Positions splinter on NSW planning overhaul

By Paul Hemsley and Julian Bajkowski

Extensive changes to planning and development laws proposed by the New South Wales government have produced widely divergent positions among key stakeholders in the local government and property development sectors as negotiations with Macquarie Street start in earnest.

NSW Minister for Planning and Infrastructure Brad Hazzard announced the proposed changes on Tuesday through the release of a white paper called A New Planning System for NSW, which he claims will make planning “simpler” and more “transparent” and include greater community participation.

The overhaul of state planning laws and council powers was a key issue in many metropolitan seats during the election campaign after a backlash against Labor’s plan to create a new wave of high density urban infill located along transport corridors like train lines that sidelined many councils.

A key promise from the NSW Coalition was to return approval powers over planning and developments back to councils.

The release of the planning white paper follows another round of selective leaks to the tabloid media of details that could significantly affect existing powers by local governments that culminated in reports that that councils will have just 10 days to reach a decision about a planning project  or risk forfeiting their decision making powers altogether.

The 10 days limit was confirmed in the white paper, which says businesses, homeowners, business and industry would have the right to appeal to the Land and Environment Court if their code assessment application complies with all acceptable solutions – but has not been decided after the limited timeframe.

The imposition of legal time limits is being sold by the government as a way to force slow and poorly managed councils to lift their game in terms of making decisions on relatively uncontroversial matters that are sometimes bogged down in administrative process for months.

A fundamental element of the government’s new plan is to create a better planning culture among stakeholders to promote cooperation and community participation.

However Local Government NSW joint-president Ray Donald claims that the plan’s emphasis on this component could actually inhibit input from neighbours and local representatives.

"Local Government NSW supports the stronger focus on community engagement in strategic planning, however we are concerned that this emphasis may unnecessarily replace the well-established rights of neighbours to be involved with local development decisions,” Mr Donald said.

"We oppose any system that unreasonably limits neighbours' involvement,” he said.

He questioned whether the new Planning System may have failed to acknowledge the importance of grassroots planning as a way of delivering “better planning outcomes”.

"Councils have a wealth of local knowledge that is crucial to feed up into strategic planning for our communities," Mr Donald said.

Property developers, who have a strong vested interest in speeding up approvals, are eagerly cheering many of the proposed changes on as welcome and necessary changes.

Developer peak group Urban Taskforce of Australia immediately offered its backing for the O’Farrell government’s proposed changes, claiming that the proposal to lift ‘code assessable’ approvals to 80 per cent of all applications was “very necessary” for NSW to lift its housing supply.

Urban Taskforce head Chris Johnson said communities should be involved early in the planning process   but questioned how representative elements of a community may be because the “selection of who is the community is left to local councils”.

Mr Johnson said this could lead to “anti-development groups” dominating the formation of strategic plans because the “government seems to equate the community with environmental groups”.

In contrast to the LGNSW, Mr Johnson said the focus on cultural change was “very positive” and claimed that claims there is a “very anti-growth culture in NSW”.

After more than a decade of doing controversial deals with developers that often sidelined councils and residents and concentrated ministerial power, the now opposition Labor Party is outraged by the proposed planning reforms.

State Opposition Leader John Robertson predictibly slammed the new plans and said that the O’Farrell government had dumped its election commitment of returning local planning powers to local communities through their councils.

Mr Robertson said the White Paper sets out plans to centralise and take planning away from local communities.

“Local residents will no longer get to have their say on specific development decisions – new apartment blocks, town house complexes and even subdivisions will sail through the planning process with no opportunity for council or community input,” Mr Robertson said.

Shadow Minister for Planning and Infrastructure Luke Foley said the government’s plan will be “picnic for developers” as major developments, apartments and townhouse complexes will be able to “spring up” in residential areas “without an adequate approval process”.

The NSW branch of the Greens, rarely a friend of developers, found it hard to resist a dig at the similarity in policies between the major parties despite all the rhetoric and said the new plan has showed the O’Farrell government was delivering on Labor’s government’s “discredited pro-developer agenda”.

Greens NSW MP David Shoebridge said local councils would be “reduced to rubber stamping decisions” made by Regional Planning Panels and Sub-Regional Planning Boards.

“This plan will tear the heart out of community consultation and is a direct betrayal of the O’Farrell government’s pre-election promise to return planning powers to the community,” Mr Shoebridge said.

He said developers will be given a “free pass” to make little or no contribution towards crucial infrastructure to accompany new developments with new home buyers across the state being forced to subsidise “endless urban sprawl”.

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