Unmasking the Greater Sydney Commission: The power and the planning



In two months the Greater Sydney Commission (GSC) unveils its plans for Sydney but what does the Commission actually do, how extensive are its powers and how will it impact local councils, residents and developers?

Government News takes a closer look.

What is it?

The Greater Sydney Commission was created as an independent statutory body by the NSW Government in January this year, partly in response to criticisms that the sheer number of local councils in Sydney was holding back holistic planning and the creation of a big vision for Greater Sydney.  There were 43 Greater Sydney councils but that was whittled down to 26 following council amalgamations this year.

The Commission’s Chief Executive Sarah Hill said the GSC reported directly to the NSW Government through the Minister for Planning and it would lead metropolitan planning for the Greater Sydney Region “in a new approach to big picture, longer-term planning.”


“The Commission has a mandate to give government big ideas – game changers – to make Greater Sydney a better place for now and for future generations and is working across government so that development, transport and housing plans are aligned,” Hill said.

She said its key roles included integrating and aligning state and local government land use, transport and environmental planning.

“The Commission is focused on making Greater Sydney a better place and a strong global city to ensure that as Greater Sydney grows it becomes more liveable, more productive and more environmentally sustainable.”

Who is on it?

There are four Greater Sydney Commissioners: Chief Commissioner Lucy Turnbull; Economic Commissioner Geoff Roberts, Adjunct Professor at the City Futures Research Centre at UNSW; Social Commissioner Heather Nesbitt, an expert in social housing and community infrastructure and architect Rod Simpson, the Environment Commissioner.

Alongside that are six district commissioners, who will chair the six Sydney Planning Panels when they are established; three ex-officio members, the departmental heads for planning (Carolyn McNally), transport (Tim Reardon) and treasury (Robert Whitfield).

Planner Sarah Hill is the Chief Executive who heads GSC’s the corporate management team, which includes 12 secondments from state government departments and four from local councils.

What will it do?

The Commission is charged with coming up with six districts plans for Greater Sydney, which are due to go on public exhibition in November. The districts are: Central, West Central, West, North, South West and South and they stretch from Ku-ring-gai to Sutherland, the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury to the Eastern suburbs.

The GSC will deliver the area’s metropolitan strategy, A Plan for Growing Sydney, a strategy which sets out the priorities for housing, employment, infrastructure and open space for the next 20 years.

The plan also specifies goals, including accelerating urban renewal around train stations; growing Parramatta as Sydney’s second CBD; boosting capacity at Port Botany, Sydney Airport and Badgerys Creek Airport and creating more jobs and transport links for Western Sydney.

Planning powers

Aaron Gadiel, a partner at planning and environment law firm Mills Oakley based in Sydney, says the Commission is very powerful.

“A great majority of powers that were traditionally vested in the Minister for Planning have been transferred to the GSC,” Gadiel said.

“Collectively, this body is as powerful as a state government minister and they are charged with making important decisions about how to implement the metropolitan plan for Sydney and preparing district plans. They can change the planning controls: height, density, zoning, lot size.”

When the Sydney Planning Panels commence from November 21 they will have the same functions as the Sydney East and the Sydney West Joint Regional Planning Panels which they replace.

There will be six planning panels, one for each district and each chaired by a district commissioner. Other panel members will include four planning experts, two representatives from local councils and two members appointed by government.

Panels will take on a development consent role for regionally significant larger developments, usually those with a capital investment value of more than $20 million.

They will also be able to review planning proposals that a council has refused or failed to consider within 90 days, called pre-gateway (rezoning) reviews.

The Commission has promised that the panels will improve determination time frames by at least 10 per cent within a year and get through 85 per cent of rezoning reviews within 90 days.

Impact on local councils

While the Commission cannot change planning controls through its district plans, Part 3B of the 2015 Greater Sydney Commission Act states that local councils must “give effect” to regional and district plans, for example when reviewing their Local Environment Plans (LEP’s).

Gadiel said local councils’ planning powers will not be weakened but the Commission can name and shame councils who fail to take its plans into account.

Of course, the Commission can affect planning controls by the influence it can exert if councils do not deal with planning proposals on time.

