Yes, in your backyard

Don’t laugh, this is precisely what the White Paper can do to you. In depaNews in August we ran with the theme that the new planning system was all about certainty for developers and the removal of protection and checks and balances for everyone else. But that’s what everyone said. Apart from the developers and their lobby groups, who sat quietly and smugly for fear of revealing their excitement.

The Green Paper released last year was an opportunity for a new Government to step aside from the sycophantic kowtowing to developers, the tawdry partiality and the political favouritism that had been the hallmark of the latter years of the previous Government. One of the O’Farrell Government’s first initiatives in planning, to repeal the infamous Part 3A, was welcomed as a qualitative change - restoring the primary role of local government in establishing planning instruments and managing development within the terms of those local plans, and not having the big jobs ripped from their grasp.

But the Green Paper didn’t deliver on restoring planning control to local government and preserving checks and balances for the community. It pushed the removal of both public consultation and input into individual applications and the need for a re-zoning for a development that didn’t comply with the planning instrument. As you all know, something that doesn’t comply with the planning instrument faces checks and balances to require a Council to consider a rezoning application to allow it. And a rezoning application allows the community to have a say.

But the Green Paper made it abundantly clear that the current system didn’t provide the sort of certainty that developers wanted. As expected, responses to the Green Paper from the community and local government were overwhelmingly antagonistic - and who would have thought otherwise? Everyone has a legitimate interest in what happens where they choose to live. Or to work.

There is nothing wrong with the concept of people wanting to look after their local area. The last refuge of the developer wanting to create something dreadful is sneering “NIMBYism”, and thereby trivialising the legitimacy of having an interest in your own local area, where you choose to live, have families and educate them, and establish a good quality life.

Or a Government intent on giving developers a free kick.

But if there was an expectation that the overwhelming opposition would be reflected when the White Paper hit the deck, then many will be disappointed. The White Paper has merely filled out the detail of how this system will operate and ignored the opposition. The Government has taken the view, wittily characterised in a meeting we had at the Department of Planning about chapter 8, that those disadvantaged by the process can “suck it up, Princess”. Nice.

The Paper seizes upon a selection of practices from around the world which make development easier but exizes, with a surgeon’s precision, the accompanying checks and balances that make sure that the community interest is protected. Let’s take Vancouver, for example.

Leaving aside that Vancouver is a city and not a state, nor a Territory, nor a collection of 152 local government authorities, the examples provided about the Vancouver experience providing certainty for developers don’t mention one important consideration. If you file a development application in Vancouver that doesn’t comply with the local plan, it gets rejected and there is no right of appeal.

Bring on Vancouver, we say. None of this merit assessment that allows fourteen story towers where the planning instrument developed by the consultation process limits development to 9. That’s an example provided in the White Paper. What about a planning instrument that allows for a maximum of three and a developer files an application with the right to merit assessment for six, or nine, or …

The problem with the Government’s strategy is that it’s all well and good to involve the community in developing a planning instrument but if it allows applications to be filed the don’t come within a bull’s roar of compliance with the planning instrument, they can still be “merit assessed” and monstrosity development can proceed. No need for a rezoning application at all. Developer 1 Community 0.

If the Government really wants certainty for everyone, then they will adopt the entirety of the Vancouver model and impose an arrangement where applications that don’t respect the planning instruments get refused and the applicant has no right of appeal. Now, that would be a really worthwhile reform. It would be a reform that improved the job satisfaction of building and planning professionals assessing applications considerably.

There is a dangerous assumption, although pretty realistic based on history, that any time the State feels obliged to do something with local government responsibilities, they make life harder for everyone. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the ICAC killing off the good-old-days of a District person being responsible for everything in the district and knowing exactly what was going on (no missed mandatory inspections then) or a Department of Planning, or Minister for Planning, imposing things that are intended to free things up, or that the introduction of private certifiers would cut the cost of development and housing, when by any impartial measure, or any informed measure, they won’t.

What the State doesn’t understand is that adopting a planning system that requires neighbours to “suck it up, Princess”, doesn’t actually get the neighbours to suck it up. It gets neighbours beating on the doors of the Council and harassing staff.

The proposed 80% of development being complying development both compounds and institutionalises neighbours and the community interests being ignored, and sets up a system which can only fragment neighbourhoods and turn neighbour against neighbour.

More complying development will remove local government involvement from food premises and other critical public health areas as well.

Chapter 8 of the White Paper is all about accreditation. depa representatives attended a workshop at the Department of Planning on practical issues like the imprecision of what the PCA is really responsible for on-site and what should clearly remain as a local government responsibility. And if this is clarified, how does a Council get funded to continue its environmental and neighbourhood protection role.

There is a facility on the Department of Planning site to electronically make a submission and upload a PDF. They claim that all submissions will also be, so you can see what other people have said. We’re going to upload this issue as our submission. That will, at the very least, test their commitment to public access. 

It also makes sense that employees involved in development assessment and control, public and environmental health management have a read and consider a response. We have heard from many members who are involved in the preparation of responses from their Council but you have individual interests as citizens that encourage responses as individuals as well.

There is considerable opposition and hostility out there which can be tapped into easily. The Better Planning Network is a network of hundreds of community resident groups making significant ground against the Government with a credible criticism of the Government’s own toxic model. You can check out their submission here.

Even the odious Alan Jones has described it as a “hoax”. That has to be the kiss of death for governments which regularly prostrate themselves at his feet.

While public consultation is open until submissions close on 28 June we are amused that the Department of Planning’s advertising of the consultation period now includes the words “the conversation will continue”. Clearly a tacit acceptance that the Government has a long way to go to win over the hearts and minds of people who want a say in what gets built next door.

By the way, while the Planning Institute of Australia is largely irrelevant in local government, they will be an important player in this exercise. Primarily a lobby group for planners who work for developers, there are very few local government employees who are members. We hear that they are not as critical of the Government’s plans as we might be and, if you are one of their members in the industry, you should give them a call and tell them what you think.

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