Urban planning is complex at both the macro and micro scale. It's part social sciences like demography, part physical sciences like geography, part land use and design, all with a healthy dollop of financial and political considerations. It affects everyone's lives, which is why the public should be involved. But unfortunately, that has not turned out so well. In fact, it’s a farce.

The macro scale is strategic planning: making frameworks for the development of a particular area. The micro scale is regulatory planning, checking that proposals are consistent or compliant with the aims of the framework. Policy, then policing.

The public wants to have a say, which is entirely reasonable, a democratic right. And it should be at the front end, the macro scale where policies are formulated, and Councils often invite submissions on masterplans from locals. But it is hard for an untrained public to grasp the competing complex issues and they can rarely make a sensible input on the likely outcomes.

However at the other end, the micro scale, everybody has an opinion. When it comes to an individual building, in a particular street, everyone wants a say. Rather than work up front to help formulate masterplans for their area, most people fight a rear-guard action when they realise just what those masterplans mean on the ground. And in NSW they have been encouraged to do so in the EPA Act since 1978.

Northcote Parkinson, British Naval historian and the theorist author of Parkinson’s law, says this inability to understand larger issues in comparison to small is evidence of rule which says, “debate is inversely proportional to the seriousness of the issue”. Eloquently explicated in a recent Crikey article: “Authorising a nuclear power plant takes five minutes, because no one really knows what it should cost. The budget for tea and coffee: everyone’s got an opinion on that, and it goes for hours”.

These objectors are often known by the acronym NIMBY (not in my backyard), further emboldened as NOTES (not over there either). Together they become CAVE dwellers (citizens against virtually everything), encouraging councils to go BANANAS (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything).

Political engagement writ large, but no other profession would encourage this kind of late public intervention. Hospitals formed in response to local needs don’t ask for public comment about the order of surgery. Schools planned in discussion with the local community don’t ask the parents how the school should conduct a geology field trip. Federal laws will be subject to public debate in parliament, but not how a challenge is framed by SC’s in the High Court.

Nevertheless, many state planning acts provide for commentary by possibly affected locals, and the public have become increasingly emboldened to play a ‘critical’ part in development applications, even when the proposals are entirely within the council’s strategic masterplan. And the outcome usually provides much heat with very little light. Four case studies might illustrate the point.

Case study one

On many occasions I have had limited minutes to present a case to Council on behalf of a client, only to find multiple objectors, each with equal time to mine, spouting a mixture of aggrievement and rubbish, to the meeting. Some turn up to speak without a written objection or application, and Councillors vote for them have more time.

How can this inequity be countenanced? Councillors are politicians, always with one eye on getting re-elected, and they can count, and numbers always win. Twelve, twenty or two hundred objectors, also electors, outnumber the single applicant who may not yet be a rate payer. Animated bellicosity defeats the weight of a reasoned argument.

As a result, three years ago the NSW Department of Planning removed the approvals process from local councillors (for all but the smallest of projects), handing it to a ‘panel’ of professional architects and planners. Objectors still present to the panel, and can take much of the time, but in my experience the professionals are far more likely to judge the application on its merits.

But it still leaves angry objectors, ever more ferocious in their opposition, believing that their ‘democratic rights’ have been removed by technocrats. And they vent their anger by trying to frustrate the construction process with multiple spurious complaints to council, despite the valid approval and properly conducted building process.

Case study two

One of our projects in Sydney’s inner west required ‘live-work’ units: street-facing spaces for small studio based artistic practices directly linked to apartments above. This was part of a masterplan, encouraged by ‘the greens’, to encourage a continuation of the practice of artists who had squatted or paid low rent in superannuated warehouses elsewhere in the municipality. A worthy idea in a planning code (the front-end masterplan) that was fraught with problems of implementation.

My clients wanted to comply, and we designed accordingly. However, the locals in their objections were vehemently opposed to any form of commercial activity amongst their supposedly residential areas (some of which were converted retail or commercial buildings). And the council prevaricated.

My clients, like many others, became increasingly frustrated with the poor time performance of council’s processes, and they opted to have the application heard at the NSW Land and Environment Court (L+E Court). The first step requires council to mediate with the applicant to address the issues in a timelier and less partisan way. As part of the mediation the court meets on site to view the conditions and to hear from any objectors.

Arriving for this on-site meeting I was surprised to find posters objecting to the project, including my name and phone number, on the surrounding power poles. The commissioner asked for the offending posters to be removed prior to opening proceedings. The mediation went ahead, the project was approved, the building got built, and the studios are being used.

Case study three

At the L+E Court, professional planners and architects have to adhere to the terms of a sworn witness, but there is no limit to what an objector can say. Sydney’s northern beaches are known, and not without reason, as the ‘insular peninsular’ and is a hotbed of porkies. Two recent proposals for seniors living projects provided extraordinary and hilarious examples.

Objecting to one apartment project a local architect claimed that there were no units anywhere in that suburb, which was clearly wrong as everyone at the L+E court hearing had driven past several. Even the gallery couldn’t resist a bit of a chuckle at the brazen lie.

For another project the locals maintained that the townhouse proposal involved the removal of more trees than were actually on the site and involved enough concrete to build a ten-storey tower. The debate becomes Trumpian in its resort to fake news, facts and reasonableness replaced by volatile opinion and ‘argumentem ad hominem’.

If the objectors’ intent is to prevent a proposal going ahead, they are rarely, if ever, successful. If their intent is to demoralise professionals, they are eminently successful, but not as you might expect in defeating projects, moreover in realising that we work amongst a narrow-minded and selfish suburban public.

Case study four

Our client purchased a defunct gas station on a secondary road in an upper-middle class suburb, zoned for shops with apartments over. The once busy gas station had become an eyesore car park with cars coming and going for years; the replacement would provide some shops that would aid an existing shopping centre and a small number of apartments would provide diversity in an area where there was little option other than large houses on big blocks of land.

It was met with extraordinary and unexpected opposition. A public ‘conciliation’ meeting was in reality an opportunity for the public, and some councillors, to vent their prejudices, without the better-informed staff correcting them. Chaired by the then mayor, it degenerated into one-sided slanging match without the right of reply from me as applicant.

We lodged at the L+E Court, and at the mediation a large number of people tried to persuade the L+E court commissioner to their view. He told them to behave cordially or he would not hear them. Council refused to concede or mediate on the project, the atmosphere was poisonous.

Sadly, during that process my client suffered a heart attack and died. His widow believes it was brought on, at least in part, by the viciousness of the locals’ opposition.

Eventually, in a subsequent application, the scheme was not reduced by the court, but rather increased in size to be more financially and socially viable. It is due for completion in the near future. Sadly, my client won't be around to see the fruits of his endeavour.

I object

Yes, I have a jaundiced view of objectors. It has not all been bleak; on some occasions, we have been able to engage to both our client’s and the objectors’ benefit. But on the whole, we have found objectors to be closer to obnoxious than objective.

I would prefer far more emphasis on citizens being involved in the broad planning masterplans and I would not be disappointed if the right of objection was removed from planning acts for the regulatory part. We need an end to planning FASHION – fighting about someone’s housing ideas or notions.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]