The NSW government has flagged a major shake-up of the Independent Planning Commission, including cutting the number of Commissioners and narrowing its jurisdiction.
The reform process will be overseen by former Services, Technology and Administration director general and acting IPC chair Peter Duncan, who is also the former deputy director general of DPC and former Roads and Maritime CEO.
The IPC was established as a consent authority for development in the state but has been the subject to criticism for contentious decisions and botched processes, leading the state government to order a review by the Productivity Commission last October.
The report handed to the government in December, found that an independent decision-making function strengthened the planning system by minimising the risk of corruption or undue political influence.
It said the IPC played an important role in maintaining the integrity of the system and recommended that it should be retained and its independence and governance strengthened.
It recommends establishing the IPC as a separate and independent agency with a more formal role for the chair, who would be accountable to the minister.
Reducing number of Commissioners
However it recommended “transitioning to a smaller pool of Commissioners with a stronger focus on decision making skills rather than technical expertise”.
The IPC currently has 29 commisioners appointed for three year terms. Under the recommendations of the report, this figure would be reduced with consultants providing separate expert advice when required.
The move to reduce the number of commissioners would make decisions faster and more consistent, Mr Stokes said.
The report also recommends the remuneration model should also be reviewed, with consideration of fixed fees or a remuneration cap.
The Productivity Commission notes the IPC has a 13-strong Secretariat which it says is understaffed, lacking in experience and reliant on contractors, and is in the process of being restructured.
“This is clearly not ideal and the IPC’s restructure and recruitment should be addressed as a matter of urgency,” it says.
Increasing threshold of community objections
The report recommends that only the most contentious major projects should be referred to the IPC, that councils should be able to rescind objections after a development has been exhibited and that the threshold of community objections for a matter to be consider should be doubled from 25 to 50 unique objections, excluding councils.
“One position presented to this review is that it is increasingly easy to ‘game’ the system and ‘drum up’ more than 25 objections through automated online systems that generate ‘form letters’ of petitions, or through the circulation of form letters among a special interest’s organisation’s mailing list,” the report says.
It says if the 50 complaints threshold applied in 2018-19 there would have been 11 fewer referrals that year.
It also recommends reverting to a single stage public hearing process.
Planning minister Rob Stokes said the government had accepted all the review’s 12 recommendations.
Councils cautious, developers smiling
LGNSW said it welcomed the decision to retain and improve the IPC saying it provided important checks and balances in the planning system.
However it was important that councils be consulted ahead of determinations to help ensure the conditions of consent are beneficial to the local community that will be impacted by the development, President Linda Scott told Government News.
“These consent conditions must also recognise the need for developers to make a contribution to the community and environment,” she said.
Developers were pleased with the government’s response saying the recommendations would prevent commissioners going on “flights of legal fancy” and being “bulldozed by organised community action groups”.
Urban Taskforce, which had sought a watering-down of IPC powers to overturn government decisions, called for all the recommendations to be immediately implemented.
“The changes will mean that Commissioners will be more focused on planning decisions. They will no longer be able to go on their own flights of legal fancy. Where there is ambiguity in policy, they will be allowed to seek advice from DPIE or the Minister”, CEO Tom Forrest said.
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