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Implementing an integrated place, local and regional planning scheme in NSW

By Robert Gibbons - posted Thursday, 19 May 2011


Various states and territories have wrestled with the conundrum of local government over the decades. Kennett smashed through in Victoria from 1992; South Australia, Queensland, WA and Tasmania were more circumspect; and NSW dithered through a series of reports, studies and debates. Communities care about their "identity" and their residual democratic ability to influence decisions over their environments. Governments have to be very clear about the benefits of reform before inflicting the pain of amalgamations. This article is about a better option for NSW and other places.

Sydney has 62 councils within its built-up and fringe development areas. These 62 decision-making nodes are each involved in writing planning instruments, adjudications over development applications and disputes, and relationships with state governments and with developers and agencies. Moreover each has "precincts" or neighbourhood committees – Leichhardt 7, Waverley 13 and even Bathurst in the bush 9. South Australia's Metropolitan Adelaide has 19 councils; and South-East Queensland 10 (5 in the Brisbane statistical division). Their councils' involvement in development complexities was reduced through regional arrangements for planning instruments and "complying" rules for exempt applications. Still, the structures are much simpler than Sydney's.

Sydney's complexity led the planning sector to push the then government to reform planning structures. In 2005 "Part 3A" powers over major developments were taken off councils and in 2008 a Planning Assessment Commission and 6 Joint Regional Planning Panels were interposed between developers and councils/government. The loss of democratic scope led communities and the then Opposition to argue for the return of development powers to "local government".

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As with the UK Government, the O'Farrell ministry has articulated a need for "localism". The UK is abolishing regional plans and bringing nationally-significant developments under Ministerial/Cabinet accountability. It is telling planning officials to report to communities rather than to agencies; and aldermen to be politicians not policemen. The first Cabinet meeting of the O'Farrell Government decided that of the 500 Part 3A development applications (DAs) outstanding, the Planning Commission would get 50%, councils 25% with the remaining 25% to the Minister for Planning. On May 12th the considered result was that of over 550, under 20% would end up with local government.

The "planning act" has been under review by the Planning Institute for some years. The Chamber of Commerce, Property Council and association of consulting engineers have submitted schemes to reduce the number of councils as previously described in these pages. ICAC identified DAs as the highest corruption-risk activity in NSW. The planning industry has pointed to a shortage in supply of professional people and to a "toxic" relationship between councillors and planners. No significant proposal to work out a balance between the conflicting factors has been sighted subsequently.

The politics of NSW seem to have further complicated the conundrum. Does this have to be so?

A scheme to improve local democracy, streamline the complex DA and planning instrument contexts, and reduce State Government involvement in local government and associated costs has been prepared by this author. The essence is described in the attached addendum with all contents being copyright:

  • No forced amalgamations and no boundary changes but with the basis for a successful local government model for decades

  • Each of Sydney's regions would have a Regional Planning Council, replacing both PAC and JRPPs

  • The 6 RPCs would have the same balance of representation as the 1880 Sydney Water Board Act – 3 appointed officials and 4 indirectly-elected directors – improving the "confidence" of state and local governments

  • Each council would receive all DAs, with all councillors empowered to comment on all and any DA but without the constraints of statutory planning rules

  • Four of the RPCs would have populations of around 1 million people – a number smaller than in Brisbane's or Auckland's integrated councils, with the Illawarra's at under 700,000 and the Blue Mountains at over 300,000

  • The RPCs would provide "planners" in multi-skilled teams in a regional resource-sharing mode to: (1) precincts to develop place-based plans and involve the community; (2) a triage function in councils so as to expedite the processing of complying DAs (currently 17% but to increase) and allocations to the next item; and (3) RPC assessment teams covering non-complying projects and possibly also state-significant projects as worked out in each case by the State Government, similar to the public inquiry function under pre-2005-8 legislation

  • Councils would evolve into community facilitators rather than regulators, with more vigorous politics and fewer allegations over influence

  • Regional Organisations of Councils would be empowered to engage other regional resources such as auditors, emergency planning consultants and specialised engineers

  • All processes would be "public" and a regional tribunal within each RPC would provide accountable advice on DAs in a superior manner to current Independent Hearing & Assessment Panels (IHAPs) in councils

  • All DAs would be put on council websites with precinct linkages and neighbourhood consultation over DAs and more general matters would be enhanced

  • The RPCs would provide a regional interface with Infrastructure NSW and other federal and state planning, operational and funding bodies.

It would take some time to work out the disposition of DAs and resources; but the models come from Sydney's history and are within our culture if done professionally. Major benefits would be in

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  • keeping local planning within "local government"

  • enhancing community thinking

  • ensuring efficient handling of accepted DAs

  • reducing rates and charges through reasonable efficiency means, while

  • providing a better career path for council professionals.

Local councillors have resisted reform in the past; but a majority of councillors and managers would appreciate seeing a resolution to their political, professional and personal challenges. Communities would enjoy the benefits of localism.

The scheme is illustrated in the addendum.

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About the Author

Robert Gibbons started urban studies at Sydney University in 1971 and has done major studies of Sydney, Chicago, world cities' performance indicators, regional infrastructure financing, and urban history. He has published major pieces on the failure of trams in Sydney, on the "improvement generation" in Sydney, and has two books in readiness for publication, Thank God for the Plague, Sydney 1900 to 1912 and Sydney's Stumbles. He has been Exec Director Planning in NSW DOT, General Manager of Newcastle City, director of AIUS NSW and advisor to several premiers and senior ministers.

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