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Opposition to Environmental Planning and Assessment and Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill 2017

(Opposition to Bill, Wednesday 9 August 2017, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

I oppose the Environmental Planning and Assessment and Electoral Legislation Amendment (Planning Panels and Enforcement) Bill 2017 because it is an assault on local democracy and prevents communities being represented in approvals for development in their neighbourhood. This bill will radically change the way development decisions are made. I am appalled that it is being rushed through the House, preventing members from conducting meaningful consultation with their local councils and communities. This Government has a disturbing practice of ramming important and controversial bills through Parliament, thereby showing an abysmal lack of respect for basic democratic principles. What is the rush when the bill will not take effect until March next year?

This bill will require all councils in the Sydney metropolitan area and Wollongong council to set up a local planning panel to make the development proposal decisions that elected councillors normally make. Local planning panels can be useful in development approvals, particularly when decision-makers have a conflict of interest in a proposal, but they should not replace all council development decisions. Making panels mandatory is merely a way for the Government to fast‑track approvals in the guise of addressing corruption. This bill will not reduce corruption. Indeed, the poor model proposed in the bill could increase risks. Panels will be stacked with ministerial appointees. The Minister will choose the chairperson and the experts that councils are permitted to appoint. Three out of four panel members will be chosen by the one Minister. They will not be independent panels.

Centralising power in one position increases opportunities for corruption. The development industry could heavily lobby the Minister to include development professionals on the list who would be willing to overlook good planning principles and public benefit in order to fast‑track approvals. Whilst this Minister can say he is not corrupt, he cannot speak for future Ministers. Panel members will not be more or less corruptible nor more or less prone to establishing inappropriate relationships with developers than are councillors. There are countless examples of public servants making decisions that benefit others for kickbacks. But, unlike councils who make decisions at public council meetings, panels will make decisions behind closed doors. Of great concern is the express exclusion of mayors and councillors on panels. Mayors and councillors are democratically elected to make decisions and can be voted out if they fail to represent their communities.

They have local knowledge and understand the planning instruments that underpin decisions.

Furthermore, each council will have just one local planning panel to make all decisions on its behalf. A better model would allow a different panel make-up depending on the expertise needed for the matter at hand. Not only would expertise match proposals but attempts to influence decision‑makers would be reduced because developers would not know who would make the final decision—similar to not knowing who a judge is before a trial. The Government says that local planning panels will determine development applications that are valued between $5 million and $30 million, pose a potential conflict of interest, are contentious, are of strategic importance, are of high risk, or depart from development standards. But these criteria are not in the bill and will, instead, be the subject of a future departmental direction, thereby providing councils no guarantee.

The proposal to class all developments with 10 or more objections is fraught. It would not be hard to harvest 10 vexatious objections to ensure that a proposal bypasses council, or, alternatively, those genuinely concerned about a proposal may fear lodging an objection because it could prevent their elected representatives making the final determination. This needs greater consideration and input from councils. The bill has clearly not been established in partnership with local government and, as a result, the proposed model is deeply flawed. The bill should go on public exhibition so that councils can contribute their expertise to develop a better model. Councillors should make decisions on development; that is what they are elected to do. Voting for people to make decisions on the community's behalf is a basic foundation of a healthy democracy. Councillors know the areas they represent and have the local knowledge to make decisions that protect communities and neighbourhoods into the future.

The Council of the City of Sydney and Woollahra Municipal Council are functioning well and do not need their development approvals seized from them. This bill is not in the best interests of the communities I represent. The bill is another blatant grab for power from councils by a government concerned that democratically elected councillors do not deliver the fast approvals it and the development industry want. The bill is the next step in diluting local democracy following the botched amalgamation attempts. A modern planning system needs democratic, transparent, accountable and comprehensive decisions, and these are best done by elected councils. I oppose the bill.

See debate in Parliament HERE


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