By Jacqueline Parker | 10 May 2017

Population growth in NSW has forced a growing demand for schools that is not being adequately met.  A proposed streamlining of the planning system for building and upgrading schools may help to deliver new and improved infrastructure more efficiently. However, there remains questions as to the effectiveness of some aspects of the draft policy. 

Urbis has previously highlighted that significant systemic, policy and funding issues have impacted the successful delivery of new school infrastructure. We believe that schools are a key driver for productivity, economic prosperity, and global competitiveness. However, across the state and particularly in our metropolitan areas, schools are at capacity and temporary measures such as demountable classrooms are undermining high quality education outcomes.




The NSW government has recently exhibited proposed legislative changes and guidance notes for the way schools are to be planned and delivered by the draft State Environmental Planning Policy (Educational Establishments and Child Care Facilities) 2017 (the draft ESEPP).  This, along with Education Minister Rob Stokes’ announcement of a dedicated Education Infrastructure unit to tackle the planning and building of new schools and the Federal government’s revisit of the school funding model, will go some way to address the much-needed education infrastructure shortfall. 

Urbis works closely with many schools and associated stakeholders in pursuing zoning changes and DA approvals.

The draft ESEPP, particularly the broadening of development pathways, is a positive contribution to education infrastructure delivery.   

The recently exhibited draft ESEPP proposes amendments and design guidelines to standardise planning approval pathways and provide consistent planning frameworks for child care facilities, schools, TAFEs and universities across NSW.

The key drivers for the amendments for schools are to:

  • Streamline delivery of schools.
  • Remove local politics from decision making and speed up the process.
  • Deliver school facilities in new ways.
  • Acknowledge that education delivery is a partnership between the private and public system.

Some of the more significant planning changes for schools propose to:

  • Expand the range of works that can be undertaken as exempt or complying development.
  • Enable non-government schools to undertake self-assessment for certain works.
  • Lower the CIV threshold to $20 million for schools to become State Significant Developments.
  • Introduce Design Guidelines.
  • Require agency sign off on certain Complying Development Certificates

Although there are many positives, Urbis is of the view that some of the changes may not bring about desired outcomes, including the following:

1. No ‘complying development’ for heritage affected schools

Currently, all existing schools can gain approval for certain works in a faster, more streamlined process through complying development certification. The proposed expansion of the use of complying development within schools is an effective pathway for rapidly upgrading school facilities and updating school design for better student outcomes. However, the draft ESEPP clearly removes this pathway from heritage affected sites.

Over 570 government schools and many independent schools within NSW are identified as local or State heritage sites.  Removal of the complying development for these schools appears contrary to the intent of the policy to streamline development and assist in the timely delivery of improved school infrastructure.

2. Schools on small sites may need DAs

Now more prescriptive controls have been introduced for complying development which will facilitate building delivery on sites with ample space. However, schools on small lots or with limited space will still require to submit DAs to locate certain buildings closer than 10 metres to the boundary.

3. Opportunities for self-assessment

Non-government schools can now be classified as a ‘public authority’ for certain development set out in the draft ESEPP. This is a positive step which enables both government and non-government schools to undertake a self-assessment approval process under the provisions of Part 5 of the EP&A Act. 

This is a new role for non-government schools and a likely need to build capacity in these schools to undertake these new responsibilities.  All schools can now equitably benefit from the efficiencies the draft ESEPP is aiming to provide.

Urbis currently assists government schools, and several Universities and other public authorities in preparing the necessary documentation in support of this self-assessment planning pathway.

4. New flexible use of State owned school land

Currently, only uses permissible on a school site (under zoning requirements) may be developed on that land. Generally, this is highly restrictive to ‘education’ purposes only.

The draft ESEPP provides the opportunity to develop state-owned school land for additional purposes, compatible with the neighbourhood, for use by the school and the wider community. This has the benefit of allowing complementary uses and the sharing of infrastructure on the school sites.

This new opportunity only applies to state owned land.  This negates the opportunity for flexible use of school sites and community infrastructure on non-government school land.

5. A ‘one-size fits all’ approach to design can restrict innovation

Schools are places of inspiration and new buildings can positively influence teaching and learning over decades. New school buildings have a lifespan of at least 50 years and need to accommodate evolution in teaching and learning.

It is important that innovation in school design is fostered and encouraged. Urbis supports the focus on high quality school design that is encouraged by the draft ESEPP. The Design Guidelines go some way to highlighting the key factors important to school design. However, it is imperative that this guide does not become a ‘one size fits all’ design standard that may limit flexibility in educational pedagogy over time.

The Design Guideline needs to be an adaptive document, focusing on the ability to encourage high quality outcomes and innovation and to support the evolution in teaching and learning, rather than simply the building aesthetic.

6. What commitments are there to prioritise school delivery?

We understand that the Department of Planning & Environment is gearing up resources to cater for increased school applications. We support this approach. However, will referral agencies, such as the RMS have the capacity to provide expedited certification?

Urbis believes that assessment and referral authorities must understand the drivers behind school design and the intrinsic value of what the design is trying to achieve. These authorities must facilitate fast assessments to enable timely delivery of new school facilities.

7. School traffic assessments need to be case-based

The draft ESEPP stipulates that RMS will be required to provide certification for certain development pathways, including complying development. Urbis encourage the RMS and Councils to adopt a case-based approach in assessing traffic impacts.

Traffic generation differs depending on school location (e.g. inner city compared with suburban), the proximity and availability of public transport modes and each School’s approach to private bus transport.  The current approach of adopting standard traffic generation rates for suburban schools should not be applied across the board as this may significantly over-estimate the actual impact.

Improving assessment pathways and frameworks for school infrastructure is vital for NSW.  The draft ESEPP is a strong and positive policy initiative. The challenge lies in the need to address a rapidly growing demand for new schools with innovative flexibility to cater for schools of the future, a horizon of at least 50 years.  Some areas yet to be included in the policy include:

  • How will pathways be streamlined for developments that are not large enough to be state Significant Development but do not qualify for CDC or Part 5 assessment?
  • Are there instruments/ways to incentivise early delivery of new and improved schools?

Our team will keep you updated on the progress of the draft ESEPP and its final form.  Should you require any further information please feel free to contact one of our expert Sydney Planners.

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