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REACTION TO "PLANFIRST"

The Department of Urban Affairs and Planning (DUAP) has issued a white paper termed "PlanFirst – Review of Plan Making in New South Wales". This proposes to radically change the plan making provisions of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. The proposed legislation is going to have a profound influence on all of us. We all are painfully aware of what the previous DUAP plans SEPP5 and SEPP53 are doing to Sydney. The proposals provide a new mechanism by which regulations with such devastating consequences can be forced upon us.

We have attempted to analyse PlanFirst with a view to marshalling our members to request changes that will lessen some of its more ominous provisions. The reason members join SOSS is to prevent overdevelopment being forced on us by government.

This is your best-yet opportunity to make a personal statement. And the number of submissions is vitally important.

A superficial reading of the document gives a favourable impression. The proposals have some good features such as the establishment of a single electronically available database that will contain all state policies, regional strategies and local plans. This should enable planning information relating to a specific site to be available from one source which will result in greater efficiency and certainty.

However, PlanFirst lacks sufficient detail to enable one to visualise what the end result will be. It could be used for good or bad purposes. Unfortunately, based on our experience of what DUAP has done in the past – dictatorially forcing detrimental policies onto communities for which they brazenly fail to provide any reasonable justification – we have good reason to fear the latter.

PLANFIRST ENVISAGES THREE LEVELS OF PLANS:

  1. State plans will replace State planning policies (such as SEPP5 and SEPP53 which have been forcing so much unwanted inappropriate development onto Sydney communities) into a single comprehensive strategy document.
  2. Regions which amalgamate council areas will be set up to prepare Regional Plans. Each will encompass some 10 to 25 Council areas and will include councils with little in common. The Minister of Urban Affairs and Planning will nominate some 20 people to constitute "Regional Forums", the decision making bodies for regions and there will thus be no directly elected representatives. These representatives are expected to be chosen from state agencies, social, business, indigenous and environmental organisations – and of course, developers. They will be accountable to no-one but DUAP.
  3. Local plans for localities within council areas (such as precincts or suburbs) will be produced by Councils. These will cover everything that affects the way in which each piece of land in the municipality can be used. These plans will have to conform to the Regional and State Plans. For example it could be that a Regional Plan would specify that a certain percentage of medium density will have to be allowed for in each locality. Locality plans will incorporate local environment plans (LEPs) and development control plans (DCPs). They will replace the zoning powers currently held by councils, such as the ability to zone areas as "single residential" which permits only one dwelling per block and not multi-density. Zoning is currently not appealable and therefore is a strong mechanism for ensuring that the community’s wishes on land use are followed. Council zoning powers should be retained.

State, Regional and local plans can be amended by the Minister.

Thus whilst there appears to be provision for democratic representation & involvement of the community at the local level, this is certainly not the case at regional level where it counts. With the PlanFirst proposal, the Government of the day will have full control of planning activities throughout all regions of the state. PlanFirst promotes the notion of involving the community but contains this to the locality level which DUAP or the Minister can override at a regional level and state level. If there is any serious intention to involve the community in plan making, then there must be a more transparent & democratic representation at regional level.

SOSS’s CONCERNS ARE THE FOLLOWING:

  1. The proposals which allow the rulemaking are not sufficiently specific to enable the community or our elected representatives to foresee how they will be applied. The bureaucrats, under whose bullying dictatorial tactics Sydneysiders have suffered so much in the past, therefore will be given carte blanche to make subsequent rules under the legislation.
  2. The State and Regional Plans are produced by bureaucrats, or persons appointed by bureaucrats and not by elected representatives.
  3. Regional Forums, consisting of people appointed by the Minister will be making rules that in the past have been made by the elected representatives of Councils. These Regional Forums are likely, over time, to take power away from Councils. An example is the ability to zone broad areas as Single Residential. Under the proposals Councils will lose this power.
  4. It is unlikely that 20 members of a Regional forum from diverse background could come to timely, accountable and reasonable decisions. Also, someone representing a minority view relating to a council area within a Region could be outnumbered on an important policy matter relating only to that area.
  5. The Minister has a veto power on plans.
  6. The State Plans and Regional Forums will make rules that will inter-relate to other government agencies such as those dealing with economics or the Environmental Protection Authority or Parks and Wildlife. This will result in more power and influence being grabbed by the bullying officials in DUAP.

