Taylor Burrell Barnett

TBB Reacts: Medium Density Codes are back


Trent Will

01 Feb 2024

The Medium Density Codes are back, and they’re coming into force quickly.

The Minister for Planning has announced the Medium Density Codes will be released in early March and will come into effect after Easter. We've prepared this brief review of the changes, along with an analysis of the potential implications and opportunities.

The background

  • In March 2023, the Government released the Medium Density Codes – applicable to R30 and above – with a deferred implementation of 1 September 2023 (or September 2025 for areas subject to a structure plan).
  • In August 2023, the Minister for Planning announced the implementation would be deferred and a review of the R30 – R40 codes would be undertaken.

This current announcement now clarifies the upcoming timeframes and next steps, with an early March release date and a post Easter implementation date. It also confirms that Single House development within R30 – R40 codes will be excluded from the Medium Density Codes and retained in the current (low density) R-Codes Volume 1.

TBB has been a strong advocate for the Medium Density Codes. Creating good, sustainable design in a suburban context, while avoiding major implications on housing supply, is challenging. We believe the current policy strikes a good balance.

R30 – R40 single houses now excluded

This latest announcement from the Minister confirms single house development on R30 – R40 coded properties will not be subject to the Medium Density Codes and will instead be subject to the low-density Codes (i.e. the current R-Codes). The Medium Density Codes will continue to apply to grouped and multiple dwellings within R30 – R40 coded properties as well as all dwellings in the R50 and R60 codes.

The below graphic summarises which housing typology will fall under the different codes.

Implications for proponents

While final details on the Medium Density Codes are yet to be released, the following are the likely implications for proponents.

 For development applications

Timeframes with the implementation of the Medium Density Codes will need to be carefully monitored and considered. Proponents must bear in mind that development applications will typically take 60 – 90 days to be determined. This means an application being lodged today may not be determined until mid – late April. By this time, the Medium Density Codes could be in full effect (depending on any transition arrangements the Government proposes). However, given the Codes are not due to be released until early March, managing this could be challenging.

For those with current or impending development applications in Medium Density coded areas, we recommend:

  • Undertaking a cursory review of how the development will perform against the draft (2023) Medium Density Codes. This could identify any risks (or perhaps any benefits) the new Codes may offer; and
  • Communicating with local governments regarding timeframes and expected processes when the new Codes come into effect.

For structure plans and subdivisions

One key piece of information that remains unclear from the announcement is whether the ‘Special Transition Provisions’ will continue to apply to areas subject to structure plans. In short, the Special Transition Provisions in the draft Medium Density Codes allowed a further two year delayed implementation of the Medium Density Codes for single houses in structure planned areas (i.e. residential estates).

While this may now be redundant for R30 and R40 single house lots – given they would not be subject to the Medium Density Codes – the implications for R50 coded sites (or higher) will still need to be carefully considered. Although affecting a smaller proportion of the market, many new estates include 6m – 7m wide terrace house lots which are commonly coded R50 or R60.

Lot orientation could be an important factor here. The 2023 draft Medium Density Codes required primary living spaces (living / kitchen / dining) to have a window facing north-west, north or east. On 6m wide terrace housing lots, most standard house designs have their primary living space connecting to the courtyard – which is typically in the rear of the lot. Therefore, it may be difficult to achieve this requirement if the rear of the lot is to the south or west.

Again, we need to await the full detail of the final Codes here and whether orientation requirements remain and/or whether transition provisions remain.

In the meantime, we recommend:

  • Broaching this with local governments at an early stage to understand potential areas where performance assessments may be considered.
  • Where possible, designing narrow lots in an orientation where the rear courtyard faces north or east.

TBB is taking a considered approach to narrow lot products and their orientation. Where context and landform allows, we will design narrow lots so that their rear boundary is to the north or east. This also assists in achieving better NATHERs ratings.

Diving deeper – what the R30-R40 single house exclusion will mean

Housing industry bodies had applauded the move to exclude R30 – R40 single houses from the Medium Density Codes. There is no doubt this will cause less interruption to housing supply and it will allow standard lot products to continue to be developed in new estates. But there is one significant caveat here – the continued application of R-MD codes (yes, another planning acronym).

Before we get into the detail, let’s take a step back and discuss what that means…

In WA, there are effectively two types of ‘R-Codes’ that currently apply to R30 and R40 coded single house properties:

  1. The first is what we will call the ‘standard R-Codes’. This is implemented through local planning schemes and is common in most inner and middle-ring suburban areas.
  2. The second is the R-MD Codes. This is a set of acceptable variations to the standard R-Codes first implemented in 2015. The R-MD Codes are adopted by local governments through local planning policies and allow measures such as reduced setbacks, greater site coverage, greater garage width and the like. They are currently applied within eight local government areas across Perth and Peel – all in outer suburban locations.

The Medium Density Codes would effectively create a third type.