Planning proposals seek to amend a local council’s planning controls (contained in the LEP), for example controls on height, heritage, floorspace ratios and zoning.

Gadiel said the Commission could vary planning proposals submitted to local councils for gateway determination before they went on public exhibition and impose conditions on how they should be dealt with.

In the past, he said some councils have not taken gateway determinations seriously because of the “lack of enforcement.” The GSC could change this.

“Regretfully, in our experience, gateway determination obligations are routinely breached by local councils,” he said. “A local council is breaking the law if it breaches its obligations under a gateway determination, however it is difficult (if not impossible) to enforce these obligations in the courts.”

The Commission can also remove a local council as the planning authority, for example, if changes to planning controls are state significant or it considers the council has not complied with its planning obligations or has not followed district or metropolitan plans.

Gadiel said: “This is where the Commission really has some teeth. However, the Department had similar powers but rarely exercised them (and when it did exercise them it was on an ad-hoc basis).

“If the GSC proves to be an effective review mechanism just by its very existence it will improve the performance of local government and encourage good behaviour.”

But he said this would rely on the GSC being unafraid to step in and censure councils and ensuring that it exercised its powers consistently and transparently.

“It may well come into conflict with local councils,” he said.

In addition, the NSW Planning Minister retains the power to make State Environmental Planning Policies (SEPPs), which deal with matters of State or regional environmental planning significance. Like LEPs, SEPPs can allow or prohibit developments in certain areas. They can also override local planning controls.

Is the Commission a good idea and will it work?

Director of the Institute for Public Policy and Governance at Sydney’s University of Technology, Associate Professor Roberta Ryan said that having one body to co-ordinate governance and planning for a big city like Sydney, whose population is projected to hit 6.4 million by 2036, was a sound idea and presented “a ton of opportunities.”

“We had 43 metropolitan councils before amalgamation and it was hard to know how to have a conversation with councils that had a whole of Sydney perspective,” Assoc Prof Ryan said.

“It’s important to get an overall view of planning for the future, both in terms of physical infrastructure like roads and also social infrastructure, like parks and greenways and planning for services, especially since much of the growth is going to be in infil. It’s easier to plan for growth in new release areas.”

She said the success of the Commission would hinge on how it engages with local councils and communities.

“It will all come down to how successfully they nail down the governance relationship between the councils and the Commission and how effectively they engage both mayors and senior staff around the planning process.

“It’s going to be the making or breaking of it, in my opinion. There has to be genuine input from councils in a way that acknowledges they are democratically elected bodies with deep local knowledge.”

Gadiel agrees that engagement is critical and says the Commission must make sure it listens to everyone: public officials, the community, development proponents, “people who understand the market dynamics and the experts who understand good urban design and finance.”

He said the new Commission and the political consensus on the Metropolitan Plan was a chance to get away from “development warfare” and create a different kind of planning system where everyone could see that the development was delivering on broad, city-wide goals.

“We should be moving away from the perception that individual developments are about opportunistic activities by individuals and rather seeing development as a gradual roll out of a plan that has been signed off by the whole community,” he said.

“Development in Sydney has been too contentious for too long.”

The GSC should step back, weigh up all the options and make decisions that work for the whole city.

“What we don’t want to see is them avoiding making difficult decisions because they’re contentious. Sometimes the best outcomes will have winners and losers.”

Asked whether the GSC had simplified planning in NSW or made it more complicated Gadiel said it was in a transitional phase and still early days.

“The GSC is new and everyone around it is trying to find their feet and understand how it all fits together. There’s more to be done to raise awareness amongst the wider community and even people in the industry about the decision making process.

“I think it’s very much a wait and see issue for developers. They will work within whatever the rules are but they like the rules to be clear and comprehensible so they can be confident that the rules will be followed once they’ve brought a piece of land. For example, on density.”

He said it would be good to have more clarity on who would be making which planning decisions, the content of district plans and an understanding of how dialogue would be conducted between proponents and the Commission.

“[Development proponents] are looking for guidance from decision makers as to how they will judge these issues so they can adjust proposals and meet planning requirements,” he said.

“At the moment there’s some opacity. There are a lot of decision makers and it’s not entirely clear how the Commission is going to approach this.”

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