framework and will likely sit uncomfortably within an entrenched system of prescription and regulation. 

Successful guidance should inspire and not be overly rigid with criteria. However, we think the overabundance of design provisions in the DP SEPP will not avoid the usual strict ‘design by compliance’ approach currently practiced. Prolific wording in the Policy further embeds the prescriptive approach.

The Policy does introduce some flexibility through a ‘test’ for alternative solutions that require a neutral or more beneficial outcome to be achieved.  The risk is that a new ‘high bar’ for alternative solutions will involve detailed and lengthy technical assessment. This will limit options for innovation by becoming a quantitative rather than qualitative assessment.  

Design review process is already stretched

Design review provides the means for flexibility in design and opportunity for innovation. We’re concerned that when design review process applies to a greater pool of development there will be significant delays through an overloaded system and a limited capacity for expansion.

Council appointed DRPs are highly variable, owing to level of capability, time to review material and their alignment with council staff. It’s our experience that these panels often operate to drive compliance rather than to facilitate good design.

The Draft Local government DRP Manual allows for multiple reviews pre-lodgement and potential referral during the assessment of the DA post approval. The Manual introduces clear timeframe expectations, but we can they achieved? The State Design Review Panel (DRP) has delays of up 4 months.

Urbis assessment of Draft NSW Design and Place SEPP

Impact on development feasibility and housing affordability

Recent Productivity Commissioner reports stress that for NSW to be globally competitive it needs to both urgently address housing affordability and be a highly productive economy. Both are high agenda for Government and have informed recent planning reforms.  Reducing red tape, streamlining processes, and increasing supply are crucial. The DP SEPP may well contradict that reform.  

Business and Industry are choosing to locate in other states due to rent hikes, shortage of supply and complexity in the planning system. The introduction of more assessment layers and delays for new developments in these sectors will continue to drive them away.

We believe that the summary document of the Cost Benefit Analysis, currently on exhibition with the package, has limited value in understanding the distribution of costs and benefit.

How this Policy impacts housing affordability, office rents, industrial rents, and responsiveness to market changes, are key to understanding whether the policy will support NSW’s bid for global competitiveness. Without this information it’s difficult to assume that the Policy fits well with planning reform – particularly when we anticipate more complexity, less certainty and increased time and cost in design review and assessment.

What’s next?

The draft DP SEPP package is on exhibition until 28 February 2022 and, following review of submissions, the Policy is scheduled to be finalised and implemented mid-year, with a 6-month transition period.  It does not yet affect any development applications but may be considered for upcoming planning proposals.

Our expert planners, urban designers and property economists have critically reviewed the detailed proposed design provisions. We understand how the Policy may impact your developments and are here to help you. Contact our team to discuss how.

Ashleigh Ryan View Profile
Madonna Locke View Profile
Stephen White View Profile
Princess Ventura View Profile