New laws to impose mandatory independent assessment panels on Sydney and Wollongong councils

The New South Wales government has introduced legislation to make Independent Hearing and Assessment Panels (IHAPs) mandatory for all 15 Sydney metropolitan councils and for Wollongong City Council, removing from these councils the right to assess development applications worth between $5 million and $30 million, and applications where there is a conflict of interest or if the application is 'sensitive' or of 'strategic importance'.

The Minister for Planning and Housing, Anthony Roberts, said the bill was aimed at helping to guard against corruption and would bring “expertise, transparency and integrity” to the assessment of development applications at the local level.

All IHAPs will follow a standard model comprising three independent expert members and a community member. Statutory rules will govern the panels operation, through a code of conduct.

Councils will select the expert members from a pool established by the Department of Planning and Environment and approved by the Minister for Planning. It will be up to Councils to appoint community members to the panels.

IHAPs will also consider applications for residential flat buildings assessed under SEPP65 and the demolition of heritage buildings.

Mr Roberts said the mandatory IHAPs would be led by experienced planning professionals, and bring expertise, transparency and integrity to the assessment of development applications at the local level.

The three independent experts will be in one or more of the following fields: architecture, planning, heritage, the environment, urban design, economics, traffic and transport, law, engineering, tourism, or government and public administration. The chair of the panel will also need to have expertise in law or government and public administration.

Local Government NSW has criticised the legislation, saying it will erode local democracy, reduce the accountability and transparency of planning decisions and create an additional bureaucratic process and associated costs.

LGNSW President, Cr Keith Rhoades said councillors were 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 said. “Instead, 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. 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.”

Clr Rhoades said the Government had at least spared Newcastle, regional cities and coastal councils from the mandatory panels – for now.

“At least these councils can determine whether the panel option is the right choice for their area, and whether there are real benefits to the community rather than simply additional bureaucracy and cost - and less local democracy,” he said.

The Environmental Planning and Assessment and Electoral Legislation Amendment (Planning Panels and Enforcement) Bill 2017 is available here.

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