Frank Sartor’s proposed reforms to the NSW Planning system continue to amaze those who have enough time to understand them.

In the over 200 pages of amendments there are many gems to be discovered, most of which amount to a proliferation of new statutory bodies and an expansion of Ministerial power and influence.

The original 1979 Act had around 150 sections. Over the years, regular reform efforts have added over 250 sections. The latest reform will add around another 150 sections, as well as making major amendments to a number of existing provisions.

The original Act divided powers between the Minister, the Council, and the Land and Environment Court. There was also a statutory body called the Commissions of Inquiry that conducted independent inquiries.

The latter body proved to be too independent so it is to be abolished by Sartor’s reform Bill, with its tenure protected Commissioner being sacked by Parliament.

If the Parliament are silly enough to pass the Bill (the Opposition may be brave enough to ignore the instructions of the developer’s lobby, but the key numbers in the Upper House are held by the two members of the Shooters Party (2.5% of the vote), who are awaiting the Minister’s approval for a large noisy gun firing range to be imposed on the outraged burgers of the Southern Highlands), then, in addition to the original Minister, Council and Court, NSW taxpayers and council ratepayers will be paying the fees for Planning Arbitrators, Planning Administrators, Planning Assessment Panels, Joint Regional Planning Panels and the Planning Assessment Commissioners.

The main purpose of this myriad of bodies is to take decisions away from councils and the Court, although the PAC will do some of Minister’s work. His file reading time has increased substantially since the passing of the previous Minister’s reforms, which allowed the Minister to approve “major” developments, even if they did not comply with the planning controls or the provisions of environment or heritage legislation that apply to everyone else’s developments not considered by the Minister to be major.

Except for the minority members of the Joint Regional Planning Panels, which are appointed by councils, the Minister will appoint all the members of these additional statutory bodies. With the proposed Planning Arbitrators, he will need to appoint well over 150 independent up-right experts who will not have conflicts of interest. They will all be part-timers, presumably most earning their living as private consultants always looking for the next job (although developers and ex-politicians also can be appointed). With the exception of the members of the PAC, the Minister for no stated reason can dismiss all those he appointed.

Before deciding to appoint a Planning Administrator, or Planning Assessment Panel, or JRPP, to undertake a council’s planning and assessment role, the Minister is supposed to take certain matters into account — like that the council has been slack or naughty. Fine, except that the reforms propose that the Minister should be protected from legal challenges to his decision. So he could shift powers from councils for weak or wrong reasons and be safe from the Court’s review.

The council powers that can be transferred to these ministerial appointed part-time consultants include the power to re-classify council’s community lands (parks and reserves) to operational land and therefore be sold off. Effectively, this would give some future Planning Minister (surely not the current minister!) the power to appoint mates to a panel who will then proceed to approve another mate’s development, making all the necessary changes to rezonings and density standards and throwing some council parkland in with the bargain.

Welcome to NSW — the efficient and transparent State.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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