Planning joke needs killer punchline
Great opinion piece from Elizabeth Farrelly in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.
Barry O’Farrell should insist his planning Minister go back to the drawing board and re-writ the Act based on the recommendations of the Tim Moore and Ron Dyer Report. A bi-partisan report that his own government commissioned!
Planning joke needs killer punchline
It is time to kill the planning culture of local government. We have motive – Sutherland Shire’s latest rezoning shenanigans. And we have opportunity – next week’s Local Government NSW conference, together with the new planning legislation. This is a murder we need. But will it happen?
Former Sutherland Shire mayor Kent Johns, who resigned this week, should be given an extra entertainment allowance. Not for his entertainment, for ours.
He has left no stone unturned in his efforts to make the shire the latest, exemplary episode in the long-running series of comic buffoonery that is NSW local government.
The mayor took planning advice from failed Kiama developer, former bankrupt and Liberal Party colleague Matt Daniel. Daniel, now deputy general manager to the Liberal-controlled Liverpool Council, also advised shire developers to contribute to the party or support Johns’ (now similarly failed) federal election campaign for Werriwa.
As if all that weren’t sufficiently hilarious, Johns also penned several significant changes to the proposed Local Environmental Plan, delivering windfall gains to at least two of his Liberal council colleagues. Then, far from attempting to cloak this skulduggery, Johns called a special meeting of council and tabled his dodgy amendments not within the normal business papers, but as a stand-alone mayoral minute.
The mayoral minute is an innocent device meant to inform councillors of, well, mayoral minutiae; junkets, parties and other bric-a-brac. Johns’ minute, that evening of July 29, shook the world – or at least the shire.
Adding piquancy to the occasion was that the only other agenda item that evening was a pointed reminder to shire councillors of their responsibilities to disclose pecuniary interest.
The whole ugly nest has now been referred to the ICAC and, with links to various ministers and tycoons, may yet prove as gripping as the ALP’s recent unravelling. But such behaviour, however shocking, is scarcely new.
Local government in NSW is its own worst enemy. The more councils behave like Sutherland Shire, the more they dance into the state’s gleeful hands. Pretending to disallow developer donations, while using planning as a market for the exchange of favours, makes local government look every bit as dodgy as the state could wish to paint it.
For the state has always wanted local government to fail, and set it up with that in mind.
But it’s not even that simple. For Local Environmental Plans, like the one Johns was attempting to amend, are drafted by council but approved by the minister. Clearly Johns expected the windfall LEP amendments to sail right through.
With the system desperately dysfunctional, two things offer hope. Next week’s inaugural conference and elections of the local government peak body, Local Government NSW, combined with new draft planning legislation, should deliver a cleaned-out and working system. Sadly, few signs point this way.
The core issue is self-interest. We are, all of us, at our worst when fighting our own corner, and at our best when rising above self-interest to pursue bigger causes. Not only does the big picture make us think more abstractly and altruistically, it also – the experts all agree – makes us happier.
Yet local government in NSW has always been a culture of complaint; developers and residents alike. This is understandable. Councils are like plumbing. You only remember they’re there when something goes wrong – with your bin, your rates bill or the shopping centre someone wants to shove next to your baby’s bedroom. Developers remember they’re there when another shopping centre starts to look like a must-have present.
The minister’s key shift in the new planning legislation is to remove opportunities for ad hoc complaints, and focus all public participation in the front, strategic end of the planning process; the rule creation, or plan making.
This, although it has become a focus for immense community angst, should be a good thing, encouraging all of us to rise above our small, mean selves and act more nobly. ”Code assessable” development, or ”as-of-right” development, should increase speed and certainty for developers and so promote compliance.
The trouble is, two things mean it won’t work this way. One is that there is no sign of any government thought being given to the very difficult question of how to choreograph upfront public consultation in a meaningful and significant way, enabling citizens to grasp the significance of these relatively abstract decisions.
And two, while the new law precludes ad hoc involvement by citizens, it offers developers a direct complaint route to the minister. This is precisely the same ”press here for corrupt influence” button established by Part 3A (against which Barry O’Farrell railed so loud and long).
Bodies like the Better Planning Network and the Community Councillors Network are right to be concerned. They’re also right to be suspicious of the minister’s supposed compromise – welcomed by LGNSW incumbent Keith Rhoades as a ”big win” – of applying code-assessable development only in ”high-growth” areas, and exempting low-density suburbs like
Ku-ring-gai. This is a backwards step as it reduces impartiality instead of increasing it.
Of the eight presidential candidates for LGNSW next week, few have anything insightful to say about planning, except that it is clearly the red-hot issue. City of Sydney councillor (and the Prime Minister’s sister) Christine Forster would likely be an antidote to the old red-faced, long-lunch, favour-swapping local government culture. But Forster’s promise to work closely with state and federal government may be one too many Lib-on-Lib connections.
Ashfield councillor Monica Wangmann understands more about the issue than most. If she wins, the struggle must be to elevate the conversation, out of the developer trough, out of local-state jurisdictional wars, out of complaints-culture and commedia dell’arte buffoonery and into the big question of what sort of city we, as citizens, want.
This is nothing short of death and rebirth: a job for a Lady Macbeth. Who will commit the murder we have to have?