Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Should Sartor have his cake? No, no and no
The Planning Minister, Frank Sartor, approaches power as a toddler approaches mud cake: big-eyed with gluttony. More! (Shoves, grabs.) I wan’ more, more, more! Not for control – hell no. For the sheer gob-stuffing pleasure of it, removing what shape or discipline the system has left. Anyone woozy with the pace of planning change – a lagoon trashed here, a heritage act there – should brace against the seat in front. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
The latest objects of the Sartorial power binge are roadside advertising, on the one hand, and council planning powers on the other, with special focus on the City of Sydney council.
On billboards, as we know, the racier the ad, the deadlier the traffic. Athens is just the latest city to start removing them for this reason. But in Sydney, under the new draft State Environmental Planning Policy 64, we’re about to give billboards carte blanche – sullied only by that sticky ministerial thumbprint.
Simultaneously, and on the day he yee-hahed the greenhouse belching Anvil Hill coalmine through the Planning Act’s gaping Part 3A loophole, Sartor announced he covets yet more of councils’ powers. Already Part 3A gives him a degree of discretion that in any less abstract portfolio would be called dangerous. Not content, and egged on by the development lobby, Sartor now toys with removing councils’ consent role altogether.
His rationale? That councils are sloppy, inefficient and sometimes “advocates in their own cause”; that we need “distance” between the rule-makers and the rule-appliers.
The phrase “breathtaking hypocrisy” leaps to mind. Never mind that Sartor spent a lord mayoral decade venting against the tiniest impingement, from court or state, on council planning powers. Consider the rationale.
The truth is, all politicians advocate their own cause. That’s the nature of democracy, and perhaps of humanity. But the presumption, which the state peddles and most of us, having experienced council stupidity and cupidity, swallow, is that such self-interest bites only at the local level.
This is clearly nonsense. If the Labor Government’s assiduous greasing of the planning system weren’t evidence enough, in light of its $10.5 million receipts from developers since 1999, there’s the new draft SEPP 64.
Until now, billboard advertising has been flatly prohibited on NSW freeways and tollways. The draft SEPP lifts this ban, allowing illuminated mega-boards on all freeways, tollways, associated roads, rail corridors and all other state-owned, occupied or managed land – specifically the Harbour Tunnel, the Cross City and Lane Cove tunnels, the M2, M4, M5, M7 and the Eastern Distributor. Also land managed by a state-owned corporation, such as in The Rocks, the fish markets, Eveleigh, Redfern-Waterloo, White Bay, Botany, Central station and East Darling Harbour.
Who gives the nod? The minister. And who gets the money? The state. The draft SEPP does impose a weak “public benefit” test, but money to the state is public benefit, right? So, who’s advocating in their cause now? And where’s the “increased distance”? Hello? Anyone home?
On council planning powers, the arguments are equally pathetic; the greed equally compelling. If councils were favouring friends and rels, they’d be loosening the development corsets. But Sartor also accuses them of slowness and inefficiency. So which is it, too fast or too slow? The credibility gap widens.
Sartor threatens Sydney with the “South Australian planning system”, tweaked to fit. This means that appointed, professional development assessment panels make decisions in stead of elected councils. Developer lobby groups, such as the Property Council of Australia and the misleadingly official-sounding Urban Development Institute, to which the Government has delegated planning reform, slaver in support. They like mud cake, too. And they know that last time Sydney drew on South Australia’s planning system, in the City of Sydney Act 1988, the model was tweaked just enough to gag local government and give developers an unassailable advantage. Then tweaked again, harder.
Sydney is not Adelaide. The cultural differences are stark. John Mant, a Sydney lawyer who designed the South Australian system, argues instead for independent hearing and assessment panels as operating successfully in Sydney municipalities including Liverpool, Warringah and Sutherland.
The panel does not replace a council but is appointed by it – not by a developer-friendly minister from a cash-hungry party – and makes recommendations to it, so council retains ownership. Hearings and decisions are public, but presiding members are kept closet beforehand, to prevent lobbying.
This is crucial, and Sartor’s recent changes to the City of Sydney Act show why. The act, and its creature the Central Sydney Planning Committee, were copies. But where South Australia’s original assiduously shared power between state and council, NSW’s version gave the state outright control and is now further enhanced by legislative changes that make state members all either departmental staffers or friendlies.
The arguments for removing development decisions from the politicians’ grasp are strong. But they’re just as strong at state level as local. In South Australia the minister is distanced by the appointed development assessment commission. Why? Because they’re grown-ups. They know that mud cake is only good for you in small measure; too much just gets icky.