Leichhardt councillors will no longer have authority over any planning decisions, under a radical overhaul of the council’s development application process.
Rather than councillors deciding on applications at Building and Development meetings, an expert-led Independent Hearing and Assessment Panel (IHAP) will be set up, following a vote at an extraordinary council meeting on May 6.
“The ongoing corruption saga in NSW politics and the revelations at ICAC have shown that there needs to be stronger anti-corruption measures put in place at both local and state government levels,” said Leichhardt mayor Darcy Byrne.
Cr Byrne put forward the motion with his Labor colleague Simon Emsley.
“The only way you can guarantee that politicians are not being inappropriately pressured either by developers or by objectors is to take the politicians out of the process,” Cr Byrne said.
He emphasised that while individual applications will be decided by the IHAP, councillors will retain control over planning rules to “remove the possibility of them being inappropriately lobbied”.
Under the current system, development applications (DAs) are assessed by council officers. If two or more councillors request it to be taken out of officers’ hands, or if there are eight or more objections made, the DA will go before council.
The new system will work the same way, except that applications will go to the IHAP instead of councillors.
Liberal councillors voted for the motion with their Labor colleagues.
“Some of the councillors lack the skills and ability [to decide on DAs]. This is not [particular to] Leichhardt, it’s across the board in many other councils,” Liberal councillor John Jobling said.
“It will also reduce the number of appeals that will go to the Land and Environment Court, which are poisonously expensive.”
The arguments for an IHAP were strongly rejected by Greens councillors, who voted against the motion on the basis that it takes power away from elected representatives.
“One of the reasons we were elected is because there’s a trust that we will ably and properly represent our local communities, particularly in planning decisions,” Greens councillor Rochelle Porteous said.
Under the IHAP charter adopted on May 6, applications will be decided on by a mix of experts in law, architecture, urban design, and environmental and social planning, as well as community representatives.
While put forward as an anti-corruption measure, Cr Porteous believes it has the potential to engender unscrupulousness.
“The code of conduct that councillors work on is stronger than the code of conduct that has been proposed for members of the planning panel,” she said.
“We have more checks and balances currently … than you would have with the new planning proposal.”
NSW Greens MP for Balmain Jamie Parker is also strongly opposed to the IHAP proposal for the same reason he argues against Joint Regional Planning Panels (JRPPs) at a state level.
“What it does is take power away from the community and their representatives, and hands it over to unelected, unaccountable, non-local people, who don’t understand the issues of the area,” Mr Parker said.
“It’s ridiculous to suggest that it’s an anti-corruption measure. It’s actually an anti-community measure.”
But Cr Byrne criticised the position held by the Greens, arguing that it is more important than ever to take power away from politicians.
“Given the ongoing corruption saga we’ve seen in NSW, I think it’s strange if politicians … fight to make sure they personally get to vote on individual DAs,” he said.
IHAP meetings would be held during the day, which runs the risk of excluding members of the community who work during office hours from serving on or speaking before the panel.
The IHAP will be trialled for one year starting in September.