SOSS SUGGESTS THAT THE PROPOSALS BE CHANGED TO CATER FOR THESE CONCERNS:

  1. The legislation must be made more specific and leave the bureaucrats less room to manoeuvre.
  2. The legislation should provide that all State and Regional rules and regulations made under the proposals be tabled before Parliament after being gazetted. They will then be subject to disallowance by Parliament. This will provide some opportunity for the community to alert their elected representatives to any undesirable features of proposals and an opportunity for the elected representatives to react accordingly.
  3. The boundaries and the powers of Regional Forums should be restricted to matters that only relate to genuine regional issues. These matters are in the main environmental such as river catchment management or regional parks. Matters relating to housing types should be dealt with by Councils. Councils should continue to be allowed to specify zones. Matters relating to arterial roads or railways should be dealt with by the State plans. Matters relating to Sydney Harbour should be dealt with by the Harbour Authority.
  4. The appointment of members of Regional Forums should be made more democratic. For example, the members could be selected from people nominated by Councils or other significant organisations on a rotational basis with a clearly defined period of office.
  5. A process should be instituted which allows appeals against decisions by the Minister.

SOSS Sent the following letter to NSW Shires and Councils on 14 July 2001

AMENDMENTS TO THE ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING AND ASSESSMENT ACT 1979

REVIEW OF PLAN MAKING IN NSW

PLANFIRST WHITE PAPER

SUMMARY OF CONCERNS

Save Our Sydney Suburbs is most concerned that the implementation of the proposals in the PlanFirst white paper will result in a serious erosion of community democratic rights and will threaten the environment, heritage and character of local government areas. We suggest that the following modifications be introduced:

The reasoning and background for these suggestions is given below.

1. Save Our Sydney Suburbs Inc interest in PlanFirst

Save Our Sydney Suburbs Inc (SOSs) was formed by residents of Sydney in an attempt to save our suburbs from actions imposed against the will of local communities which cause severe and unacceptable harm to the environment, heritage and character of their suburbs.

In order to maintain a beneficial environment and a constructive, equitable and prosperous community it is essential that the public feel they can exert some meaningful input into the running of their affairs. Disempowerment of citizenry can have severe long-term behavioural and environmental consequences. Unfortunately over a number of years State Government policies and planning instruments have been working undemocratically. Ministerial proclamations and Land and Environment Court decisions based on these proclamations have been forcing changes such as higher population densities onto unwilling local communities, despite the opposition of the great majority of residents.

SOSs has challenged the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning (DUAP) on many occasions over the past two years to present a sound rationale for these policies. DUAP has failed to provide such rationale. Rather, it appears to rely upon unsubstantiated claims, and has simply ignored demonstrations of its policy flaws. It also has failed to alleviate widely expressed community concerns that its policies are developer-driven and not devised for the benefit of the community.

It is against this background that SOSs believes that any change to current planning rules must be devised so as to be seen to be in the best interests of the community at large. There must be a radical departure from the appearance of an undemocratic alliance with a tiny section of the populace who stand to make enormous monetary gain from a government policy which cannot be justified in open debate. It is therefore of utmost importance that local authorities carefully consider the long-term implications of the proposed changes during their formative stage.

SOSs has worked with other community organisations in the analysis of PlanFirst. Ideas have been exchanged and there is a considerable amount of common ground between these community groups.

2. Background

We realise that your administration has produced its own analysis of the proposals but for the sake of completeness we list what we see as some significant features.

PlanFirst is stated to be a NSW State Government initiative intended to "modernise and simplify" the plan-making system in NSW. The proposed changes are said to be the result of consultation with the "key participants" who identified problems with the present system. The solutions that they recommended are stated to have been incorporated in the White Paper.

A major outcome of implementing the paper’s recommendations will be a "whole of government" strategic approach, streamlining the different plans, policies and legislation that currently impinge upon land usage at State and local levels. Technology will be used to enable all policies, rules and other matters limiting or otherwise affecting the use of a particular piece of land to be determined by a single reference to a Statewide database.

The PlanFirst document does not present a clear picture of the envisaged working outcome. It proffers generalised objectives but provides no convincing indication regarding how these objectives will be attained.

