The Greens have come out swinging against the NSW government’s proposal to devolve local council’s planning powers on big projects to independent panels.
The reforms, which Planning Minister Anthony Roberts will take to Cabinet on Thursday, state that development applications over a certain [as yet unspecified] value will be taken out of the hands of metropolitan councils and given to Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs).
Cabinet will also decide on the value of DAs to be decided by IHAPs.
However, there is talk that smaller regional councils may be able to choose whether to use IHAPs or not. The IHAPs are currently optional but are used by larger metro councils, such as Canterbury Bankstown.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian will be hoping the move – touted as a probity measure – will allow the government to outwit Opposition Leader Luke Foley, who has been pushing hard for developers and real estate agents to be banned from standing for local council election, sparked by former Auburn Deputy Mayor and property developer Salim Mehajer’s windfall from DA decisions he voted on while on council.
Labor banned property developers from standing for pre-selection at any level of government in 2013, precipitated by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s intervention in the NSW branch to stamp out corruption.
Last year NSW Premier Mike Baird banned councillors from voting on DAs where they could benefit financially, reverting to how the situation had been before 2012.
But Greens MP and Planning spokesperson David Shoebridge said stripping councils of their planning powers would ‘do nothing to restore integrity or accountability to the NSW planning system’ and was ‘a real step backwards’.
“Councillors are elected by their local community to make the tough decisions about their local area in a way that is transparent and accountable. This is directly contrary to that,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“This is yet another example of the Coalition government stripping democratically elected councils of their decision-making and authority.”
He said that the changes would give the government the chance to handpick people from the property industry to make decisions on DAs.
Instead, he said the government should ban property developers and real estate agents from standing for office.
Local Government NSW, the peak body for councils in the state, is opposed to IHAPs being mandatory for councils.
LGNSW President Keith Rhoades said in January this year that he was concerned they would create another layer of administration and decision-making.
“We’re concerned about the Planning Minister being given powers to impose local planning panels on councils, and about excluding councillors from those panels, because being the voice of the community is what they were elected to do,” Mr Rhoades said.
“We are opposed to any persistent erosion of the rights of communities and councils to have a real say in the future of their neighbourhoods via local planning powers.
“It is not clear what the criteria for replacing councillors with a local planning panel would be, and this needs clarification so there is no risk of arbitrary decisions.”
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