NSW Premier Morris Iemma is facing war on two fronts – the labour and trade union movement is rallying against his plans to privatise the power industry while councils are drawing up battle plans to oppose sweeping changes to planning laws.

The town hall revolt has serious implications for the Labor Party because local government elections in September are threatening to become a referendum on the wildly unpopular Planning Minister, Frank Sartor, the former lord mayor of Sydney.

On 27 November last year, with the result of the federal election dominating the media, Sartor issued a document called “Improving the NSW planning system” and called for a public discussion on its 90 recommendations for change.

Today (8 February) is the deadline for submissions. What annoyed councillors, planners and community groups was that the discussion period coincided with Christmas and New Year when council meetings aren’t usually held and school holidays when many stakeholders are away. They suspected the timing was deliberate and the NSW Local Government and Shires Association asked for an extension. Naturally, it was refused and Sartor will present his legislation in the next few weeks and try to have it railroaded through parliament by mid-year.

While the state’s rich and influential developers will be cheering the new planning regime, the LGSA has deep misgivings.

“The package of proposed reforms will not reduce ‘red tape’ but rather increase the amount of regulation and regulatory bodies,” the association said.

“This not only adds to the complexity of the planning process but it is also costly for councils and confusing for applicants.”

Among the new instruments proposed by Sartor to streamline the planning process are joint regional planning panels, predictably to be known as JRPPs, and independent hearing and assessment panels, IHAPs. There will also be a stable of planning arbitrators, handpicked by Sartor, to settle disputes over developments worth less than $1 million and greater use of private certifiers to replace local planning officers in granting approval to home renovations, extensions, swimming pools, garages etc.

The whole purpose is to reduce the role of councils which have been demonized by artful and sustained leaks to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and to gullible hacks on local newspapers. But Sartor’s most controversial change involves developer levies, known as Section 94 contributions. Under his new arrangements, the levies won’t go to local councils for important community projects such as parks, sports grounds, swimming pools, libraries and cultural venues, but to the coffers of the NSW Treasury.

Developers have complained long and loud that the levies are too high and they resent giving money to councils which then use it to finance schemes which they regard as “useless” or “a waste of money”.

The levy grab — it amounts to about $500 million a year — is being driven by Treasurer Michael Costa who has an obsession with snaffling any spare cash that is on the table. He and Sartor appear to have a feverish objection to councils, especially non-Labor ones, having discretionary spending power over these community service funds.

Amazingly, Sartor’s draconian changes to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 have not yet been approved by Cabinet, nor have they been debated by the ALP Caucus.

With Labor-controlled councils urging local MPs to oppose the legislation – or face hostile council campaigning at the next state election – the controversy over Sartor’s proposed legislation is not over yet. What will remain intact – the Bill or the Minister?

Peter Fray

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