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10 minutes with… new development lobby boss Liam Golding


After a career advising Labor ministers, Liam Golding is now CEO of South Australia’s urban development lobby. In an interview with InDaily, he discusses why the pandemic has forced a rethink of suburban planning, what he learned from working with former Planning Minister John Rau, and how Premier Peter Malinauskas thinks about public policy.

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Golding left his role as senior adviser in the Premier’s office last month to take over as chief executive of the Urban Development Institute (UDIA) SA division, replacing long-time UDIA boss Pat Gerace.

Golding, like Gerace, advised several Labor ministers before the development lobby came calling.

He was Peter Malinauskas’ chief of staff when the now-Premier was Police, Corrections and Emergency Services Minister in the Weatherill Government.

Prior to that, he was an adviser to Planning Minister John Rau from 2011 to 2014 before moving to former Premier Jay Weatherill’s office to advise him on planning, urban development, transport and infrastructure.

He’s also held senior roles with Labor senator Marielle Smith, the South Australian Housing Authority and the South Australian Cabinet Office.

Golding’s appointment as UDIA SA chief executive comes at a critical juncture for the state’s planning system, which is set to be a target for government reform in the second half of the year stemming from an expert panel review that has handed down 113 recommendations.

It also comes ahead of the next update of the 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide – along with six new regional plans – which will map out a planning vision for Adelaide’s urban form until 2053.

In a wide-ranging interview with InDaily, Golding explains why he backs the Premier’s view that “urban sprawl is not a dirty word” and what he learned from working in his office.

He also speaks about former Deputy Premier John Rau’s controversial legacy as Planning Minister, and how COVID-19 has shifted the way people think about their suburbs.

The conversation, recorded before the state budget, has been edited for length and clarity.

New UDIA (SA) CEO Liam Golding. Photo: Thomas Kelsall/InDaily

Thomas Kelsall: What are your advocacy priorities for your first year in the job?

Liam Golding: First of all, I’m going to be listening. I need to get around and listen to all members, hear what their priorities are. From what I’ve heard so far and from what I’ve seen, priorities really focus around responding to the housing affordability crisis.

Now some of that is to do with supply chain and materials costs and the like, but a lot of it has to do with housing supply. And that has a lot to do with government about the way that the government unlocks land for development and the way that infrastructure is provided.

So, we are very glad that the government has responded to the UDIA’s advocacy in establishing the dedicated Infrastructure Planning and Development Unit. Hopefully, that has the intended outcome really delivering the infrastructure in a timely manner so that it can unlock development and put downward pressure on housing prices.

Do you think that’s been a problem in the past ensuring there’s enough infrastructure around to support new land releases?

It’s always a complex challenge. So, the need for infrastructure obviously can’t be ignored. With governments in recent years, there’s been a lot more of a focus on infill development. The benefit of infill is that the roads are already there; the downside is that you’re not necessarily increasing the capacity of the roads. So really, wherever the developments happening there needs to be a greater focus on infrastructure.

We think that the government is doing the right thing by having a dedicated unit for looking at infrastructure. And that probably acknowledges that infrastructure could have been done better in the past.

In what instances do you think infrastructure could have been done better?

I think that there’s a few challenges around at the moment that the government’s working through around the Riverlea (Buckland Park) development and around still getting the development finally working in Mt Barker. There’s a lot of things that are improving around Mt Barker at the moment and there’s so much growth there. We know that there’s a lot of demand for families to move in around Mt Barker and making sure that we can continue to get houses to meet market demand is important.

What do you make of this attempt by the Planning Minister to reshape the debate around greenfield land releases and Adelaide’s urban form?

We think it’s a good thing. The UDIA’s obviously always championed good development over types of development, so for the Premier to say at a UDIA lunch midway through last year that, in his words, “Urban Sprawl is not a dirty word”, means that all development forms are on the table. And that’s a positive thing because it allows the development industry to respond with quality product wherever it might be.

The state government’s focus on greenfield release is probably also a little bit of an acknowledgment that what has been happening with urban infill – like the low-hanging fruit where you can quickly get urban infill development into market, into new dwellings – a lot of the low hanging fruit’s been picked.

