A new planning system for NSW – power to the people as promised?

A key election promise of the O’Farrell Government was to return planning power to local communities. Two years later, the process to overhaul NSW planning laws is well underway and is attracting both praise and criticism from various interest groups.

The Government says that the reforms will make the system more simple, user-friendly, and better suited to the needs of the community and industry. The Green Paper states that the reforms:

“will move us from an overly regulated and prescriptive system to a simpler, strategic and more flexible performance based system. The new planning system will be based on transparency in process and decision making. The new planning system will deliver sustainable outcomes and improve people’s quality of life”.

Certainly, reform is long overdue. The Act is 34 years old and the system it established is widely agreed to be too complex, mired in red tape and delays, and deficient in its treatment of strategic development issues such as environmental conservation and protection of agricultural lands. There is also a sense that the community has lost faith in the planning process given the failings of previous NSW governments.

There are four fundamental reforms proposed:

  1. Greater community participation and engagement in planning at the strategic stages, including through the use of Public Participation Charters and greater procedural transparency. Communities will be engaged at an early stage to set overall planning outcomes for an area, agreeing in advance on matters such as building types, heights and densities for a whole area. Once such agreements are reached, they would not be varied and developers will be able to proceed without the risk of individual residents delaying them.
  2. A shift to evidence based strategic planning.
  3. A more streamlined approval process, which removes duplicate layers of assessment, speeds up decisions, increases transparency, and depoliticises decision making. Development decisions will be made by independent experts rather than councils, and state significant assessments will be streamlined to deliver major projects sooner.
  4. There will be “genuine integration” of planning for infrastructure with the strategic planning of land use so that infrastructure that supports growth is funded and delivered.

Most criticism of the reforms focuses on community participation. Community groups say that, which they want more community participation, they fear that it will be hard to get genuine resident engagement at the initial stage and this will reduce the value of community agreements.

The process so far:

  • July 2011: independent review of NSW planning system led by two former NSW government ministers, the Hon Tim Moore and the Hon Ron Dyer.
  • December 2011: review panel releases an issues paper for public comment.
  • July 2012: Government releases a Green Paper proposing major changes in key areas of the planning system. The Green Paper attracts more than 1200 submissions during its two month exhibition period.
  • December 2012: Government releases its summary of feedback received on the Green Paper.

The next phase will be the release of the Government’s White Paper, which will provide much more detail on how the new system will be implemented.

Find out more:

Here is a link to the NSW Government’s Planning Reform website: http://www.planning.nsw.gov.au/a-new-planning-system-for-nsw

Here is a link to the website of the Better Planning Network, formed in August 2012 by community groups concerned about the planning review and some of the reforms proposed in the Green Paper: http://betterplanningnetwork.good.do/. The BPN says that it has 310 affiliated community groups.

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