A war of words has broken out between Premier Chris Minns and local councils over its push for housing density. We speak with the Mosman, North Sydney and Willoughby mayors about their fight to have a say on local planning.

Like many states across Australia, New South Wales is facing a housing crisis like never before. Not only is the rising cost of living making inflated real estate prices unaffordable for many, but there is a critical housing supply deficit, with National Housing Accord data showing NSW has a projected housing construction shortfall of 376,000 over five years.

The State Government predicts that an additional 900,000 homes will be needed by 2041 – but says that housing supply is not keeping up with demand, with NSW well behind Victoria in the amount of housing completions. Meanwhile, lending for the construction of new homes is at its lowest level since the GFC. This is all amid calls from charities like Homelessness Australia who are reporting services at ‘snapping point’ because of the dramatic increase in demand for their services.

In the last few months, Premier Chris Minns and his Labor team have taken what some are describing as an aggressive approach to local development, unilaterally changing zoning rules and forcing councils to take on more density. One significant change has been the imposition of increased housing around local transport hubs, which for the Lower North Shore impacts the area around the new Crows Nest metro, already slated for an extra 6,683 units. The other policy change is a push to see more subdivision in the R2 zone, for low to mid-rise housing, to encourage more duplexes, residential flat buildings and terraces. “This will mean councils can’t say no to certain types of buildings in locations that are zoned for them,” a statement by Chris Minns said on 7 December.

While there has been support for the government’s recognition of the need for policy change in the area, councils feel they have been left out of the conversation, arguing they are the ones who know their communities best.

North Sydney Council Mayor Zoë Baker says Mr Minns is ‘planning by press release’ and is one of many mayors frustrated at the lack of consultation about the proposed changes. She goes as far as to tell North Shore Living: “It’s the way authoritarian regimes do planning, which is that they just make announcements and crash through.”

The reason councils need to be involved is not to stop development, Ms Baker argues. “It’s actually to improve the outcome. Councils know the locality, they know their community exceptionally well.”

The reality is that North Shore councils have already been planning more density for years, with long-term housing targets required to be set as part of local environment plans (LEP).

Willoughby is one council which recently told Planning Minister Paul Scully that it is already ‘pulling its weight’ in boosting housing supply. The council has created capacity for 6,700 homes in its latest LEP, allowing for more density and taller buildings, mostly around its Chatswood CBD, where the new Sydney Metro is expected to open later this year.

The new Sydney Metro at Crows Nest will encourage more commuters from the increasing population.

Willoughby Mayor Tanya Taylor

Mayor Tanya Taylor says: “We were able to explain (to Mr Scully during his visit) what we were doing in the CBD, and I think he appreciated that we are pulling our weight.”

The council, with a fast-growing population of 75,500, is also seeking to boost affordable housing supply around transport hubs in Artarmon, North Willoughby and Naremburn. “Willoughby’s always been at the forefront of planning for affordable housing, with a program in place since the 1990s,” Ms Taylor says.

One of Ms Taylor’s greatest concerns about the State Government’s proposed rezoning changes is that Willoughby’s R2 areas ‘generally don’t have great transport connections’. “They’re set up for single dwellings, which means that the infrastructure around them is also set up for single dwelling families.

“I’m not sure whether the R2 terraces and apartments is the solution. They need to work with councils and communities to find solutions – and we’ve spent five years developing our LEP in consultation with our community. So we don’t want to lose all of that work.”

Mosman, the smallest of the three Lower North Shore councils with just 30,000 people, has been targeted by Premier Chris Minns this year as one area that must share the responsibility of adding extra homes. “Sydney can’t grow by adding another street to the western fringe of Sydney every other week,” Mr Minns said back in May. Mayor Carolyn Corrigan has repeatedly hit back at criticisms of Mosman, telling North Shore Living: “In terms of green field space, there’s absolutely nothing.

“And don’t forget, about half of our local government area is national park.”

The mayor laments the ‘chiselling away’ of council planning powers.

“The State Government is clearly taking away our strategic planning powers,” she tells North Shore Living.

“It means that that contract of trust is broken. And we are the ones that will end up owning the problem. The State Government can mandate the changes. But we are here at the grassroots, we are on the ground with our communities.”

Like all councils, Ms Corrigan is still waiting for more detail about how all the changes will impact Mosman, but she argues the area has no room for more infrastructure, which would be crucial for any new housing – particularly now that the Beaches Link tunnel has been shelved. And unlike North Sydney and Willoughby, Mosman has no rail lines, just ‘a basket case of Spit Road’.

“There is just no spare capacity. If we get more density, and all of the things that go with it, are there extra spaces in our schools? Are there extra spaces on our playing fields? They’re all at capacity and in fact, over prescribed.

“The State Government just keeps talking ‘houses, houses, houses’ like it’s going to be the magic bullet. That’s only one piece of the pie. And I understand that that will alleviate one part of the problem, but then it doesn’t alleviate the problem of what happens when you need extra schools, extra playing fields, hospitals, sewers – all of that infrastructure that gives us quality of life.”

“It’s the way authoritarian regimes do planning, which is that they just make announcements and crash through.” North Sydney Mayor Zoë Baker

Ms Corrigan acknowledges that ‘everyone’ is going to have to take some extra density. “All we want to know is that it’s not being done in a kneejerk, ad hoc way.

“We need a summit between the planning minister and all the councils’ planning departments. We need to sit down and work out how we’re going to do this in a way that’s got some sort of strategic focus.”

At the time of writing, a 30-minute meeting was scheduled in December with the eight mayors of most affected councils and Mr Scully. The minister told North Shore Living that it was a legislative requirement for any future housing targets to be publicly exhibited, and councils would be asked to provide feedback.

In regards to infrastructure, the minister says: “Since coming into government we’ve reformed infrastructure contributions to align housing delivery with supporting infrastructure, so communities have schools, roads and parks to support their growing communities.”

Crows Nest will see more densification with 6,693 new homes by 2036.

Ms Baker, who presides over an area where 89.3 per cent of housing stock is already at medium or high density, for a population of 69,300, is worried about whether those contributions actually make it to the councils.

“There’s (currently) no requirement for those contributions to return from where they’re collected,” she says.

Of most concern is that the ability of councils to provide ‘careful’ strategic planning’ has largely been eroded by successive state governments over many years, Ms Baker argues. Much of the large-scale development is now decided by independent panels – such as the Sydney North Planning Panel – but the government also asesses any large-scale ‘significant’ builds such as new schools. Developers constantly appeal refusals through the the Land and Environment Court, with the government’s Gateway pathway also an option.

“That’s taken power planning powers away from local communities,” Ms Baker states.

“(But) how you get good planning, and even get great density, is when you do careful strategic planning with your community and with all the stakeholders,” she says. “It’s extraordinary that people will be reconciled to things that may not be in their own personal interest if they can see and trust that taking additional density will deliver some public benefits.”