By Joe Bourke
The Development Approval (DA) system in Leichhardt is set to be revolutionised with the replacement of councilors by a Development Application Planning Panel from January next year.
On Tuesday, October 28 the decision was made that a panel of independent planners will make decisions on development applications (DA’s) which would otherwise have been referred to councilors.
The planning panel, also known as an Independent Hearing Assessment Panel (IHAP) has been in consideration by Leichhardt council since a report was tabled in November last year.
The panel will be chaired by the Hon. David Lloyd QC and the Hon R.N. (Angus) Talbot, both of whom have had extensive experience as judges in the Land and Environment Court.
The remainder of the positions will be comprised of seven professional experts and two community representatives.
Darcy Byrne, Leichhardt Councillor and the former Mayor, said that there were many factors discussed when choosing the panel.
“The primary requirements were that people had to have high level planning qualifications and familiarity with our local community, and two local community representatives,” he said.
“It’s unquestionably a huge improvement to have people who have enormous expertise and experience in the planning field determining development applications rather than amateur politicians, which is what councilors are.”
The implementation of the panel has had opposition though, in the form of the Greens party, led by current Mayor Rochelle Porteous.
“I am opposed to Planning Panels because they take away planning control from the local community. The community elects Councilors because they have local knowledge and a commitment to represent the views of their community in local planning decisions,” she said.
“Local Councilors are also accountable back to their communities for the decisions they make and all decisions need to be made in an open and transparent manner.”
“Labor and Liberal Councilors, in voting together to remove control of local planning from the local council, have shown their hand – they do not want to keep local planning controls within the community.”
Mr Byrne said that from his experience within the community, this is something the public wants.
“I can understand why politicians such as the mayor would be reluctant to give up their powerful position in being able to say yes or no to each local resident’s planning application, but I think local residents recognise that a reform like this that is supported by ICAC (the Independent Commission Against Corruption) has the potential to greatly improve the experience of local residents when they’re submitting a development application,” he said.
The new system also aims to improve the time it takes to approve DA’s.
Leichhardt resident Ed Politt supports the panel and said that the local council needs to engage in swifter action with regards to these matters.
“I think an independent panel is a good idea because I find the council to be quite passive in terms of getting things done. If this panel could improve efficiency it would be in everyone’s best interest,” Mr. Politt said.
Councillor Byrne said that the planning panel was as important as ever in the current context, as it ensures transparency within the local government.
“ICAC is strongly for independent planning panels such as the one which we’ve just instituted. I think it’s very strange that the Greens party and Mayor Porteous are not in support of a key anti corruption recommendation from ICAC,” Cr Byrne said.
Mayor Porteous said that the anti corruption ‘agenda’ is simply a way of discrediting opposition to the panel.
“The assertions of political interference are empty mud-slinging to seek to justify this agenda of Labor and the Liberals to lock the local community out of local planning decisions,” Cr Porteous said.
Although Mayor Porteous did vote to accept the recommendations of the staff with regards to their choice of planning panel members and its deferral to January, she said that this was a betrayal by the elected members.
Cr Porteous also said that she saw no need for such an upheaval, as she said that Leichhardt in fact performs well in this area.
“Leichhardt Council has one of the highest number of development applications in the state and when compared with other councils with similar numbers Leichhardt performs very well – In fact it performs better than a number of councils which have introduced planning panels,” she said.
Cr Byrne said that Leichhardt council’s record of assessment of development applications was “atrocious”, but that the historic reform would hopefully have a knock on effect and potentially save ratepayer’s money.
“The councilors will now have more time and energy to focus on changing the planning controls to further protect local amenities,” Cr Byrne said.
“So rather than micromanaging development applications and in many cases costing local Mums and Dads tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, a councilor who decides that they don’t think that the current reforms are in the interests of the community will be able to focus on actually changing the law.”
The Planning Panel will be implemented for a 12 month trial beginning in January 2015.