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Celebrating John Brockhoff's elevation to PIA fellow: Patrick Fensham's tribute

Posted August 07, 2020

SGS Economics and Planning John Brockhoff tribute image

The Planning Institute of Australia held a surprise online celebration to honour John Brockhoff's elevation to Fellow. SGS Principal & Partner Patrick Fensham gave a tribute to John during the celebration.

SGS Economics and Planning Patrick Fensham
SGS Principal & Partner Patrick Fensham

I got to know John while working on the 2005 Sydney Metropolitan Strategy in the NSW Department of Planning. At that time he was a senior planning officer in the Department of Planning. I quickly came to realise his skills and doggedness as an urban policy practitioner.

In the Metropolitan Strategy team, he was a key contributor across all disciplines but he was ultimately responsible for drafting the Implementation and Governance section. This remains a fine read and spot on in terms of clarifying state and local roles and the appropriate levers for implementing a metropolitan strategy (see the summary diagram on page 252!).

In my opinion, through the work I saw him complete and advocate for, John is responsible for – at the very least had a lead hand in - three established and major tenets of Sydney’s planning:

  1. the success of Sydney’s centres policy – which aims to focus retail and business development in accessible centres and is easily Australia’s best and most effective. He followed the likes of Bob Meyer with the policy detail, drafting the Right Place for Business and Services in 2001 (still on the DPIE website) to inform State Environmental Planning Policy 66 (Integrated Land Use and Transport) which in some ways was a de facto metro strategy in the absence of an effective explicit one. This document and policy drew the battlelines with the likes of the Bulky Goods Retail Council and other advocates for more laissez faire approaches to development. John was extremely dogged and ensured that in a variety of planning bureaucrat’s hands and in numerous iterations since The Right Place, the centres policy remained robust. I can’t imagine how many meetings he would have had on centres policy – including numerous meetings with Treasury economists and shark-like developers seeking to tear it down. It is an absolute tribute to his dedication that this policy is now entrenched and relatively uncontroversial.
  2. bringing economic empiricism to metropolitan planning – John never accepted the motherhood statements and planning norms that can smother planning. He always advocated for empiricism and evidence to prosecute strategic work. He led 2-3 ground-breaking studies which argued the economic merits of the settlement directions promoted by metropolitan strategies or planning policy. He perhaps singlehandedly enabled Planning to be a ‘serious’ player in conversations with Treasury and DPC, at a time (only 5-10 years ago) when ‘urban policy’ and cities weren’t such a serious concern of the central agencies. Thankfully his public service legacy in this regard is kept alive through his work with PIA.
  3. a focus on spatial and geographic equity in Sydney’s planning notwithstanding that John hasn’t lived (as far as I know) further than a couple of hundred metres from the extreme eastern edge of metropolitan Sydney, he has strongly advocated for a polycentric city and a metropolis where residents in the west can enjoy a quality of life and access to opportunities equal to residents in the east and north. All metropolitan strategies since 2005 have had a developed view of how this might be achieved and John has been influential across all of them.

John was an incorruptible public servant – and I don’t mean unable to be corrupted in a financial sense (which of course he was) – I mean staying true and providing advice that was frank and fearless and based in public interest values whatever the audience and whatever the pressure to bend. John represents a public servant ideal that is the correct standard and model for young planners and policy advisers. John never yielded and, because of his consistency and doggedness, his planning legacy in NSW is enormous.

He has brought this experience and ethic into his work at PIA where he has found a role as an advocate for good planning policy, perfectly aligned to his skills. Let’s be frank, planning practitioners and the industry are often guilty of straying from public interest values, so John’s value is immense in staying true and advocating strongly for public interest outcomes from government policy and changes.

I love discussing urban policy with and continuing to learn from John, and I’m also very glad to call him a dear friend. I’m wrapped he is being honoured today by being elevated to Fellow status in PIA.

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SGS Economics Planning Pat Fensham
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Patrick Fensham

National Leader for Urban Policy & Governance | Principal & Partner

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