So when you’re coming up against a housing affordability crisis and there’s a need for trying to get land online as quickly as possible, looking at all the possible types of development and being open to all types is a good thing.

What were your key lessons from your time in the public sector? What’s the main thing you took away and how do you think it’s going to apply in your new gig?

I think that the main thing that I really took from state government was the need to seize an opportunity when it arises. It’s partly about recognising opportunities and seizing it when you have that public consent to do things.

Some of the examples that I look at are a lot of the Vibrant Adelaide agenda was driven by an unlocking of opportunity. So private sector, particularly a lot of young entrepreneurs in that case, were coming to government and demonstrating where regulation was getting in the way of doing what they wanted to do. That led to a series of reforms to do with small bars, to do with apartment construction in the city, and really led to a lot more people around places… That’s where you get the laneways and that’s where you get a lot of the good stuff that’s come from the Vibrant agenda.

The government was recognising an opportunity, there was public consent there, and [it] acted decisively to see things happen. [There’s] an opportunity for the current government… because there’s a housing affordability crisis, so you have a lot of public consent for action right now because people want to see things happen, people want to see action to address that crisis.

Do you think in the past perhaps the development industry hasn’t had a public mandate as much as it has now to grow suburbs and build housing because there wasn’t this housing crisis?

I think that’s probably a fair thing to say… It is very much a case that there’s a greater understanding.

Do you think there’s still a public perception issue with developers that you need to address? Obviously, there’s still a lot of negative community sentiment, opposition to ‘greedy developers’, those sorts of common tropes.

I think that there’s always a need to focus on quality development because one bad development can lead to those impacts, those perception impacts, that are quite lasting.

I think that the acute need that’s being felt at the moment means that people are more ready to look at things.

It’s about having the right design and interfaces so that the public realm is attractive, and that obviously has benefits for developers as well. If you’ve got a community that integrates well that has all the services it needs and look beautiful, it’s going to be in demand and it’s going to sell effectively.

We’ve got the ’30 Year Plan for Greater Adelaide” update coming soon and a whole bunch of regional plans as well, what’s your advocacy going to be in that space and what are you expecting to come out of it?

It’s very much going to focus on housing supply again. When it comes to Greater Adelaide, we’ve got data now from the 2021 census; we’ve got more experience about what happened through COVID and how that’s influenced the way that people see their local communities. We know people are staying in their suburbs more. We know that that has impacts on what we want to be seeing for services within suburbs – so, more main streets, more capacity to be comfortable living and working in a place rather than having dormitory suburbs where people go off somewhere else to work and then come back just to sleep.

Ultimately, the challenge is we get the right mix of development for our city. And so that’ll be responding to changing behaviours, responding to the way demographics are moving. It’s positive that we’re seeing strong population growth in South Australia and that’ll need to be responded to as well.

The 30 Year Plan makes a lot of assumptions about how things are going to develop, and I’m sure there was never an assumption there was going to be a pandemic that would really have a massive influence on the way people saw their communities and see the way they want to use their house.

Do you mean work from home as one of those key difference?

Yeah, definitely. But not just work from home but also just people wanting to stay in the suburbs more, so it’s a combination of those factors.

Do you think the new Planning Code has been a success?

Yeah, I think that it has. I think that there are still places for some tweaks and I’m listening to members about how we can make a case for where those tweaks should occur. But I was speaking to a representative from a different jurisdiction who was commenting on what we have throughout our planning system now being there being several elements that are the envy of other jurisdictions and the sorts of things that they would find it hard to retrofit in now and it’s great that we’ve got them.

What do you make of the argument though from councils that say the new Planning Code stripped them of their powers and they feel they don’t have as much influence over those key issues like heritage and character? Do you think those arguments have any merit or do you think the new Planning Code has got that balance right between local control and overarching objectives?

I think that there’s always a need for looking at ways to continually refine the balance, but I think right now, it’s the balance is a lot better than it has been in the past.

So councils had too much control prior to 2021?

I wouldn’t say that it’s always the case that councils had too much control. I think that where there’s a competitive tension between ways that matters can be addressed that leads to better outcomes. Where there’s only one possibility where you have to go through council, council is in more of a position to… wait to try and get the outcome that it’s looking for rather than to try and work with a competitive tension and see that there’s another avenue that could be taken and then choose to be a little bit flexible with the way they act so that they can work with developers to get an outcome rather than just holding the line.

