The promised review of Queensland's disgraced Integrated Planning Act (IPA) has commenced. If some worthwhile changes emerge, they will reflect credit on the Minister for Local Government and Planning, Desley Boyle, who has canvassed a wide spectrum of stakeholder opinion.
Above all, any new legislation should be intelligible to the community and, in particular, to the community's elected representatives. In a democratic society planning legislation should not appear to be so complex and technical that planning decisions are left to the unelected officers.
If there is really going to be a fresh start, then let it be fresh right from the outset, starting with a clearly spelt out statement of the object of planning and how it will be implemented in practice.
Thereafter the slate should be wiped clean. All the terminology and jargon inherited from section 33 of the old Local Government Act and PEDA (Planning Environment and Development Assessment Bill 1995) and IPA should be put out of mind and left out of mind until it can be demonstrated that some of the traditionally accepted mechanisms and practices really are necessary to implement the planning function - with the emphasis on planning rather than plans.
Embarrassing though it may be for those of us who have participated in the evolution of town planning over the past 40 years or so, it's time to own up and confess that we've pursued a fundamentally flawed approach. Blueprint or end-state planning schemes are an illusory goal: after years in preparation, economic and social changes can render them obsolete literally within days of their formal gazettal.
Instead, a more realistic approach would be for the state to spell out currently evolving planning principles - the things that IPA is so conspicuously silent about - and how continuously evolving statements of desired environmental objectives and intended future character could guide development in any given area at any given time. Plus the ongoing provision of helpful advice about planning techniques and best practice. Given the general competence power enjoyed by Queensland local governments, there shouldn't be any need for special legislation to authorise ongoing planning in these terms.
Another attitudinal sea change is needed to recognise that development assessment is really the most important planning function and should be the responsibility of the most senior and experienced planners. Every development proposal will have some impact, but only a few will be problematic. IPA's categorisation of development assessment “codes” is contrived and needlessly complex and confusing. Responsibility in routine cases can always be delegated of course, but ultimate responsibility should rest with the most senior assessors - whose role should include recommending improvements to ongoing planning policies and mechanisms in the light of their experience with assessing difficult or innovative proposals and negotiating acceptable solutions with developers.
The present shortage of qualified planers in local government might well be alleviated if the creative role of development assessment in ongoing planning were recognised and less status accorded to preparing blueprint-type planning schemes. “Statutory planning” and plan making is an outmoded concept.
As for IPA's prescriptive rigmarole about referral and referral agencies, councils are supposed to be aware, like everyone else, of the statutory functions and responsibilities of state (and federal) departments and authorities - it used to be a commonsense matter of course to ascertain their likely future land requirements when councils prepared their local plans and assessed development proposals. IPA's formalised approach is surely unnecessary.
It's a fact of course that state departments could do a lot more to keep councils informed about their current policies and eliminate the frequent delays in responding to development applications referred to them for comment or advice. But, even in a worst case scenario, departments and councils should be able, indeed be required, to have difficulties resolved inexpensively and expeditiously in a commonsense administrative appeals tribunal.
What tends to be overlooked is that town planning appeals decisions are about land use at a given point in time - not for all time. And in a democratic society they should all be appealable. At present half the expensive appeals being determined by judges and barristers in the Planning and Environment Court involve interpretation of the absurdly detailed procedural provisions of IPA. If these appeals could be avoided (except in respect of genuine questions of law), time and expense could be saved if appeals were focussed on the merits of planning decisions and removed from the legal arena.
They could then be heard and determined by members of a multi-member professionally qualified appeals panel. In the case of particularly controversial major development proposals, the panel could canvass community views and either make a decision on the planning merits, or make a recommendation to the minister.
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