23 May 2013

NSW planning reforms: Are you talking to me? A new approach to community participation

by Brendan Bateman

By broadening the public's awareness of and involvement in the strategic planning phases of the planning approval process, there should be less need for public consultation in the later stages

The NSW Government recognises that in order to achieve effective reform of the planning system, there needs to be a change in the way in which the community is consulted in relation to planning matters.

The existing public consultation regime in the planning approval process has been extensively criticised from all quarters – broad elements of the community regard it superficial and lacking any transparency and accountability, whereas the property sector believes that the "one size fits all" approach to consultation unnecessarily delays the assessment of developments which are otherwise permissible within the relevant zone. Consequently public consultation during the planning process is frequently perceived as adversarial.

The Government proposes to reform the existing consultation requirements in the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (EP&A Act) in two significant ways:

  • to enact a Charter which sets out a number of key principles in relation to community participation in the planning process. That Charter will underpin participation plans that local councils and other planning bodies need to prepare to ensure that the community are appropriately engaged; and
  • to shift the emphasis on consultation to the strategic phase of the planning process rather than at the back end of development assessment. Consequently, the Government proposes a regime of proportional participation.

The Bill imposes a statutory obligation on planning authorities to act consistently with the Charter when undertaking strategic planning and development assessment. Community participation plans are to be prepared based on the Charter and it is those plans which will provide proportionate levels of consultation with emphasis on community involvement in strategic planning rather than complying and code assessment developments. This will be critical if the Government is to achieve its target of having 80% of all development applications determined in less than 25 days within five years of commencement of the new Act.

The effectiveness of public consultation, however, is only as good as the level of and opportunities for genuine engagement. There is clearly a need for the Government and planning authorities to overcome widespread public suspicion and antipathy to the planning process in NSW. Cultural change is as important as changes to the process of public consultation.

In an effort to deal with the vexed issue of public consultation, the Government proposes to establish a new Deputy Director-General position in the Department responsible for cultural change, and to require planning authorities in preparing their community participation plans to identify alternatives methods of community engagement to maximise the opportunities for, and effectiveness of, that consultation.

By broadening the public's awareness of and involvement in the strategic planning phases of the planning approval process, there should be less need for public consultation in the later stages, and proposed amendments to the assessment tracks reflect this thinking


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