How should the Planning Industry respond to the housing crisis?

This article originally appeared in New Planner – the journal of the New South Wales planning profession – published by the Planning Institute of Australia. For more information, please visit:

Authors: Amanda Wetzel, Regional Director, Chris O’Dell, Analytics Director and Chloe Boyd.


Eighteen months ago, we submitted our abstract to the PIA NSW State Conference that was initially due to be held in Wagga Wagga in November 2021. At the time, we proposed to investigate whether there was a housing crisis in NSW. Since then, the word ‘crisis’ has become part of our daily rhetoric as we continue living through crises of climate, COVID, and housing.

When we consider what the word crisis means – “a time of intense difficulty or danger” or “a time when a difficult or important decision must be made” – it certainly fits with our current lived experiences. However, is it a housing crisis plaguing the planning industry, or is it something more?

You can’t manage what you don’t measure

When decision-makers look at the State, we only really have reliable housing activity data in in place for Sydney, some larger urban areas and then ‘everywhere else’, with roughly 90% of NSW falling into the latter category. It is hardly a robust or fair way to plan for our regions, especially as they are increasingly becoming more attractive places to live, work, and thrive.

Figure 1: "The Rest" of NSW

It is convenient to attribute COVID-19as the genesis of many of our current woes, but in some regional areas – such as the Hunter – the signs of things to come in the housing market were already there. Rental vacancies in the Hunter Region dropped below the 3% benchmark of a healthy housing market as early as 2014, while the number of properties listed for sale in the Region has been trending downward since.  The advent of COVID-19 in 2020 simply accelerated an existing trend, with rental vacancies bottoming out alongside a sharp decline in properties listed for sale. We are seeing this pattern across most of regional NSW, particularly coastal areas.

Figure 2: Housing data (source: SQM)

Perhaps the housing supply issues we are currently grappling with are just the canary in the coal mine. The various factors contributing to the housing crisis may instead be indicative of a wider problem – that our strategic planning systems in regional areas are not agile enough to support us during a crisis.

Dare to disrupt

Looking at the layers of strategic planning guiding land use decisions in the Hunter, the urban footprint we are delivering today was largely established in 2006 facilitated through major rezonings in the 2010s.

Since then, Governments at all levels have strived to completely re-shape our strategic line-of-sight. The release of the Hunter Regional Plan in 2016, the first-ever Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan in 2018, and a Local Strategic Planning Statement for every Council area in 2020 have been a gamechanger.

The line-of-sight in place now is not (always) sequential, which can have contrary outcomes unless we make deliberate steps to address this.

Key growth areas along the New England Highway are a tangible example of this misalignment. Areas like Lochinvar, the former Greta migrant camp, and Huntlee are underpinned by place-based frameworks that are now over 10 years old – well ahead of the region-shaping Hunter Expressway, and before the Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan established today’s benchmark densities for growth areas (which are, by the way, around double what these areas have been planned to deliver). The result is the framework currently delivering our next generation of housing is alienated from contemporary expectations.

The crisis of agility means we will have to wait another 15 years or so to begin realising the aspirations we have enshrined in today’s strategic plans, unless we can deliver targeted disruptions to increase the density and diversity in growth areas with outdated planning frameworks.

Avoid arbitrary

Planners have copped a lot of criticism of late, but the truth is we do have some policies that may be arbitrarily creating obstacles in the decision-making process.

For example, the Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan introduced a 15 year housing supply benchmark to manage additional rezonings. While this is a useful tool for ensuring economic and orderly supply in a healthy housing market, the Hunter has not had a healthy housing market since around 2014.

Exacerbating this issue is the lack of robust, publicly available data to assist all stakeholders with decisions around the 15 year supply benchmark. The State Government is making tangible steps to address this, but in the meantime arguments over whether more land is needed to ensure an uninterrupted effective supply remain highly subjective.


If nothing else, COVID-19 showed us that we are all in this together. The impacts were felt, to varying degrees and in varying ways, across NSW - the urban areas, smaller localities, and ‘everywhere else’.

As an industry, we can still go further to ensure our planning efforts are inclusive of regional perspectives and needs. While our strategic plans set benchmarks for dwellings per hectare, we should also consider the optimum density of planners’ attention in areas experiencing or earmarked for transformative change.

Looking at the Hunter again, the major growth areas creating entirely new communities along the New England Highway between Maitland and Huntlee are roughly the same size in area as the Greater Penrith to Eastern Creek or Greater Parramatta to Olympic Peninsula growth areas in Sydney. Yet these areas in the Hunter have not had the benefit of the integrated planning and coordination more prevalent in the Sydney metropolitan area.

Figure 3: Major growth areas (source: Cox Architecture)

The introduction of the Greater Cities Commission may be a gamechanger in this respect, particularly where it can deliver coordinated outcomes, cost efficiencies, much needed enabling infrastructure, and improved place outcomes.

A COVID-19 silver lining?

Governments at all levels have been trying to decentralise populations back towards regional towns for decades. COVID-19 appears to be catalysing this change and there is an opportunity for it to be a lasting trend, provided we can bring parity and stability to housing and jobs markets in regional areas.

The Hunter is a great example of where this can occur. Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a moderate uptick in people moving into the region, but the biggest driver in population growth has been the retention of people who would have normally left. Importantly, this trend appears to have started just before the pandemic and was then magnified by it.

The Hunter was already positioning itself as a magnet before COVID, and the region has largely recovered in terms of job vacancies and business confidence. But the pre-COVID tightening of the housing market remains, and now may arguably rely on structural changes to reverse.


We are in a crisis, and this is indeed a time when a difficult or important decision must be made to see us out of this time of intense difficulty or danger. COVID demonstrated responsive decision making can happen. As we move into a post-COVID world, the planning industry has an opportunity to spring forward into a more agile and responsive practice, one that reflects insightfully on the past to better plan the future.

As planners, we play an important role in this process, and to ensure we all remain in this together, we should be working to bring greater attention and agility to the Regions where communities are experiencing more dramatic impacts of changes in climate, as well as housing and jobs markets. Now is our industry’s opportunity to plan well for the future. It is a crisis we cannot afford to waste.

If you would like to know more, please contact:

Chris O’Dell (  or Amanda Wetzel (