According to the peak body for NSW councils, Local Government NSW (LGNSW), the recent imposition of mandatory planning panels for Sydney and Wollongong is further eroding democracy.
Known as Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs), this move by the NSW government has stripped councils of the right to assess development applications valued at $5 million or more.
“The government claims this is a governance issue, but this move has the potential to actually reduce the accountability and transparency of planning decisions,” says LGNSW president, Keith Rhoade.
“Councils are accountable to the community, whereas panels are not. There is no accountability like the ballot box,” he says.
“Councillors are their community's voice at the table - they have been elected to represent community views on key issues, such as planning decisions which will have long-term impacts on neighbourhoods.
“And yet the government has determined that they cannot serve on a panel,” he says.
Under the news rule, councils will only be able to select one community member on the four-member panel, and two government-appointed experts that have been pre-approved by the minister."
“At the same time, the Minister gets to appoint the powerful fourth member: a chair who must have worked in the law or government,” says Rhoade.
“This could conceivably include a former member of the government of the day – hardly the transparent, independent and conflict-free expert promoted in the government’s media release announcement.”
However according to the NSW minister for planning and housing, Anthony Roberts, the state government has set clear criteria for which development applications (DAs) are to go to the panels.
“It is essential the government has a transparent and accountable process in place when assessing DAs of significant value, when there is a conflict of interest for the council or developer, or when they are of a sensitive nature,” Roberts says.
“By making IHAPs mandatory, local councils will be able to focus on providing community services, strategic plans and development controls for their local area.”