New planning laws reduce community rights

On 9 January 2017, the NSW Minister for Planning released a package outlining proposals to update the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act (EP&A Act). These changes have general support from the property and development industry but strong concerns from local councils and community organisations.  

The biggest concern is that the proposed changes to the legislation are likely to set up a planning system that further erodes the role of councils and elected representatives in local planning decisions and diminishes the rights of the community to have a say on the local developments that affect them most. 

The election promises State Liberals and our local MPs made to us prior to being elected have clearly been broken.                                                                                       

Some key initial observations, with input from the Local Government Association, are:

  • The proposed Local Planning Panels (which will comprise two experts and a community representative) have concerning aspects. Most significantly, it appears elected representatives have been purposely excluded from acting as community representatives on these panels. We are  concerned that the Planning Minister will be able to impose panels on councils and there are no clear criteria on how to replace councillors with a panel, or the basis for this decision. Clarification is needed to prevent arbitrary decisions and political interference. On the positive side, the NSW Government does not propose to mandate local planning panels.
  • There are two key changes to local plan making powers – requirements for community participation plans and local strategic planning statements. Most councils already have community participation plans (the requirements for which can also be met by community strategic plans). The requirement to obtain signoff for local strategic planning statements (from the Department of Planning and Environment or the Greater Sydney Commission) reinforces an already top-down plan-making process. This proposal essentially negates any council or community engagement in these plans. The proposed system is too directive and doesn’t give councils adequate opportunity to incorporate local knowledge and expertise in plan-making, eroding the characteristics and amenity of local communities.
  • The proposed expansion of Complying Development to include medium-density housing is problematic as it effectively gives the green light for ‘tick-a-box’ development without consultation. We note the Minister has proposed improvements to some existing complying development arrangements. These Complying Developments would include rows of townhouses and two storey flats within residential areas.
  • The proposal to standardise the process of voluntary planning agreements (VPAs) is one the community will need to look at closely. It is important councils retain the power and flexibility to negotiate these in ways that are of genuine benefit to communities. The point of VPAs is that they provide a means of delivering local infrastructure and amenity required by law. The law needs to remain neutral and fair so councils can negotiate outcomes that improve and maintain livability in communities undergoing densification.

Overall the proposed changes will allow NSW Planning to dictate plans to local councils, including changes in zones and density. Local communities and their councils can be disregarded in favour of Government appointed panels. It is a removal of our rights as residents in the communities we have chosen to live, and more importantly, another removal of local democracy by this Liberal Government.

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