Is South Australia’s planning system ‘carefully evolved’, or have we ‘created a monster’?

As the government of South Australia rings in some of the most significant changes to the planning system in decades, there is a surge of public concern around preserving the heritage and innate culture of the state.

Change is a constant, but perhaps not so much in Adelaide where our reputation for conservative attitudes and a “we like it the way it is” approach is much vaunted. To that end, Michael Lennon, chair of the Planning Commission, has his work cut out for him as he seeks to modernise a system still firmly connected to the very earliest days of South Australia as a new colony.

“I would say that planning is in South Australia’s DNA,” he tells The Adelaide Review. “It is part of the fabric of the state and it has been part of its identity since the establishment of European settlement.

“In 1836 when SA was formed by a group of religious non-conformists and idealists there was a sense (that), through availability of land, bountiful outcomes would flow for anyone travelling across the sea. That notion of land being able to encapsulate our best ideals has been here forever.”

According to Lennon, this idealism might not have been called urban planning or town planning but nevertheless, the state’s evolution was managed with conscious purpose. He believes that this thread of conscious purpose has always been applied by generations of leaders but degrees of introspection have sometimes led us down the wrong path.

“Adelaide spends too much time talking about itself and this degree of self-examination can lead to paralysis,” Lennon says.

“Planning has cycles and I believe they are generational. What we mean by urban planning needs to be refreshed. We need to find ways to manage the state’s land and development into the future. Brian Hayes’ review was a response to the need to update our systems.”

Lennon believes South Australia has the opportunity to lead the country and the world as it addresses the issues in the planning system.

“Smaller places (like Adelaide) have a better chance to test and change, make bold and ambitious reforms. We should not compare ourselves to Sydney or Melbourne.”

Lennon confesses to once having being accused by a local journalist of having “more visions than the Virgin Mary”. His vision for the changes to the planning system involve a collaborative, long-term direction for South Australia that he feels will ultimately offer greater community participation in planning decisions.

“At the moment it (the Code) can only be accessed by highly trained professionals. We’ve created a monster. We have a multiplicity of reforms being put in place. We are seeking transparency and predictability. For too many people planning is about a response to the latest application but by the time an application has been received it is already too late,” he says, citing the recent demolition of Shed 26 at the Port as a perfect example.

“What we need is planning based on foresight not last-minute reactions.”

Protecting the environment and agricultural food production areas from unrestricted development is an important and often contentious part of Lennon’s remit.

“Areas around metropolitan Adelaide and key regions such as the Riverland and South East in one generation have seen the move away from broadacre and livestock to more intensive and diverse activities such as olive oil production,” says Lennon, who himself lives in a semi-rural zone.

“We have moved to preserve the future of areas like the Barossa, McLaren Vale but surely it is not just about landscape? What can we now do to support diversification?”

According to Lennon, the answer lies in accommodating multiple activities in one area and becoming comfortable with small enterprise sitting within communities, not being pushed out to the fringes.

“Planners are traditionally taught to separate various activities, but can we now integrate? Grow grapes, make wine, do tourism, grow livestock, warehouse products and manage distribution all from the one area?”

One thing that Lennon is adamant about, despite the headlines and protests, is that the current debate is not about heritage.

“We have to understand what can and can’t be done. In the Code, these areas will have strong policy settings and demolition controls – at least as powerful as what exists now,” he says.

Former President of the National Trust of South Australia, Professor Norman Etherington, is unconvinced that Lennon is concerned with preserving local heritage and claims there has been no consultation with the long-standing heritage body.

“The National Trust has never been a political organisation, but we do admit to being conservative in the best sense of the word,” he says.

“Whether in relation to conservation of natural or cultural heritage we strive to keep what has proved to be priceless and beautiful while leaving plenty of room for improvement of the blighted, degraded or ugly.”

Etherington also believes that the Commission’s approach to heritage is confusing and heavy-handed.

“ … the Commission swings a sledge hammer to crack a nut. All the state, local and contributory places in South Australia make up less than 0.02 percent of the total buildings. The idea that their conservation inhibits development or growth is just plain silly.”

Etherington denies that the National Trust and others campaigning for preservation of heritage buildings want to keep everything the way it is but is concerned that the changes are being made too lightly.

“All we are saying is that a system evolved over 40 years to protect a very small number of wonderful, irreplaceable buildings should not be lightly discarded.”

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