“Like a dog returning to its vomit…”

Greens member of the Legislative Council David Shoebridge summarised the decades of messy planning law considerations by the NSW Government in the second reading speech for the Environmental Planning and Assessment and Electoral Legislation Amendment (Planning Panels and Enforcement) Bill 2017, on 9 August:

This Parliament is like a dog returning to its vomit when it comes to planning laws; it just keeps going back and looking at the same ugly mess that previous governments have made.

Hard to argue with that. And for those of you who think it a little unseemly to be publishing a quote about dogs’ vomit, and because we take our responsibilities seriously to educate people in depaNews as well as entertain, inform and prepare you for Trivia nights, the full quote comes from the Christian Bible - Proverbs chapter 26 verse 11, to be precise. While older versions of the book regard the dog and the fool as male, the modern versions make it less gender specific:

As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.

Here is a link to David Shoebridge’s speech. It’s a great speech.

While the Government’s legislation went through both Houses unamended, the critical issue is going to be how these IHAPS work and how the Minister for Planning, who will be responsible for managing the membership of the Panels, will do that in a way which provides true independence.

In the Media Release issued on 8 August the two Ministers reveal an anxiety about a conflict of interest for the “council or developer” driving this proposal but there seems little concern for managing “independent” members of IHAPs to ensure that they don’t have a conflict of interest either. It will be difficult for members of IHAPs, consultant planners, architects, heritage experts or whatever to not be keeping a wary eye out for future client needs as these DAs roll across their desks.

But we have a suggestion to make. depa is well placed, drawing upon the expertise of planning staff across councils in NSW, to be able to assist the Minister for Planning in making these decisions. We would happily participate in consultation with the Minister, feeding in any information we may have from our members about proposed members of Panels, their connections to developers, any slavish servitude to the Property Council, previous whiffy clients, or whatever. We should have a right of veto, just like members of the Security Council at the UN do.

We’ll put this proposal to the Minister and see what he thinks.

The community must be confident about the independence of these experts making decisions. While our proposal for council staff making the decisions is built on the assumption that Council employees don’t have a vested interest in whether development proceeds or not, just whether it complies with the planning instrument, we need the same assurance for these independent panels.

It’s a reasonable concern that on a four person panel, if there are to be three “independent expert members”, that they are really independent experts. A fourth member is intended to be a local representative within the LGA “to provide local perspective,” whatever that is. The reality is that the local perspective is provided by the planning instrument. At least councillors are prohibited from sitting, the Government clearly having a concluded view about the value of elected representatives providing a local perspective

The two ministers announced that IHAPs members “will have to be expert in one or more of the following fields: planning, architecture, heritage, the environment, urban design, economics, traffic and transport, law, engineering, tourism, or government and public administration.” At least membership of the Property Council or the Urban Design Institute is not a pre-requisite, so it could be worse. They could probably scratch out economics and tourism from that list – a bit too close to the market and a step away from understanding planning instruments.

But Councils already have employees considering and assessing DAs with those skills, experience and background. The Government has the numbers, the rollout will proceed but we will be keeping an eye on who the Minister endorses as members of Panels and keeping a record of how they deal with staff recommendations. Let’s see if they’re any better.

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