STATE cabinet has backed sweeping changes to planning laws that will allow communities to decide in advance where growth will take place, so developers can get fast-track approval to build.

In the biggest shake-up of planning laws in three decades, the government has released a green paper for a simpler planning system, designed to give more certainty about what can be built where and eliminate the site-by-site battles that characterise many controversial projects.

With housing construction levels at a 50-year low, the Minister for Planning, Brad Hazzard, said dramatic change was needed to help rebuild the state’s economy and restore the public’s shattered faith in the planning system.

Mr Hazzard said evidence-based ”strategic planning” would become the cornerstone of the new system, which he promised would be the ”most cutting-edge … in the Commonwealth”.

Strategic planning would involve the preparation over several years of regional, sub-regional and local plans that would complement one another and would be drawn up with the involvement of communities, developers and government.

For the system to work, Mr Hazzard said, communities would have to get involved in planning, something he agreed would be hard to achieve. ”Trying to engage the community up front will be a challenge – we tend to switch on to an issue when it’s right next door,” he said.

He believed there were valuable lessons from cities such as Vancouver, which engaged about a quarter of its citizens in a debate that led to support for a big increase in the number of high-rise apartment blocks in the city.

Suburbs and towns would be divided into areas for preservation or development, including housing, employment and ”enterprise” zones. Once the zones and development parameters were agreed, developers could build free from objections.

Mr Hazzard said communities would get involved and would not simply reject any change.

”We are putting our faith in the community … we just don’t believe that [blanket opposition to development] is going to be a problem,” he said. But once they had had their input into local plans it would be a case of ”let’s just go on with it”, he said.

Under the changes 200 State Environmental Planning Policies will be scrapped and replaced by 10-12 policy statements to be approved by the cabinet on issues including housing supply and affordability, employment, biodiversity conservation, retail development, coastal management and regional development.

Most of the work on the green paper was done by two former NSW ministers, Tim Moore and Ron Dyer, but the government has adopted only some of their recommendations and produced much of the document itself.

Although it has been approved by the cabinet, Mr Hazzard said it could be modified after submissions were received over the coming eight weeks.

Developers and conservationists praised the document but said there was no certainty it would solve planning problems. The executive director of the Environmental Defenders Office, Jeff Smith, said it was a good attempt to resolve tensions between developers and the public.

”The big idea is getting communities involved, that you do your planning up front and then you say, ‘These are the green light areas and these the bits that may or may not be developed.”’