State Planning Policies (SPPs) will replace the current State Environmental Planning Policies (SEPPs) and provide a statewide strategic context for regional planning. The strategies embodied in SPPs will automatically carry to regional and local levels, along with a range of definitions of common planning terms. SPPs will include social, economic and environmental policies relevant to planning under the EP&A Act. They will be prepared by the NSW Government "in consultation with the community" and be approved at Cabinet level.

The Department of Urban Affairs & Planning (DUAP) has anticipated the approval of the proposals and it appears that it has already largely completed the task of drafting the SPPs and expects to finalise them by the end of the year. It is understood that it is proposed that the amending Bill will be tabled in Parliament for debate during the spring session and adoption by year-end.

PlanFirst also provides for Regional Strategies. Each Regional Strategy will be a region’s principal environmental planning document. It will comply with SPPs and provide a context for regional actions and local planning. A "regional team" will prepare each regional strategy. Such teams are already being formed within DUAP, and while it seems that there is an intention to second individuals to these teams from affected State agencies and local councils, they will be driven from DUAP.

Each Regional Strategy will be submitted for comment to a Regional Forum which will report on the strategy prior to its submission to the NSW Government for approval. It is proposed that members of each Regional Forum will be drawn from affected State MPs, local councillors, state agencies, business, the development industry, social, indigenous, environmental and community organisations. The Government will appoint members of these Forums based on recommendation from the Minister of Urban Affairs & Planning. The Minister will also have the power to call in, make or amend regional strategies.

No firm proposal has been included in PlanFirst for the boundaries of the regions. However each will incorporate many existing council areas. The size of the Regional Forums is proposed as "about 20", covering the whole range of groups from which it is proposed those forum members be drawn. It is clear that, at best, no community is likely to have more than one representative on a regional forum, and most will have none.

PlanFirst proposes that under each Regional Plan there will be a series of Local Plans, each covering the whole of an existing council area. A Local Plan will be a single strategic "whole of council" plan, providing a mechanism to coordinate and focus a council’s planning activities. It will cover the whole local government area and be relevant for at least 3-5 years. The local plan will be required to be consistent with the Regional Strategy and be the means of implementing its plans. Local councils will be required to prepare local plans in close consultation with their communities. Draft plans will be exhibited and at least one ‘examination in public’ will occur before the plan is finalised by council. The draft plan will then be submitted to the Regional Forum for a statement of regional consistency. Both the draft local plan and the statement of regional consistency will then be submitted to the Minister of Urban Affairs & Planning seeking concurrence.

In conjunction with the PlanFirst White Paper a report on community consultation was released. The report discusses a range of consultative methods.

3. DISCUSSION

3.1Advantages

Some aspects of PlanFirst are in themselves laudable. The initiative to modernise the plan-making system in NSW is a desirable goal. An integrated information technology system is proposed which will encompass both State and local government and which will access all the rules affecting an individual parcel of land. Such a system, if the administrative and technical hurdles can be overcome, will be of major benefit in improving certainty and reducing costs in both the private and public sectors. It is commendable that councils will be required to undertake a range of planning studies of their local areas as a base for drafting their local plans.

3.2. The Regional Planning Process

3.2.1 The method of appointment of regional forum members.

Appointments to the Regional Forums are apparently to be effectively in the gift of the Minister of Urban Affairs and Planning. There is no attempt at democracy. There is no accountability to anyone other than to the Minister. The influence that DUAP would have upon not only the regional forum members team but potentially upon the future careers of all team members is of concern.

There are numerous State agencies with a direct interest in the region and there is no doubt that State MPs, business, development, community and other groups would add significantly to those with potential interest in joining or otherwise influencing the Ministerial appointed regional team. Therefore no council will have much, if any, influence upon the development of the Regional Strategy that will ultimately decide the future of its council area. It is difficult to see that issues of local concern that warrant accommodation within a Regional Plan are likely to get a proper hearing, no matter how valid they may be. And particularly so if the council concerned does not even have a voice on that Forum. Legitimate concerns of residents, such as the amenity of their area, its heritage, environment and character are likely to be of little moment to more than one member of a regional team, and in most cases, not even one. This is a recipe for disenfranchising local communities, who through their local press and local councillors currently take great interest in protecting these local attributes.

