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Regions, not local councils, to rule on planning

Last year, the O’Farrell government announced it will change NSW’s planning laws and has floated a Green Paper (an ideas paper) setting out the direction of the new legislation and asking for comments. Prior to the Green Paper, there was a bipartisan enquiry into planning that made 374 recommendations, including the need for a focus on Environmentally Sustainable Development. 

The Green Paper ignores those recommendations. Defining economic growth to be the prime objective of the planing system, it replaces sustainable development with “early certainty”. Under the current system, plans are submitted and then circulated for comment before being judged against the local council’s rules. Under the proposed system, there will be rules for regions, each of which will be about the size of 10 councils, and anything that complies with those one-size-fits-all rules cannot be objected to and will be approved without being circulated for community comment.  In the words of Ron Hoenig, state member for Heffron: “The first you will know is when construction starts.” The only influence residents will have is “up front”, when the rules for their region are being set.

Not everyone is opposed to the City of Sydney having a reduced role. “Brad Hazzard can’t be worse than Clover,” said one member of a resident group. But, said another, “Brad Hazzard isn’t going to get involved. Everything is going to be passed to planners.” And the Green Paper intends that planners have a “culture of approval”. Major projects may receive explicit approvals at the concept stage. Rules and guidelines are not maximum restrictions but minimum entitlements which may be exceeded if developments are compatible with the “strategic directions” set by the state government.  Even non-compliant applications may receive approval to proceed (an “amber light”), with an assumption that problems can be addressed as the project proceeds.

One potential positive is that the Green Paper calls for investment in infrastructure to keep pace with developments, a change which would be welcomed by resident groups. However, this is supposed to happen under the current system, so it may be that the only effect will be to move the cost of infrastructure away from developers to the general population – people living in old houses will subsidise people buying new houses. Further, the definition of infrastructure is limited; it includes roads but not rail.

The government is now working on a White Paper which attempts to address the comments received. The White Paper is supposed to be released this year. There will be an opportunity to comment on the White Paper, but it is unlikely that the final legislation will be very different from the White Paper.

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