By Julian Bajkowski and Paul Hemsley
New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell is facing a fresh revolt in the state’s local government sector over controversial changes to planning powers after the peak group for councils warned it could hit Macquarie Street and big developers where it hurts the most – development approvals.
Local Government NSW (LGNSW) has warned it could instigate “a council-led direct action campaign” against parts of new legislation that the state government is planning that would effectively strip them many existing rights of veto over development proposals.
It is understood that councils are leaning towards targeting applications under the Joint Regional Planning Panel, which are typically over $20 million, with what could amount to a go-slow or work-to-rule campaign that would hit bigger developers rather than households and smaller builders.
In a blunt letter to the Premier, LGNSW says that it does not accept the argument that the O’Farrell government has a mandate to introduce a new planning system as it is currently proposed.
At the heart of the dispute is the state government’s planning white paper that largely reverses out of a key election promise that the O’Farrell government would return planning powers back to councils.
Contained in the heavily publicised ‘Contract with New South Wales’ election document, the pledge was used to shore up seats in suburbs where high-rise urban infill plans along rail corridors under the previous Labor government were deeply unpopular in normally conservative-voting communities, especially on Sydney’s North Shore.
“The Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, the Hon Brad Hazzard MP, has repeated this promise on many occasions referring to the return of planning powers to councils and communities,” the letter signed by LGNSW joint presidents Keith Rhoads and Ray Donald says.
Such was the success of the concept of the ‘Contract with NSW’ list of core promises that it was enthusiastically borrowed and put to use by the federal Coalition in its election campaign to spell out its election agenda.
However NSW councils are not about to let the breakage of such prominent promises go unpunished and have demanded that the Premier respond within a fortnight ahead of LGNSW’s annual conference in Sydney between 1st October and 3rd October.
The threat of a council-backed grass roots campaign against a perceived state land-grab of planning powers and development approval is a serious one because it has the potential to cost votes at a state election because of ultra-local issues that would usually play out in council elections.
The potential for electoral static is amplified by growing antagonism by community groups over the perception that well-funded ‘big retail’ interests like supermarkets and fast food chains will have more clout in getting their proposals through to the detriment of smaller traders that now make up high streets and town centres.
Joint President of LGNSW, Ray Donald, said the biggest worry for councils was “the reduction in the community’s ability to have a say in local development.”
“The reduction in community engagement during assessment of contentious developments seriously risks reducing transparency,” Mr Donald said.
Developers, who have a robust discourse with councils at the best of times, have predictably dismissed LGNSW’s calls as unnecessarily divisive but notably weighed in to criticise the election promise to return planning powers to a local level.
Urban Taskforce CEO, Chris Johnson immediately slammed LGNSW’s demands as “ludicrous.”
“It’s really trying to say that developers are the baddies, what that’s code for is that we don’t like growth and we don’t like change,” Mr Johnson said before hopping into Mr O’Farrell’s election promises.
“The campaign in my opinion was a naïve one. I think to state that planning powers would be given back to the communities was a naïve statement. Firstly, communities never had planning powers in that sense, it was always councils or the state government bodies that had the planning powers for the future,” he said.
“The whole point of the planning system for future communities is for growth and for change and the state government has recently put out information showing that Sydney’s going to grow 200,000 more than they expected over the next 20 years,” Mr Johnson said.
Mr Johnston accused LGNSW of “misinterpreting” the NSW Government’s statement about returning planning powers to the community.
“This was clearly a popularist election slogan that has since been modified in the White Paper to a community participation charter. The NSW Government needs to clarify that it is participation and not total power that communities will have in relation to planning.”
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