So, I guess, to paraphrase: yes. I was trying not to say that, but I think on balance, probably yes.

Regarding public transport, you mentioned Riverlea there, that’s a 20-to-25-minute drive from the city with no public transport. How will your UDIA view how we put in public transport in our city?

To be perfectly frank it’s not something that I’ve spoken to members about yet. From a personal perspective, I think that some of the best communities have excellent public transport opportunities or options. I think that public transport is a good thing, that having efficient and reliable public transport is a massive benefit to any development. But ultimately, that’s something that I do need to speak more with my members about.

Are there any key strategic infill spots that excite you?

I was having a discussion about this with someone the other day actually. Sites like the Clipsal site (Bowden) which is getting close to completion, sites like Lightsview which was a large strategic infill site – you sort of look at the map of Adelaide now and there’s just not as many of those around. And so I think that there might be a case for being a bit more creative about where we find the next strategic infill sites and looking at brownfield development. So, former industrial sites like Tonsley… where I think there needs to be a bit of an identification process finding sites which may have been important employment lands back in the day but they might have a large area now with not a whole lot of work going on and seeing if we can identify some of those as strategic infill and brownfield sites.

What did you learn from working with former Attorney-General and Planning Minister John Rau?

The Attorney as we always called him had a very honed sense of what he wanted to achieve and he was able to focus very clearly on these matters… I guess you put it down as he was maybe not single-minded, but he was very goal orientated. He had a vision in his head and he was able to constantly return to that vision for what he wanted to achieve. A lot of that came down to Vibrant Adelaide, it was useful that he was the Liquor Licensing Minister at the time, so he was able to sort of combine planning and liquor licensing and in a way that really… did feel like it was in a way that hadn’t been done before and it had quite a good outcome.

Now, when it comes to planning and the attorney, I’m sure that there are many communities that have different views about his work on planning but the one thing I think you can be clear on was he was never playing favourites, he had a vision and he was working towards that vision as opposed to trying to get outcomes for individual communities or individual communities.

Is his legacy on planning something you’d defend?

I think that there’s a great deal of good that came out of his time. I’m sure that there are a great many people who were also quite annoyed by some of the things that he did. I don’t think it’s up for me to defend. I think it’s for people to draw their own conclusions about how things have happened, but I think it’s fair to say that he had a strong impact on the way Adelaide looks these days. Like his capital city reforms that raised building heights in the city centre, looking around the city centre now there’s dozens of buildings that were clearly unlocked by reforms that he drove and he worked with the city council on that frankly wouldn’t have happened without him. Now, not everyone loves high-rise buildings, but there’s a lot to be said for the economic activity that came out of them and for the ongoing change that’s made to the number of people in Adelaide and the opportunities that has for places and festivals and entertainment.

What do you think of the current Planning Minister’s first year and a half in office?

I think Minister Champion’s on a positive trajectory, I think there’s a lot of opportunities for him to have a lasting impact on the city in the same way that Rau did. Now that might not sound positive to a lot of your readers, but I think that he’s facing a different set of circumstances than what Rau did, and I think he’s responding to them in a way that’s based on action and based on trying to get outcomes rather than based on being overly cautious and taking an approach of not trying too much and not trying to rock the boat.

What did you learn from working in the Premier’s office?

It was great working with Pete and it was a decision I wrestled with for an extended period of time whether I wanted to leave or not… The experience that I got from working with Pete echoed into some of the sort of public governance theory that I heard a little bit under Weatherill but I saw Pete acting on where he’s been quite vocal… he doesn’t see political capital as being something that you get at an election and then you jealously guard and try and stop it from being whittled away to a point where you can continually win elections before eventually… you don’t have enough capital left to win another election. He sees it as a renewable resource and where you have political capital you use it, the power of your actions then grants you more political capital and then you once again try and use that and try and continually replenish your stocks by action and by demonstrating that you have an agenda and you have things you want to achieve. I think that that’s a really positive way of looking at governance because it means that things get done.

I don’t think it’s a new theory… but it’s a very overt way that he’s trying to wield it and I think that’s a positive thing.

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