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planning 2

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 09-Apr-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 11

Wordcount: 876

Highly polished Carr a rust bucket in disguise

Elizabeth Farrelly

When stainless steel corrodes – which it shouldn’t but does – the result is especially catastrophic because the corruption works unseen, crumbling the core material while leaving its glorious surface unblemished. Nothing is visible, until that fateful instant when the bolt, cleat or cable gives way with a sudden hollow shudder. And calamity abounds. There are various theories on this chemical perfidy. Most involve pitting, from microscopic manganese inclusions that disturb the electrochemistry within, voluntarily rearranging the electrons without approval from head office, much as happens in political parties.

Here in NSW, Bob Carr was for many years the ALP’s glamour coating – the intelligent, press-friendly surface beneath which electron-rearrangement could occur all the more industriously for being masked. So perhaps we should be pleased. At least now we can see the pitting, the tiny impurities growing into gobbets of corrosion. We can detect with the naked eye where the body politic has been materially restructured, according not to the public interest but to the interests of the party.

The proposal, for example, to make councils approve complying developments within 10 days is essentially a good one. It gives applicants, from boofhead developers to mum and dad renovators, certainty and efficiency. You play by the rules, you get your approval, rather than waiting while some pernickety neighbour, planner or councillor takes a second bite at the cherry. If it complies, it complies. Period.

That’s as it should be. Compliance is a matter of fact. In theory, the job could be mechanised, a robot “marking” proposals like multiple-choice exams, or vote cards. The impartiality would be a bonus. Because, in fact, most such compliance checking will be done by applicant-paid private certifiers. So the temptation to fudge – to offer a quick-and-dirty 10-day compliance service – is built in.

Such a change, further, puts huge weight on the plan. Any rigid compliance-based system begs the immediate question – compliance with what? Here, it would usually be with the Local Environmental Plan (LEP) or Development Control Plan (DCP), or both.

LEPs are prepared by the council but approved and gazetted by the minister. They set parameters like density and height, and have statutory force. DCPs are smaller, more detailed and more contingent, being prepared and applied solely by council. Often they’re just memoranda of wishes, qualitative descriptions of colour, material, style and heritage.

This is the fluffy end of planning. Both LEPs and DCPs are publicly exhibited as made. Few, though, are properly understood, much less debated, because people have neither time nor energy to scrutinise something that doesn’t immediately affect them. But under a compliance system, as proposed, this will change. Councils will need to draft their plans like statutes, anticipating everything they want to control and defining it in advance. This will make already turgid plans impenetrable, even as intelligibility becomes critical, since it’ll be “object at plan stage, or forever hold your peace”.

Even this, you could argue as a Good Thing, a form of tough love; nasty but healthful medicine, forcing us to wise up or live with that 12-storey block next door. Such an argument might even run, were the Planning Minister, Frank Sartor, prepared to swallow his own medicine like a good boy, and accept increased impartiality at state level. Instead, he’s in the corner, tipping it into the aspidistra, gloating.

Over what? Over three years of amendments that leave our planning legislation looking like plate glass after a ram-raid, hugely expanding the minister’s discretion while cutting that of councils. Over how councils constantly cop flak on timing while applications regularly sit on the minister’s desk for months.

All this presumes local politicians to be inherently dumb and corruptible, while their state peers are universally bright and noble, bearing the public interest permanently aloft. And perhaps it is so. But another possibility is that state machines are simply bigger, oilier, with shinier surfaces and more moving parts.

Before last year’s election, in 45 separate gifts, Bob Carr’s Macquarie Bank gave $266,450 to the NSW ALP. Speaking of oiled and moving parts, that’s almost a donation a week. Kellyville developer the Johnson Property Group, seeking ministerial approval of his huge residential subdivision at Pitt Town, made 35 donations, totalling $290,650 (and 11 donations totalling $86,000 to the Liberals). Meriton Apartments, whose largesse came to $226,050, says it “donates to political parties (not just the ALP) so that we may be listened to. Not,” it adds, “that we are”.

It’s all just coincidence.

Coincidence that fat donations arrive only where there’s play in the system, discretion to be exercised. Coincidence that the compliance scheme is designed specifically to restrict such play at council level, remedying corruptibility and chain-dragging both. But no such rule applies to the minister.

Why? Because at state level the structuring principle is no longer public interest, but party interest.

As for the developers, when you’re through querying the business acumen of companies that give a quarter-mill gratis, consider that, in the lead-up to World Youth Day it may actually be a little miracle. NSW developers have finally understood the Lord’s meaning when he said, “to give is to receive”.


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