The city formerly known as Australia’s most beautiful, Sydney, has had a rough week.

Last Monday, Paul Keating attacked the city’s property developers, describing their modern urban design as a “disfiguring eczema” and the new residential apartment buildings as “egg crates.” Then on the weekend, the SMH launched a three page attack on Sydney’s appearance, beginning with: “Why is Sydney ugly?”

According to Elizabeth Farrelly, the story’s author, one of the answers is poor planning.

“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction in Sydney on this issue. There’s a planning approvals boom, and disaffection across the state, particularly from the coastal communities, with huge developments getting the go-ahead. Communities are anxious about what’s being taken away from them,” Farrelly told Crikey.

“A number of changes are expected to go through parliament this week which will give the minister even more discretionary power. Anything over $50 million will be taken out of council control and given straight to the minister, effectively disempowering local councils. Those same projects will be exempt from heritage and endangered species legislation, which is exactly where it is needed.”

With NSW set to go to the polls next March, planning could become the sleeper issue of the election, but not everyone shares the views of the aesthetes like Keating and Farrelly.

Bryan Moulds, the National Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia, warned Crikey against giving too much weight to Keating’s comments. “Those are the views of a former prime minister. There may be no greater credence to his views than that. The fact is, it’s the property development industry that is leading some of our biggest advances in greenhouse technology, housing affordability and economic growth in cities like Sydney.”

Yet the NSW division of the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) freely acknowledges Sydney’s problems. “Not ugly, just growing up…In world terms, the Sydney CBD is a teenager,” says a press release from last week, a view PIA President Anthony Newnham stands by.

“If you compare Sydney and Melbourne, Farrelly’s observations are reasonably correct. Sydney has a mismatch of some public spaces,” he told Crikey. “I agree that it will take some time to correct, but Sydney is a relatively young city. Major European cities have 600 year old buildings — that’s a mature city. So I wouldn’t agree Sydney is ugly, but there are certainly lessons to be learned.”