Zoning – What can we learn from Australia?

29 Jul 20

I do believe a zone-based system provides greater certainty and transparency, and can make the planning process easier. A good zone-based system can allow for truly local spatial planning, rather than piecemeal allocations, which can result in more joined up thinking during Local Plan creation.

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Since Robert Jenrick announced a radical shake-up of the planning system there has been a lot of speculation as to whether the English planning system will move from a discretionary to a zone-based system. Zoning is a practice used in countries such as Australia and the United States. It does what the name suggests, i.e. zones land based on land use and provides a specific set of development controls for that use. Generally, if you meet the zone requirements, development is accepted.

I have worked in four different planning systems (England, Queensland, New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory), three of which are zone based. So, what is my view on a zone-based approach?

Well, let me preface this by saying that no planning system is perfect and it cannot deal with every site circumstance out there, but having worked in the UK for almost five years and experiencing the difficulties of local decision making and sometimes ending up at appeal on numerous occasions, I do believe a zone-based system provides greater certainty and transparency, and can make the planning process more straight forward. A good zone-based system can allow for truly local spatial planning, rather than piecemeal allocations, which can result in more joined up thinking during the preparation of a Local Plan.

What would I like to see taken from these Australian planning systems?

Queensland operates a three-tier approach, that could be adapted:

  • Accepted Development: For minor applications where there is no need to comply with the codes of the City Plan. We could keep and further expand the General Permitted Development Order for this purpose.
  • Code Assessable Development: Where development meets the use, vision and codes of the City Plan. This is assessed relatively quickly and does not require public consultation or Committee decision making. If the development does not meet the relevant codes, it triggers further assessment to consider the extent of non-compliance.
  • Impact Assessable Development: Where further consideration of the impacts are required, public consultation is undertaken and decision taking is usually democratic. This could align with our current Environmental Impact Assessment thresholds and would likely require alteration to our current definition of major development, to allow smaller developments to pass through the system more quickly (via the code assessable pathway).

New South Wales have standardised land zones and Local Environmental Plans. Local Planning Authorities adapt/add local controls during the Plan making process. This standardised approach means that no matter what Council area you are in, there is a level of consistency. I for one would welcome this approach here!

In both cases (Queensland and New South Wales), each land parcel is zoned and overlays/planning controls afford protection to areas of high environmental and heritage value, thus ensuring that they are given appropriate consideration in Plan making and decision taking

I for one eagerly await to see what shape these planning reforms take and hope that if zoning is taken forward, that some elements of the Australian zonal systems are considered.

Katie Inglis Associate,Planning

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