Fact sheet: Housings impact on biodiversity

26 February 2011

Ecologically sustainable development is an important principle that does, and should, guide urban development. This principle ensures that development meets the needs of Australians today, while conserving our ecosystems for the benefit of future generations.


Urban development must be sustainable

Urban development doesnt occur where it would have an unacceptable impact on biodiversity in fact it generally takes place on cleared land previously used for low-value agriculture or obsolete industry, such as quarrying.


For example:

  • threatened species laws safeguard fauna and flora that are at risk of extinction;
  • native vegetation laws deal with land clearing;
  • laws protect our riparian zones and the health of aquatic and marine ecosystems;
  • water sources are respected; and
  • and pollution is controlled.

The development industry rarely has problems with the policy motivations of such laws, although, at times, the bureaucratic processes that underlie them need improvement.


The allegation of unsustainability


Debates can emerge, however, when the phrase unsustainable is used as political weapon by someone who merely doesnt like a development, rather than something thats based on a factual or scientific basis. The modern planning system arose, in part, as a response to protests and civil disobedience campaigns of the 1970s. The planning system attempted to create a more ordered system to take into account the publics opinion of new development proposals. The philosophical underpinning of this approach is the idea of democratic deliberation of land use. This is said to provide for more holistic decision-making practices and enable people to re-assert collective social control over urban development patterns; allowing for the widest consideration of the costs and benefits to society at large.


This is said to require a commitment to the notion of consensus-building and citizenship rather than competition and consumerism and involves a subordination of private markets to collective democratic control. According to dominant urban planning theories, individuals may only be reconnected with their communities based on voice mechanisms that can transform peoples values through a process of democratic deliberation in which the virtue of different ends is judged according to the articulation of the best reasons. While the consequences of this approach have been challenged, almost every town planning system in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States is built on this ideological foundation. As a result, town planning is not merely a process of deciding whether or not particular proposals for urban development are environmentallyy sustainable.


It has morphed into a system of regulatory control ostensibly directed to re-shaping urban communities based on a stated ˜vision. Therefore when we talk about planning rules we are rarely referring to regulatory impositions based on strictly objective criteria (as would be the case with clear environmental standards). What we tend to be talking about is rules that are informed by subjective responses to competing arguments about the ideal shape, look and feel of urban communities. This aspect of the planning system has become entrenched.

For this reason, many of the rules and prohibitions inherent in the planning system are a consequence of:

  • public opinion; and/or
  • the ideological or philosophical disposition of various decision-makers,

at the time that the rule was made. This has led to a lack of logic and consistency. You do not need to accept our word for it; consider the recent words of the NSW Court of Appeal : “[I]t has also been said with some justification that a search for logic and consistency within planning instruments is often doomed to fail … to seek planning logic in planning instruments is generally a barren exercise.

Leslie A Stein, a barrister and former Chairman of the Western Australian Town Planning and Appeal Tribunal and former Chief Counsel to the Sydney Metropolitan Strategy, reflected on matter in his work: Principles of Planning Law, published by Oxford University Press. Stein observed that: “The object of town planning is the implementation of a plan to carry out goals that encapsulate and describe idealised future states. The goals reflect ideological orientations … It is tempting for all regulators to speak of a ‘sustainability agenda’ because it summarises a set of indisputable goals … the difficultly in the precise formulation of it components is secondary to the sentiments it evokes. … [I]t is difficult to describe the ‘policy’ of planning: goals and values, in words of clear expression.”


” Planners still envisage themselves to be agents of social change but their agenda of economic sustainable development or New Urbanism depend upon effective implementation in legal instruments. Unfortunately, the devices of the regulatory system are primarily designed as a means of control restriction and permissibility. The implementation of planning agendas by restriction does not necessarily encourage and promote; it often prevents and denies.”

Such rules and prohibitions lack the rigour of a technical standard. Unsurprisingly they can come under challenge when either:

  • public opinion changes;
  • the market demand for new development changes (e.g. the emergence of widespread consumer demand for apartment living in the largest capital cities); and/or
  • the social and economic costs of a given restriction or prohibition have increased or have become more apparent.

The social and economic costs of rules originally imposed for subjective reasons often involve:

  • inefficient use of public infrastructure;
  • increased motor vehicle use;
  • increased congestion;
  • higher environmental costs;
  • reduced competition in the retail sector;
  • reduced competition amongst land owners to sell potential development sites to developers;
  • an inadequate supply of housing in places of high demand;
  • higher residential, retail and commercial rents; and
  • lack of housing affordability.


In essence, planning decisions are subjective and will vary depending on how a decision-maker decides to weight the criteria used. The NSW Land and Environment Court itself recognised this reality when it observed that: “[T]here is room for opinions to differ in weighing the same objective criteria.” As long as public opinion or ideology is a guiding factor in setting planning rules and assessing projects against those rules, a high level of subjectivity will inherently exist in the system. It also means that rules will continue to be fluid because rules set by reference to public opinion or ideology will not stand robust scrutiny in the long run if/when it becomes apparent that they carry high social and economic costs.

For example, rules prohibiting apartment development, or only allowing low-rise apartment development, within walking distance of high quality public transport services in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth are generally not tenable in a public policy sense. Ultimately such rules are likely to be set aside, as the costs of not doing so become increasingly apparent. Similarly, formal and informal urban growth boundaries designed to prevent the outward expansion of major cities generally come under extreme pressure (as we have seen in Melbourne). This is because many members of the community are not truly prepared to give up on the idea of owning a detached house with its own backyard. Urban growth boundaries eventually place intolerable price pressure on that form of housing.

It will be development applicants (and their representatives) who highlight the social and economic costs of such arbitrary prohibitions to both government and the community. This has and will continue to contribute to a process where such rules are gradually revised to reflect modern community needs.  For this reason, the fact that planning rules are not stable and are subject to reasoned-argument and regular departure is evidence of the haphazard nature of existing rules and the inability to withstand robust scrutiny when high quality development proposals are put forward. Rigid rules are the enemy of good urban outcomes. To quote the Principles of Planning Law again: “The tendency towards rigid enforcement of rules expressed as development standards is perhaps the most frustrating and destructive aspect of planning.”


More information

For more information (and source details) please read our fact sheet:


Fact sheet: Housings impact on biodiversity