There are some giant question marks hanging over NSW newly-created councils; one of the biggest unknowns is what happens to development applications and planning while administrators are running the show.
NSW Local Government Minister Paul Toole has insisted it’s business as usual for council planners and that administrators will be able to decide any development applications (DAs) that can’t be dealt with by council officers.
Will planning rules change?
Mr Toole has promised that administrators at the state’s 19 new councils will not tinker with local environment plans (LEPs), leaving them static until mayors and councillors are elected at the September 2017 local government elections.
LEPs are critical to guiding planning decisions and because they regulate land use and development, for example land zonings. The plans are written by local councils but subject to state government approval.
However, there is no specific mention of not touching LEPs in the Local Government (Council Amalgamations) Proclamation 2016 that accompanied the announcement of new councils last week.
The Proclamation says former council areas will keep their development control and contributions plans but adds: “To avoid doubt, nothing in this clause prevents the new council from amending a development control plan or contributions plan.”
Development control plans provide detailed planning and design guidelines to support LEP planning controls.
Associate Professor Roberta Ryan, from the Centre for Local Government at the University of Technology Sydney, said the Proclamation Amalgamation was silent on LEPs, other than to say all plans, strategies and codes of former councils remained in force as they were prior to amalgamation.
But she said that although the technical documents informing decisions, such as LEPs, DCPs and the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, would not change administrators might interpret them differently from councillors.
“All planning instruments of the pre-amalgamated entities remain in force until they are repealed (i.e. new ones prepared by the post-merger entities),” Dr Ryan said. “However, nothing in the Amalgamation Proclamation prohibits the Council (i.e. the administrator until new elections are held) from amending DCPs or development contribution plans.”
She said experience had shown that one of the biggest challenges ahead for councils that merge was developing land use planning instruments for entirely new councils. This had taken a substantial amount of time to update following the 2008 Queensland mergers.
“NSW’s recent lengthy experience with the standard instrument process (which took about seven years to transition all councils) underscores just how extensive and time consuming this task will be,” A/Prof Ryan said.
Councils would also need to wrestle with integration of computer systems development application which allocate application numbers.
There is also a question of whether planning officers would stick to DAs from their former council areas because they know the LEP/DCP provisions or if they would also make decisions on other locations too.
Planning during the administrator phase: different camps, different worries
Parts of the property industry are fearful that administrators will be gun-shy and either disallow DAs, or put them on ice for 16 months.
Chris Johnson from Urban Taskforce said: “We’re very concerned that the administrators may well feel as though they need to be very community sensitive under the circumstances of councils being sacked and in a caretaker mode and not be willing to make big decisions.”
Mr Johnson said this could exacerbate housing shortages, particularly in Metropolitan Sydney, and hold up the voluntary planning agreements and rezoning needed for bigger developments to go ahead.
He said: “A lot depends on what instructions are given to administrators in relation to planning matters.”
Some council LEPs are four or five years out-of-date and did not include new rail lines and metros, where more density is now expected to occur.
He suggested the Department of Planning and Environment or the Greater Sydney Commission could make final decisions on larger developments.
“We need some confidence that the administrators are not going to be too risk averse.”
NSW Executive Director of the Property Council, Jane Fitzgerald, said she was not panicking about planning under the new councils, but was keeping a watchful eye.
“We would be concerned if there is evidence of delays in the DA process, for instance, but given that this was announced a week ago and administrators are just getting their feet under their desks I think it’s a little early to get hysterical about it.”
She said there were DA timelines in place and administrators would be applying the same rules as councillors used.
“We need to keep in mind the broader objectives in what we’re dealing [and] what’s intended: less red tape, larger council areas being able to deliver more and better services because of economies of scale.”
Community groups, councillors and residents
While the property industry is worried the planning process will be held up by having administrators in charge, some mayors, councillors and community groups are worried that the reverse is true and that unpopular developments could be rubber stamped.
There is also anxiety that there will be no community voice at the table during discussions on major projects such as WestConnex, the Bays Precinct or North Parramatta Urban Renewal Project.
Former Leichhardt Mayor Darcy Byrne – whose inner-west Sydney council merged with Ashfield and Marrickville to create Inner West Council last week – said he feared that sacking councillors and mayors would give NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes carte blanche to push through controversial developments like WestConnex.
“[They could] rush through high-rise development in the Bays Precinct, Parramatta Road and the Sydenham to Bankstown rail line corridor without any opposition,” Mr Byrne said.
“I expect that these things will be speeded up. The administrators were handpicked by Mike Baird and won’t properly investigate state government proposals. They will just take the view of Mike Baird at face value.”
He said sacking councillors and appointing administrators was “an extreme concentration of power that’s ripe for improper decision making”.
“Local residents and former councillors are all feeling fearful and I think they’re right to be.”
The new City of Parramatta Council is the consent authority for some state significant developments, including the proposal to build around 3,000 apartments on a large heritage site in North Parramatta, which contains the Parramatta Female Factory and Roman Catholic Orphan School.
North Parramatta Residents Action Group President Suzette Meade, who is also on the Parramatta City Council Heritage Advisory Committee, said council sackings meant residents had “lost the ability to lobby councillors”.
“We are extremely concerned that local residents will not be heard or listened to,” she said.
“We’re saying, just slow down and let the site form the development into a tourism and culture site. It’s a bit of a faux tourism and culture site at the moment.”
Ms Meade said the state government had pursued forced amalgamations in order to “administer key development programs in key areas” and that Parramatta was becoming a super council along the key urban growth development corridor.
Meanwhile, UrbanGrowth NSW, the lead government agency on the Parramatta North Urban Renewal Program, said it would work with the new council to ensure further consultation on the site.
“We held three community information sessions this year where we sought feedback from the local community,” an agency spokesperson said.
“Our development applications will be subject to statutory exhibition periods where the community can examine the plans and make formal submissions. In addition, we are looking forward to working with the local community on ensuring the significant heritage buildings have an ongoing, viable use.”
“It has always been the intention of UrbanGrowth NSW to lodge future development applications with Parramatta Council.”
Parramatta North was rezoned by the planning minister in November 2015.
A statement provided to Government News by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment said:
The Department of Planning and Environment is developing a guide for new councils to help transition their planning processes.
The Department will provide support to new councils during this period so that they can continue to provide key planning and assessment services to their communities.
New Councils will continue to process development applications and other planning activities. Joint Regional Planning Panels will continue to make decisions based on council assessment planning reports.
Individuals and businesses should continue to deal with their councils and submit applications for assessment as they would normally.
This is an opportunity for new councils to improve their delivery of planning services and the Department will support them to make these improvements.
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