Enough is enough – it’s time to cut councillors out of development assessment

We dare you, give us three good reasons why councillors should have anything to do with considering a DA.

The twenty new merged councils have demonstrated how planning and DA assessment should operate. No councillors getting in the way, or failing to declare an interest, or denying they’re a developer, or trying to compromise the professional advice of staff on whether an application does, or doesn’t, comply with the planning instrument.

No Administrator has rejected advice from their assessment staff, Council meetings are short, vested interests don’t get in the way and those twenty councils have been able to restore the integrity of the process where it was needed - like Georges River (with ex Hurstville), Cumberland (with ex Auburn) and Canterbury-Bankstown (with ex Canterbury).

If Administrators can do it, why can’t councillors?

We know why. There have been far too many examples of councils exercising a power, corruptly or otherwise, to reject the advice of the planning staff and in doing so provide massive capital gains and bonuses to developers through improved floor space ratio, or a couple of additional floors. In this article we make no allegations of corruption, but it’s abundantly clear that councillors fiddling in areas they shouldn’t be involved invariably provides bad planning decisions- too big, too bulky, too tall.

We get the idea of local democracy. Councillors are elected to be involved in a consultative way with their communities to develop planning instruments but, given what we know now, that has to be the end of their involvement. It’s the role of staff to ensure that applications processed are consistent with the instruments, or they don’t get approved.

Isn’t it time for the integrity of the planning system to come to grips with the difficult questions - why do councillors have any role at all in planning assessment? Why not keep councillors out of planning assessment? What sense does it make to have a planning instrument developed in consultation with the community and then allow a council to override it?

And the Land and Environment Court has been reluctant to intervene in decisions taken by councils where, even if there is an element of corruption established, some lucky developer has started the job and there is no going back. It’s not good enough.

The public enquiry into Auburn, toothless and without a capacity to require witnesses to answer questions as it was, nevertheless revealed the contemptuous attitude of councillors to the advice of their professional staff. Even those under the thumb and coerced into doing things that shouldn’t be done. Ex-councillor Ned Attie (and former Mayor) made numerous damning and contemptuous admissions about planning reports which, he acknowledged he may not have always read, or he may have “skimmed through” or, famously, “I don’t normally ask for any staff views”.

When there is a planning instrument established, whether it’s resolved by the Council or whether it’s resolved by the State, councillors should never, ever have the power to reject recommendations of staff or to override them. It should all be done by delegation. Imagine that, keeping the elected representatives focused on policy and letting the professional staff get on with ensuring it’s managed properly.

We know that there are merged councils concerned that after the elections on 9 September, one of the first things some councils may do is to look at pulling those delegations back. Remember, many of the scumbags will be back and looking for business as usual.

It must be one of the State’s worst kept secrets that the ICAC has been investigating decisions of the former Canterbury Council which have massively overdeveloped parts of the municipality - decisions which always involved the rejection of staff recommendations in favour of the developer, and never, ever in favour of the community or the neighbours. And certainly not in favour of better planning, amenity or aesthetics.

Towards the end of 2016 it was expected that a public enquiry would be announced in February or March but while we know that ICAC investigations continued, it was not until the Sydney Morning Herald on 15-16 July published on the front page “ICAC takes on Sydney’s biggest Council”, that we saw some real detail of what had been happening.

And what a story. The highly regarded investigative journalist Kate McClymont wrote of a number of decisions of the Council affecting Canterbury Road and Charles Street which saw an unusual alliance of some Liberal and Labor councillors to approve developments which the Council’s planning staff had rejected.

Canterbury-Bankstown Administrator Richard Colley (a former GM of Bankstown) confirmed that ICAC came knocking on his door in June last year. “When I first took up this role it became apparent that there were a number of properties on Canterbury Road and close by that had compromised policies of the previous Canterbury Council.” The Herald quotes Mr Colley as confirming there were a number of developments in “that very important corridor” which had breached Council’s policies “fairly dramatically in terms of bulk, scale and height.”

What is this other than free kicks to developers and a flagrant disregard for planning instruments?

But it doesn’t end there. An ex-councillor, Con Vasiliades watched on (as he often does having declared a big interest in eleven properties) as, after a brief advertising campaign the Council sold some public space they owned in Kingsgrove Road, Belmore, to his father George (a real estate agent) and George (who would have guessed!), now has development approval to build a four story block of flats which exceeds the Council’s height limits. The Herald claimed that both Con and his brother Will are likely Liberal candidates 9 September.

The Herald claimed that another property believed to be investigated by the ICAC is an old hardware store site at 548 Canterbury Road, Campsie. This was bought by a developer in November 2014 for $14 million and sold on to a Queensland developer last month for $52.8 million after the Council approved an extra two floors on top of an existing approval for a six floor, 254-unit complex in another approval that exceeded the Council’s height restrictions.

Enough, is enough.

depa will now prepare a Discussion Paper on the concept of removing any capacity for an elected Council to make any decision about a DA. Unrestrained by current legislative provisions, this will be a real greenfield/blue sky exercise (for want of better clichés) or, in the words of Garry Payne, when he was Director-General of the DLG, “if you came down from Mars and looked at this, you’d wonder how it ever happened”.

The time might be right. The Liberals and Labor are both anxious about any public investigation of the former Canterbury and what may be revealed, but we know neither are really capable of fixing the planning system because they’re all beholden, one way or another, to the development industry.

Maybe this is the time to fix the development assessment process once and for all.

We will look at options after decisions have been made which look suspect and which involve rejecting staff recommendations but ideally, a total prohibition against elected councils considering DA’s, or spot zonings or, maybe other things, is the way to go. Something has to be done to stop the decisions being made.

We want to hear from you. What would you prevent a Council from considering?

And as a motivator, here are six good reasons why something has to be done.

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