We view this point with great concern. It has already been mentioned that DUAP is currently enforcing policies onto unwilling communities which it cannot justify to the public. It is most important that any change to planning rules are seen to be in the best interests of the community at large and not merely the outcome of an alliance with specific groups such as developers. Minister-appointed Regional Forums are not a recipe for watching communities’ best interests. The powers of Regional Forums thus should be restricted to matters that only relate to genuine regional issues and the physical boundaries of the Regional Forum should relate to the local nature of that issue.

Members of Regional Forums or Committees should be appointed by and be responsible to their respective communities. They should not be allowed to be used as a means of removing current powers from councils. We see no reason why the "development industry" should have a right of representation on such bodies. It is much more important that communities, the environment and heritage are well represented.

A philosophical commitment should be provided by State Government - that it does not seek to undermine or wind back "local government". In other words local government is "government" (and therefore meant to be democratic), rather than simply an administrative arm of state government. Local government democratic structure is still one with three tiers of government and the PlanFirst proposals should not be allowed to overlook that.

The bottom line is that local communities must retain prime control of their own amenity, heritage, neighbourhood character and environment.

SOSs therefore suggests:

3.2.2 The boundaries of the Regions

Each region will encompass many council areas. The size of the proposed regions will inevitably cause many significant decisions to be made at much greater distance than now from the people most immediately affected by those decisions – the residents and other voters in local council areas. We also note that, while the State Government has indicated that it will no longer be pursuing the forced amalgamation of local councils, the Regional Forums as drafted will effectively allow Government to force upon unwilling councils many of the things it wished to achieve by amalgamation. In particular, the Regional Forums will ensure that local influences will be diluted, especially those that tend to delay or prevent (eg.) the more rapid spread of "New York style living", which DUAP publicly has advocated in support of its unreasoned push for urban consolidation.

There appears to be no publicly acceptable reason to amalgamate council areas into regions such as "Northern Sydney" and "Southern Sydney". Such conglomerations would contain disparate components, such as inner suburb and outer suburban councils. There would be no outstanding common characteristic to provide sufficient reason for inclusion in a particular combination of councils compared to any other way of grouping councils.

The concept of regions should only be used where there is a unique permanent or temporary characteristic within the components of a region that provides a practical justification for joint cooperation.

An example of such a permanent characteristic is location within a river catchment or areas surrounding water expanses when common environmental issues can be better managed cooperatively than by separate councils each attempting to regulate cross-boundary matters. Therefore Regional Forums should be created to deal with river catchment management and resulting regulations incorporated into the Iplan integrated rules. The boundaries of Regional Forums should accord to river catchments or expanses of water such as ocean inlets or estuaries. Temporary regional committees with appropriate boundaries could be established on an ad hoc basis to manage the effects of new regional infrastructure development such as roads, railways or dams. Appropriate temporary regional committees could also be established to manage temporary crises such as pest infestations or drought.

SOSs therefore suggests:

3.3. Zoning

PlanFirst’s proposes that "zonings" will no longer apply, and that the general approach should be that all land is available for all uses, subject only to the various levels of plan.

There is insufficient detail in PlanFirst to be sure of what is intended here. "Zoning" is currently a very powerful planning tool available to councils. It allows them to specify that certain areas are "residential", "commercial" or whatever, and to specify the intensity of use within those zones. Landowners may apply to change zonings, but decisions of councils are not appealable. So the effect is that, in general terms, residents buying into a zone designated for single dwellings can be reasonably confident that that is what they will continue to have as neighbours. SEPP5 breaks that "rule", which is why SEPP5 causes such community dissatisfaction. SEPP5, by promoting multi-unit development in single-residential areas allows "theft" of amenity. The price premium derived from the units compared to units in areas zoned for units results from the outlook and character of the surrounding single-residential blocks. Meanwhile the original single-residences now look out onto units with their multiple overlooking windows, lack of vegetation and increased traffic. They lose value accordingly. SEPP5 is government promoted theft.

If "zoning" is removed, as proposed by PlanFirst, it seems that land-use decisions of councils will all become appealable. The upshot of that will inevitably be that councils will be dragged into the Land & Environment Court in a much larger proportion of cases. The financial costs to ratepayers will be huge. The upset and the costs to neighbourhood character, amenity, heritage and the environment will also be extensive. Potential developer profits available from such an approach will ensure that the willingness of developers to contest council decisions will be greater than the willingness or the financial ability of councils to resist them. This is a potentially explosive issue.

