After several weeks of dropping hints the NSW Planning Minister Brad Hazzard this week released his ‘green paper’ for the state’s new planning system. After his government swept to power on the back of a promise to put community control back into the planning system many are going to find the contents of this paper very disappointing. At over 90 pages in length the document contains more issues than I can succinctly cover here so I’ll focus on the ones that first leapt out at me and may come back to some other issues later down the track.
One of the most worrying changes is the proposal to remove the right of communities to have a say on individual development applications. The green paper sets out the idea that once communities ‘agree’ on the overarching plan for an area any development that fits the plan should be automatically approved, with no public input.
As it is the overarching plans used in the current system (Local Environment Plans – LEPs) are highly technical and are hard for most of the community to engage with. If there is no form of planning arbitration beyond the overarching plan they’re going to have to get a lot more complex to be effective, further disengaging communities.
However instead of tightening up planning controls to facilitate the new system the green paper says that zoning will be ‘more flexible’ – code for allowing open slather development. Even if community members are able to engage with the plans what is automatically allowed will be a lot more open ended. Under this system it will be very hard for someone to buy a property with any clear indication of what might happen in the neighbourhood in coming years – and they’ll certainly have no say in it.
Simply giving carte blanche approval to anything that fits an overarching plan also prevents the issue of cumulative impacts being considered. The paper says this issue is an important one, but fails to actually explain how it will be dealt with.
The green paper also proposes the use of ‘expert panels’ to replace Councillors in cases where there will still be planning decisions to make. Despite all the talk of simplifying the system and removing red tape this will simply serve to add a new layer of bureaucracy. Councils already have expert planning staff who make the initial decision on a development application under delegated authority. In around 97% of cases these decisions stand and Councillors don’t get involved, it is only when community members report that they have concerns with a proposed decisions that Councillors exercise their right, as elected representatives of the community, to make a decision on the community’s behalf.
The fact that Councillors only intervene in around 3% of development decisions shows that the various claims of Councillors causing significant delays and uncertainties in the system are exaggerated. At the City of Sydney at least Councillors of all political persuasions exercise their decision making powers responsibly and the community are glad to have them do so in the 3% of cases where they are needed. It is hard to see what benefit would be achieved by sending those cases to a second set of unelected planners who have no connection to the local community and no accountability to the public.
These are just the first couple of issues I discovered in the first reading of this large, weasel-word filled document. A range of other problems have been highlighted by state Greens MP David Shoebridge and others, and I’m sure all will become much clearer in the coming weeks and months. What is already apparent however is that this document represents one of the biggest attacks on the ability of communities to have a say in the future of specific developments in their neighbourhoods and the Greens will be fighting against it whole-heartedly.