The largest rezoning reforms in NSW history would boost Pittwater housing supply. But will it be at the cost of the local landscape? Catherine Lewis investigates.

Locals fear losing their prized postcodes to a sea of skyscrapers, as a raft of bold ‘once in a generation’ State Government proposals to amend planning policies are floated. The changes could see developments of up to seven-storeys approved across Pittwater. With an additional 50,000 people set to call the area home by 2041 and Northern Beaches Council (NBC) admitting a vast shortfall of affordable homes and rentals, it’s clear there is no priority more pressing than addressing the housing crisis – both on the Beaches and beyond. But how best to do it?

Making better use of our land is the key, says NSW Minister for Planning and Public Spaces, Paul Scully. “Sydney ranks 859th in the world for density, so we are not using our land well, which is costing home buyers, renters and the environment,” he says. His Department of Planning’s
‘Explanation of intended effect (EIE): Changes to create low and mid-rise housing’ aims to tackle this perennial issue. Boosting density around travel hubs and increasing sub-division to encourage low-to mid-rise developments, such as apartment buildings and duplexes, form the core of the proposals.

Apartment blocks within 400 metres of Narrabeen Town Centre, Warriewood Square, Mona Vale Town Centre, Newport and Avalon Beach villages could double in height, with up to six-storey, 21-metre-tall apartment towers permitted. Throw in changes to low-density (R2) zones to demolish detached housing and permit dual occupancies and terraces on tiny blocks, and concern spirals. The State Liberals have been vocal proponents against the proposals, with shadow minister for Planning and Public Spaces, Scott Farlow claiming the new rules would contain ‘non-refusal standards’ which will ‘overrule local environment plan (LEP) or development control plan (DCP) provisions.’ Not so, says Minister Scully, confirming that councils will ‘retain all the rights they presently have, to approve, modify or reject a development’.

Mayor Sue Heins fears congestion on already laden roads, pressure on community infrastructure and ‘overloading’ of limited public transport options. “It will change the local character, reduce tree canopy and threaten local heritage,” she adds. While council is aware of the housing shortfall – more than 8,000 affordable homes – it already has the ‘capacity to plan’ for future growth, she maintains.

Prioritising diversity such as shared accommodation or dual occupancy, reinstating the Beaches Link Tunnel, a bus rapid transit system from Chatswood to Dee Why and grade separation of Warringah and Pittwater Roads to support more housing, form some of this promised capacity, Mayor Heins argues. Council is ‘best placed’ to make planning decisions, due to its ‘knowledge of the Beaches’ unique, fragile, natural environment and infrastructure constraints’.

Mona Vale’s town centre would look very different should the reforms proceed

“Council recognises the potential to increase the heights of flat buildings in some R3-zoned areas and would also consider increasing areas zoned for flat buildings, but not at the scale and density proposed,” Mayor Heins says.

Chair of the Mona Vale Residents Association, Kelvin Auld, agrees that the reforms ‘undermine existing council strategies and community involvement in the development of those strategies’.

Far from the Beaches being anti-development, the area is ‘against development without adequate infrastructure,’ says Pittwater MP Rory Amon. He cites the scrapping of the Mona Vale Road West widening and the pulling of $75 million from Wakehurst Parkway funding as two examples of highly-needed infrastructure to support additional homes. He also refutes the depiction of himself by the NSW Premier as ‘never having met a development he would support’.

“You cannot apply the same planning solutions to Pittwater, where the B Line moves 2,400 people per hour, to areas with a Metro that moves 40,000 people,” he tells Peninsula Living Pittwater, adding that, if the ‘scale of development proposed’ proceeds, ‘Sydney’s playground will become Sydney’s wasteland’.

Mona Vale’s Kelvin Auld agrees: “We aren’t saying that there shouldn’t be any increase in density to accommodate more housing, but planned growth with community involvement and timely provision of infrastructure and services is always better than unplanned growth.”

But the message from the top is clear – NSW is lagging in terms of hitting housing targets and sits last-in-line for construction completions on the east coast. This is despite having the largest population, largest expected population increase and highest rents and median house prices. This doesn’t sit well with National Cabinet plans to construct 1.2 million ‘well-located’ homes over the next five years, necessitating 77,000 housing starts a year from NSW. This is a monumental ask considering last year’s tally of 47,000, the lowest for more than a decade.

Stratospheric Sydney rental prices, which spiralled to more than 20 per cent last year and are completely out of whack with wage increases – compounded with home values sitting at 14 times the average full-time income – have now sent 223,000 NSW households into housing stress, says Beaches- based community housing organisation, Bridge Housing.

Despite receiving a share of the Federal Government’s $40 million social housing stimulus in 2021, which enabled upgrades to its properties, there remains huge demand. There are 58,000 on the waiting list in NSW for social housing. Provision sits at just 4.4 per cent, meaning many will wait more than 10 years for a home. Simone Parsons, chief operating officer of Bridge Housing says: “Delivering more social housing can change lives and help to build resilient, vibrant communities. Well-designed higher-density projects that include social and affordable housing, which are supported by local infrastructure, can deliver positive social and economic benefits.”

This mocked-up image from Pittwater MP Rory Amon shows what would be possible where there are currently medium density zones near the beach

“If the scale of development proceeds, Sydney’s playground will become Sydney’s wasteland.” Pittwater MP Rory Amon

To sate this vast need, the Federal Government’s $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund aims to cover 10,000 social and affordable homes nationally over the coming five years, while the state environmental planning policy will allow state-owned housing agencies such as the Land and Housing Corporation and the Aboriginal Housing Office to build more affordable housing without council approvals. There is also now a floor space ratio and height bonus of up to 30 per cent if a minimum of 15 per cent of a development’s gross floor area is designated as affordable.

The department has completed a state-wide community consultation and says it expects to finalise reforms through legislative change by the middle of year.

Beaches communities that are pushing back on proposals may be accused of NIMBY-ism or of shortchanging future generations, but it’s clear that one-size-fits-all density reforms are dangerously misaligned with the unique local environment. Home to more than 75 threatened plant and animal species across 80 kilometres of pristine coastline and 114 square kilometres of national parks – as well as myriad significant Aboriginal sites, including Belrose’s tussled-over Lizard Rock/ Patyegarang – the area is extra vulnerable to development pressures, pollution and climate change.

Omitting heritage conservation areas from reforms and ensuring existing capacity – or sufficient funding – for essential road, stormwater and waste infrastructure upgrades to support increased density, could help with this delicate alignment. Ensuring the drawbridge is not pulled up on future Beaches babies calls for complex, creative and community-consulted sustainable growth, not tracts of skyscrapers shooting up at supersonic speeds to shadow sensitive suburbs. More housing yes, but not at any cost.