SOSs suggests:

3.4. Democratic processes at the State level

Apart from the effective power that would be wielded over local councils by the DUAP Minister, through his ability to appoint and influence Regional Forum members in the proposals, we have other concerns about the powers of DUAP and its Minister.

While PlanFirst will require local councils to undertake comprehensive community consultation, and to justify by competently prepared studies with almost every planning step they take, there is no such requirement upon DUAP or its Minister. In our view that is wrong. Justification should be provided and there should be the opportunity to test that justification in the Parliament.

SPPs should become effective only once approved by Parliament. Currently time-limited subordinate legislation is tabelled before Parliament after being gazetted but this procedure is not adopted for SEPPs and is not envisaged for the current proposals.

The existing SEPPs – SEPP5 and SEPP53 for instance – have caused much unhappiness in the community. The recent changes to SEPP5 have – despite the spin put upon those changes by DUAP – done little to improve the position. The "consultation" that took place seems to have paid most attention to the development industry. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the Minister’s Residential Advisory Committee is dominated by representatives of the development industry and has no direct community representation.

Coverage of such matters in the local and metropolitan press in the last year or so has highlighted the extent of community concern on SEPP5. Yet neither SEPP5, nor the amendments to it, nor any of the other SEPPs has ever been laid before Parliament for debate let alone approval or the opportunity to disallow. In our view, SPPs and any regulations made under them should not be allowed to escape that net. Their repercussions have potentially sweeping effects upon residents and other voters – and often those effects include reductions in the value of what is not just their largest single investment, but their home. If anything deserves parliamentary review, the introduction of or changes to SPPs certainly do.

This is particularly important since it is clear from PlanFirst that it is envisaged that the Minister will effectively have the power to initiate or change SPPs, Regional Plans and, through them, Local Plans and the rules affecting every piece of land in the State.

SOSs recommends:

3.5. Consultation

The discussion paper on community consultation presents several methods of consultation. It places emphasis on the desirability of "randomly" selecting members of the community so as to include the young, the old, people with disabilities, people from non-English speaking backgrounds and Aboriginal communities.

Such a selection is superficially attractive and may be appropriate for certain decisions (although termed "random" it is skewed to be representative of specific classes). However people so selected are unlikely to be able to comment in a meaningful way on complex planning issues when compared to consultation with members of the community who have maintained a specific interest in the subject matter. We see this proposal as specifically aimed at sidelining those in the community who have taken the greatest interest in planning matters – those who have had some seasoning and who have seen what can be inflicted on communities by poorly drafted planning laws and who are therefore best placed to test new proposals against past experience.

By contrast, the majority of people without previous significant exposure to the subject matter could easily be influenced to adopt any particular viewpoint put to them by skilled presenters or interviewers.

SOSs suggests:

Precautions should be taken to ensure that any community consultation processes envisaged in the legislation be chosen strictly on the merits of the subject matter and not so as to achieve a predetermined result.

4. FUTHER RESPONSE

We believe that the issues raised in this letter are unlikely to receive much consideration by DUAP. However, we know that many community groups share these views.

The issues are substantive and impinge upon the amenity and homes of much of the NSW population. It is therefore essential that a process be put in place to properly review those issues and to establish the validity of the concerns expressed.

It is also essential that DUAP’s philosophy, motives and aims in proposing PlanFirst be probed and justified. To what extent is it necessary or appropriate to have Regional Forums as proposed? Why is there such little detail in the PlanFirst White Paper?

PlanFirst is likely to have far-reaching impact on local government, and the ability of citizens to shape their communities through local councils. The White Paper proposes sweeping changes to the powers of councils – a key element in the democratic process.

There is thus a potential for the implementation of PlanFirst to have a profound effect on your organisation, with particular reference to the democratic process. Our suggestions are summarised in the opening paragraph of this communication. We request your Council to thoroughly explore the implications of the PlanFirst proposals and to strenuously make your views known to the Members of Parliament and to continue to do so to DUAP.

 

Yours sincerely

Tony Recsei

President

Save Our Sydney Suburbs Inc14 July 2001

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