Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
A plan for more tinkering with rules
Here’s a funny thing. Every now and then I get a call, usually from someone of no small elevation within the NSW power-fest, to tell me – strictly entre nous – that the Planning Minister, Frank Sartor, is actually a decent bloke. Further that, being a decent bloke, he’s doing a decent job. A job, it is presumed I presume, the developers resent.
Usually these calls precede by hours some juicy planning announcement – if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Barangaroo, for example, or Part 3A. The subtext, in six-foot supergraphics, is that, were a critic to turn the knife too sharply, or the minister to fall foul of a dark-night reshuffle, things could be worse. Much, much worse.
You might think Sartor is the developer’s friend, but he’s doing his decent best. Just imagine if we had Costa, Roozendaal or Tripodi – or even the hapless Reba Meagher in the planning chair. Imagine. To these cousins of Dorothy Dix, however, I say this. It’s not about him. A properly functioning planning system is one in which it scarcely matters who is minister. That’s called impartiality. It’s called planning.
And yet it has been a distinguishing mark of this particular minister’s two-year reign to tinker and tailor the system so that who the minister is, and what he has for breakfast, matters very much indeed.
He’s done it first by taking an ever greater proportion of development applications under his personal jurisdictional wing. Then by loosening, almost to the point of non-existence, all other legislative fetters on his decisional powers. The effect has been to paint a big red “press here” sign on the front of his double-sartorial breast.
This is classic narcissism. Construct a system to which you are personally central. Practise the rhythmic giving and withholding of your beneficence within that system and watch the ripples flow. Ensure everyone else in the system retains responsibility without power. Then, when there are complaints, blame failures and delays on the total incompetence by which you are surrounded.
Now more tinker-tailoring is afoot. The discussion paper released yesterday has a good long grizzle about council incompetence and delay. An average 68 days is too long, it says, as it proposes to improve the speed and “certainty” of approvals – not for the big end of town, this time, but for the mum and dad developers. “The family home,” explains Sartor, “is often the biggest asset and we want to make it easier for them to … improve its value.” And not an election in cooee.
Already, over the past couple of years, all major development has been removed from local control. Now even alts and adds are deemed too important for local democracy.
The means for removal are twofold. First, the Government will shift council planning powers to appointed arbitrators. This, accompanied at regional level by Joint Regional Planning Panels and at a state level by the new Planning Assessment Commission, will take NSW planning decisions almost entirely from the hands of elected officials (except, of course, the minister) and give them to people – experts, certainly – appointed and paid by those elected officials.
This sounds like a good thing. And perhaps it is. Given, however, that 95 per cent of council-decided development applications are determined not by councillors but by their professional staff, will it really change much?
The discussion paper’s other main aim is to increase the number of development proposals treated as “exempt and complying” from 11 per cent to 50 per cent. This again sounds like a good idea, but there are two serious flaws. One, it will hugely increase the reliance on private certifiers, a system already recognised as ripe for the rorting. (As a Band-Aid the paper hands a bigger stick to the Building Professionals Board, the certifiers’ certifier.)
Chances are, further, the first you’ll know of the development next door to you is when the scaffolders arrive.
This is the rub. Planning is essentially simple, a moulding process, nothing more. You decide what you want and then you make the rules that allow and encourage it to happen. What complicates planning is politics – the fight over resources and the fact that we all want a fast, simple approval for our development application and a slow, complex one for our neighbours.
That’s unavoidable. But to graft an entire menagerie of arbitrators, certifiers and independent panels onto councils in the name of simplicity is every bit as cynical as those Cold War Moscow scientists who grafted puppy heads onto mastiffs, then sat back to watched the two heads maul each other in the name of medical science.