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Corruption concerns over NSW’s mandatory planning panel push

Property lobby groups are overjoyed by the NSW government’s announcement it will install mandatory planning panels to approve development applications, but the local government sector and opposition parties say there are probity and accountability issues.

Legislation being introduced to parliament this week will see DAs of values between $5 million to $30 million referred to expert-led independent hearing and assessment panels (IHAPs). The panels could even judge approval of DAs worth less than $5 million if there are 10 or more objections lodged, or if there is a voluntary planning agreement attached.

Currently IHAPs are voluntary, with 15 metropolitan councils and Wollongong using them. The legislation will make them a mandatory feature for local councils across Sydney and in Wollongong. The government says their mandatory use will reduce perceived conflicts of interest and increase community confidence.

“It is essential the government has a transparent and accountable process in place when assessing DAs of significant value, when there is a conflict of interest for the council or developer, or when they are of a sensitive nature,” NSW planning minister Anthony Roberts said.

“By making IHAPs mandatory, local councils will be able to focus on providing community services, strategic plans and development controls for their local area.”

Independent in name only

However, Greens senator David Shoebridge told The Fifth Estate the panels would be independent in name only.

“We’re going to lose any kind of democratic say on development applications across Sydney,” he said.

“Instead, DA approval will be granted by panels owned by the property industry.”

The panels will feature an “independent” chair; two experts in areas like urban design, planning and architecture; and a community representative.

The chair will be appointed by the planning minister. The expert members will be chosen by councils, though from a pool of experts pre-approved by the minister. Finally, councils will choose a community representative that cannot be an elected councillor.

Mr Shoebridge said former Liberal politicians and property industry representatives could populate the panels, and one just needed to look at the “hacks” appointed as administrators of amalgamated councils to get a taste of what was to come.

It’s a concern shared by peak body Local Government NSW, who said the move would work to “reduce the accountability and transparency of planning decisions”.

LGNSW president Keith Rhoades said the chair had to be someone who had worked in law or government.

“This could conceivably include a former member of the government of the day – hardly the transparent, independent and conflict-free expert promoted in the government’s … announcement.”

People prefer experts, Property Council says

The Property Council welcomed the move, which came little over a week after it released research finding that 81 per cent of people it surveyed agreed that planning decisions for developments worth more than $10 million should be made by experts, rather than those on council.

“The announcement today is good news for both the community and for industry because it means the politics will be taken out of planning – experts will make the decisions on development, not local politicians,” Property Council of Australia NSW deputy executive director Cheryl Thomas said.

“It is good to see that the government has listened to the community and supports what is a common-sense approach to planning – councils should set the rules and strategic objectives for their communities and then let experts make the decisions about whether developments comply.”

Mr Shoebridge said the government was sidelining rather than listening to the community, labelling the Property Council as NSW’s “shadow government”.

“This has been a forthright recommendation from the Property Council for at least four years,” he said.

He said the real problem the government was trying to resolve was local councils that were responding to local concerns regarding inappropriate development.

“The panels have no accountability [to local constituents] whatsoever. They won’t care what they think. It’s blatantly undemocratic.”

Probity concerns and centralising power

There are also concerns that the legislation will concentrate power in the planning minister’s hands, who will be responsible for approving three out of four IHAP members.

“What is supremely frustrating is that it’s being put forward as an anti-corruption panel,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“This is not taking power away from politicians. It’s centralising it.”

He said concentrating power in a planning minister’s hands in NSW had historically only worked to concentrate corruption.

“Nobody seriously believes that state politicians are more corruption proof than local councillors.”

Banning real estate agents and developers

The move is being seen as a way to quash the opposition Labor Party’s attempts to have real estate agents and developers banned from standing for council in order to stem corruption, a view expressed in Waverley councillor John Wakefield’s recent opinion piece in The Fifth Estate.

“Legislating to ban real estate agents and developers from becoming councillors, capping the amount of money that can be spent by candidates for local council election, and ensuring that reliable and transparent registries of donations are maintained for councillors will help re-build public trust in local councils,” he said.

Mr Shoebridge agrees.

“The answer [to corruption concerns] is prohibiting real estate agents and developers from standing,” he said.

“This [legislation] is the Liberal government’s way of continuing to have scores of property developers stand for local council. Right now the Liberal Party in Sydney are preselecting real estate agents and developers to stand for council.”

Mr Wakefield told The Fifth Estate Waverley Council already had an IHAP, though said there were problems.

“I oppose the change because I believe it disempowers residents and gives the applicant/developer an unfair advantage,” he said.

“The issue that some of the professionals who sit on our panel also work or have done work or might do work for an applicant is of concern. This is as problematic and potentially lending itself to probity issues as any that have been levelled at councillors’ involvement in development assessment.”

Mr Rhoades said the cost impost would also be large, considering that 97 per cent of DAs were currently approved by professional planning staff under delegation.

“The Department of Planning and Environment estimates each panel will cost $100,000 per annum – another expense for councils and applicants.”

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