New South Wales' Minister for Planning and Housing and Minister for Local Government have announced that Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs) will become mandatory for all councils in Sydney and Wollongong to "guard against corruption and lead to better local planning decisions".
Panels will reportedly determine all development applications with a value of between more than $5 million but less than $30 million in value in Sydney and Wollongong will streamline planning in metropolitan Sydney.
Minister for Planning and Housing Anthony Roberts said that mandatory IHAPs would bring expertise, transparency and integrity to the assessment of DAs at the local level.
"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," Minister Roberts said.
[Related article: Independent Planning Panels May Take The Wheel In NSW]"By making IHAPs mandatory, local councils will be able to focus on providing community services, strategic plans and development controls for their local area."Minister Roberts pointed out that Wollongong and 15 Sydney metropolitan councils were already successfully using IHAPs on a voluntary basis.
The new Bill will propose a standard model for IHAPs comprising three independent expert members and a community member - the community member will represent the local perspective.
"Introducing IHAPs will provide additional safeguards, expertise and transparency into planning decisions," Minister for Local Government, Gabrielle Upton said.
"We expect these panels to give communities and ratepayers greater certainty about planning decisions."
The move towards IHAPs has received varied opinions from industry groups and Sydney's local councils.
“The announcement by Planning & Housing Minister, Anthony Roberts, that all local councils in Sydney and Wollongong must establish independent planning panels will make the planning process much more efficient,” Urban Taskforce CEO Chris Johnson said.
“The role of the elected councillors is in setting the strategic planning framework and the assessment of compliance with the framework is best undertaken by experts in the field.”
“The Urban Taskforce agrees with the Minister that mandating the Independent Planning and Assessment Panels (IHAPs) will ensure a level playing field for everyone. Having a central pool of experts will also ensure effective use of resources and that all panel members have up to date knowledge of the planning rules.”
The Property Council of Australia said the announcement was good news for both the community and for industry because it meant the politics will be taken out of planning.
"Experts will make the decisions on development, not local politicians,” Property Council NSW Deputy Executive Director Cheryl Thomas said.
“We know that the community supports planning panels, in recent research commissioned by the Property Council, 81 per cent of respondents agreed that planning decisions for developments worth more than $10 million should be made by experts.
"There was also strong support for panels in the Hunter region and the mandatory policy should be extended here in the future."However, some question the handling of the new policy. Wollondilly Shire Council issued a scathing statement calling out Mr Roberts for implying "inappropriate" relationships between councils and developers, and suggesting "that councils are incapable of being transparent and accountable when assessing DAs of significant value."Wollondilly Shire Council also condemned social media comments the Minister made in regards to the IHAPs.
"Not only is this a retrograde decision that threatens local democracy, but it has been delivered with a nasty sting. This is what Minister Roberts posted on his Facebook page:
Today I introduced legislation to end the dodgy and dirty backroom deals that have gone on for far too long inside local councils. The introduction of mandatory Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels across Greater Sydney mean that shonky developers and their mates will no longer be able to flaunt their power with elected Councillors in order to get their DAs through. To the lurk merchants and spivs who inhabit the dark corridors of Council Chambers across Sydney, your trade is done. Get another job. The jig is up. The NSW Government is done with your corrupt and dodgy behaviour.”
Under the initiative, IHAP members will have to be expert in one or more of the following fields: