MEGA MERGE: In NSW Planning will be merged with the Office of Environment and Heritage and the Division of Local Government.

MEGA MERGE: In NSW Planning will be merged with the Office of Environment and Heritage and the Division of Local Government. Should we be worried?

 from James Ryan

Last week, following the shock resignation of Barry O’Farrell as Premier of NSW, we have been informed of a complete reshuffle of the NSW Cabinet AND a re-organisation of Departments.

Sam Haddad, a change of Government survivor, has been re-structured out of a job.

The current Department of Planning is to become a super department called the Department of Planning and Environment headed by a Secretary (as opposed to a Director General) and answering to three Ministers, i.e. the Ministers of Planning, Environment and Local Government[1].

Should we be concerned? Won’t this make for more efficient Government in NSW?

The answers are yes we should be concerned, and no, faster decisions are not necessarily more efficient decisions.

When it comes to planning in NSW the ‘State Agencies’ (Roads and Maritime Services, Dept. Transport, Health, Minerals and Energy, Office of Water, Environment and Heritage, Agriculture, Education etc) play a big role informally and formally.  Informally they attend ‘Planning Focus’ meetings via which each Department (or Agency) puts forward its views on the issues to be examined prior to the project proceeding to the formal assessment stage. Formally each agency will make a submission during the exhibition stage.

The danger posed by combining The Departments of Environment and Planning is that the robust advice given by Office of Environment staff regarding large developments may be even less likely to see the light of day than it is now.

Typically a large urban development will receive written submissions from the Departments of Education and Health regarding the future provision of schools, playing fields and hospitals; the Roads and Maritime Services will stipulate what roads are required; the Office of Environment and Heritage will advise on issues of threatened species conservation etc.

For a mining proposal we could expect the Department of Agriculture to make a submission regarding the impact of the loss of agricultural land; the Office of Water to do likewise regarding impacts on water quality etc.

My ‘pinup’ example of independent advice being given which did not fit the Department of Planning’s objectives can be seen in the October 2012 Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) approval of the Ashton South East Open Cut Coal Project at Camberwell in the Hunter Valley.

The Camberwell mine approval is for 16.5 million tonnes of coal over 7 years from an open cut site of 315ha adjacent to Glennies Creek.

The NSW Office of Water (NOW) made a formal submission on the coal mining project in 2011 saying that the environmental risks to the alluvial aquifers were such that the project could not be supported.

The Planning Assessment Commission refused the mine. However in 2012 they were asked to reconsider the mine again. This time senior NOW officials had overruled the objections of the scientific staff and the mine was approved.  Even the conservative PAC noted in their determination that the complete reversal of opposition to the project by the NOW was a vexed issue. They noted the unusual manner in which NOW has changed its position[2].

The first point here is not that independent advice ‘won the day’ (it clearly didn’t), it is the lengths the Department of Planning had to go to overcome the independent advice.  If the NOW had been a component of the Department of Planning we would never have seen the independent advice regarding the potential damage to acquifers and water quality in the Hunter Valley.

The second point to be taken from the 2012 approval of ‘Camberwell’  by the PAC is that the Department of Planning is not a neutral nor objective planning agency, it is very much an agency whose purpose is to facilitate development. The PAC approval of the Ashton South East Open Cut at Camberwell is only a single example of how the Department of Planning ignores, undermines and undervalues the independent advice of our State Government Agencies.

The best advice comes from independent sources which have no fear of retribution. We should be very concerned by any proposal to bring any State Agency (including the Office of Environment and Heritage)  under the control of the Department of Planning.

We need the new Ministers of Planning, Ms Goward and Mr Stokes, to deliver a shift in focus and culture within the Department of Planning. The Department should not see itself as a development agency, rather it should be the facilitator of, expert advice provided by other agencies, and the wishes of the people of NSW expressed through their submissions on development proposals.

The Department’s role and purpose needs to reflect it’s name, i.e. planning.

 

[1] SMH, Department boss sacked in Goward’s planning shake-up, Leesha McKenny,  23 April 2014

[2] PAC determination, Ashton South East Open Cut Coal Project, October 2012, p.6

 

 

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