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 By Mick Roberts

With less then two weeks remaining for comment on proposed changes to the NSW planning laws, City of Sydney Council has joined with the Local Government Association calling for an extension to the exhibition period.
NSW Planning Minister Frank Sartor released details on April 3 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Amendment Bill 2008 and the Building Professionals Amendment Bill 2008, which together amount to 170 pages of new legislation.
They are the first legislative step towards the biggest shake-up of the state’s planning system in decades.
Mr Sartor said the legislation outlined major reform initiatives including an independent commission to determine major proposals, tougher penalties for rogue accredited certifiers and new anti-corruption measures.
Local councils ‘ including the City of Sydney ‘ and the Local Government and Shires Association have slammed the changes saying they will take decisions and badly needed funds away from local communities.
A discussion paper titled Improving the NSW Planning System was placed on public exhibition for a 10-week period in late 2007 and early 2008, attracting 538 submissions.
Mr Sartor said many of the key reforms outlined in the discussion paper are in the new legislation, including:
‘ The establishment of a Planning Assessment Commission of independent experts to decide approximately 80 per cent of proposals currently decided by the Minister;
‘ A series of Joint Regional Planning Panels, comprising NSW Government and local council nominees to determine regionally-significant proposals;
‘ Expanding the Building Professionals Board’s powers, enabling it to suspend or revoke a certifier’s accreditation without having to go to the Administrative Decisions Tribunal. ‘ Reducing legal costs throughout the system by introducing arbitrators and other non-lawyer reviews of planning decisions.
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore is highly critical of the two Bills saying they will further exclude communities from having an input into developments which impact on their homes and neighbourhoods.
Mayor Moore said the most dramatic change in the proposed legislation will take many development approvals out of the hands of democratically elected councils and hand them to planning panels or private certifiers.
“I agree that these Bills will dramatically change our planning system for the worse if they become law,’ Cr Moore said.
‘The proposed planning panels introduce several additional layers of bureaucracy to a system already labeled bureaucratic by the community, developers and practitioners.
‘I’m not sure that the introduction of Planning Assessment Commissions, Joint Regional Planning Panels and Planning Arbitrators – handpicked by the Minister – will actually reduce red tape,’ she said.
‘Also, given the many problems we and other councils have already had with private certification I am astounded that the Government is planning to expand their role.’
President of the Local Government Association, Councillor Genia McCaffery said the changes will have implications for NSW communities.
“The Government has a responsibility to extend the exhibition period to allow for proper consultation and consideration,’ Cr McCaffery said.
“Many of the changes will not simplify the system or make it easier for applicants and councils to understand and use.”
The Association will table a formal response to the draft legislation on behalf of local councils and their communities.
Mr Sartor said the changes will for the first time define issues ‘ such as housing affordability ‘ that must be taken into account by councils when developing contribution plans.
He said the Bill contains measures to ensure funds are spent within a reasonable timeframe, and clearly defines the ‘key community infrastructure’ for which levies can be charged.
‘These reforms will allow councils and the NSW Government to provide important infrastructure for new residents, while ensuring infrastructure contributions remain reasonable, and not a backdoor tax on the family home,’ Mr Sartor said.
‘It will also allow the Government to ensure that infrastructure which is paid for by new homebuyers is actually delivered to communities.’
Mr Sartor said following feedback from the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the draft legislation supported an expansion of objector review rights.
As part of the reforms, community members will be able to challenge a new category of development to be known as ‘public interest development’.
‘This category is likely to include certain projects which exceed development controls by more than, say, 25 per cent, and could be expanded over time,’ Mr Sartor said.
The proposal will be in addition to challenging approvals in the Land and Environment Court.
Submissions close on April 24. Further details: www.planning.nsw.gov.au/planning_reforms/