This means an application being lodged today may not be determined until mid – late April. By this time, the Medium Density Codes could be in full effect

As part of the original Medium Density Codes release in 2023, the R-MD codes were to be revoked. However, there was a two year transition period before that would occur, meaning the R-MD codes would continue until September 2025, at which time they would be replaced with the draft 2023 Medium Density Codes would have effectively replaced both standard and R-MD codes to create one code applicable to all R30 and R40 products.

At this stage, there is no clear guidance as to whether the R-MD codes will stay or go. Clarity on this matter will be required as well as whether the R-MD Codes are proposed to be phased out in the medium or longer term. Given the Minister’s desire to minimise possible interruptions to housing supply, we assume the R-MD Codes are remaining for the time being.

Comparing standard R-Codes, R-MD Codes and Medium Density Codes

For the most part, those who have been critical of the impact of Medium Density Codes on R30 and R40 single lot products are referring to areas where the R-MD Codes apply (and were to be withdrawn).

When compared with the standard R-Codes, the Medium Density Codes actually allow a more generous building envelope (site coverage) across all densities codes while setbacks, heights and garage allowances were almost identical.

To illustrate this further, TBB has examined the potential impacts using an R40 coded lot with dimensions of 12.5m wide and 20m deep. The drawings below compare three possible building envelopes achievable under the three codes:

  • The standard R-Codes;
  • The R-MD Codes; and
  • The Medium Density Codes.

The drawings have each been designed to a baseline compliance with the respective codes – taking into account setbacks, minimum outdoor living areas, landscaping requirements, and site coverage / open space requirements.

What we found was:

  • The requirements for larger outdoor spaces and landscaping areas under the Medium Density Codes mean that it is not possible to achieve the same building envelope compared to a property subject to R-MD codes.
  • However, when compared with the ‘standard’ R-Codes, the situation becomes more interesting. Overall, the Medium Density Codes (2023 version) permit up to 65% site coverage in R40 – this is 10% more than is currently allowed under the current R-Codes. So in this situation, the Medium Density Codes permitted a more generous development footprint than the standard R-Codes. To complicate this a little further, there were also some changes to the way that site coverage is assessed with the new Medium Density Codes (it is flipping from open space to site coverage; it no longer exempts covered alfresco areas and for grouped dwellings the calculation now excludes common property areas). However, even applying a like-for-like calculation – the Medium Density Codes still enabled a larger building envelope than the standard R-Codes.
  • In consultation with builders and developers, we also established that most standard lot designs on R30 and R40 have around 60% site coverage and do not necessarily maximise the site coverage the R-MD codes permit. This is primarily because boundary walls on standard lot designs are generally contained to only one side boundary.

So getting back to the caveat we mentioned above (and the implications of the Minister's announcement) – the withdrawal of R30 and R40 single houses from the Medium Density Codes will allow standard lot products to continue as they were, but only where the R-MD Codes continue to apply. Where the standard R-Codes apply, proponents may find that the Medium Density Codes offer some benefits; and opportunities for grouped or multiple dwellings may warrant examination.

The industry should also keep in mind that the R-MD Codes do not apply as of right – they only apply where the local government agrees to implement them via a local planning policy. Any such policies can be revoked or modified by local governments at any time. If proponents are relying on the design variations in the R-MD Codes, we recommend keeping a close eye on potential changes in this space and as always, keeping in close contact with local governments to understand any potential changes to policies.

The opportunities

Pleasingly, the Minister’s announcement confirms accessible dwelling bonuses will remain applicable to R30 and R40 coded areas. Under the 2023 draft, these bonuses permit a reduction in lot areas by up to 35% where dwellings are either less than 70m² floorspace or are designed to a Gold Standard under the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. These provisions replace the outdated and rarely-used lot area bonuses under the current R-Codes where occupants of dwellings must be physically dependent or aged over 55 – with covenants on certificates of titles and various other restrictions.

In our experience, the measures to achieve Gold Standard are relatively modest including wider hallways, kitchens, bathrooms and toilets. It does not require dwellings be fitted with lifts and continues to allow two-storey development providing at least one accessible bedroom and living area is provided at ground level.  Given this is targeted at affordable housing, dwellings are limited to 110sqm floorspace – excluding garages – though this is capable of variation.

A 35% reduction in lot areas can mean a commensurate increase in yield. For smaller developments, it may turn a 4 lot subdivision into a 6 lot subdivision and looks to be an exciting opportunity to boost housing supply.

Other opportunities from the Medium Density Codes include:

  • The ability to include ancillary dwellings on any size lot including strata lots;
  • Allowance for two-storey boundary walls in R50 and R60 areas – providing more opportunities for townhouse developments.

Other changes

It is expected that the Medium Density Codes will be largely similar to the version released by the Government in 2023. However, the Minister has flagged the following changes:

  1. No minimum sizes or dimensions for individual bedrooms.
  2. Transitional arrangements for new site cover provisions.

We eagerly await the release of the Codes in early March.

Key things for proponents to be mindful of are the implementation timeframes and the status of R-MD codes.

For information on any of these areas, and how these could impact your projects, please reach out to our dedicated policy & advocacy research team: 

Jarrod Ross, Principal

Trent Will, Principal

Mark Bancroft, Principal


Trent Will