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09 Jul 2020

Planning Delivery Unit to help relieve blockages in NSW planning system

By Nick Thomas, Wagih Doueihi, Xara Kaye

Developers of major projects and rezoning proposals should benefit from a dedicated team in the NSW Planning Department, which is dedicated to unblock planning projects stuck in the planning system and streamline planning processes.

The NSW Government is making good on its promise in April 2020 to provide a dedicated team to help relieve blockages in planning system, with the announcement that it has established the Planning Delivery Unit (PDU) within the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE).

The PDU will work with State Government agencies and local councils to resolve issues which are holding up the determination of development applications, post-consent approvals (eg. under conditions of consent), or decisions on planning proposals (eg. rezoning).

It will focus on regionally significant development applications, State significant development, priority planning proposals, and precinct planning.

It will comprise a 30 strong team of project managers, to be led by the former Liverpool City Council CEO Kiersten Fishburn.

The PDU forms part of the NSW Government's plan to reform the planning system and will operate alongside the recently commenced Planning System Acceleration Program through which the Government seeks to promote efficiency, certainty and transparency in the planning system.

What will the PDU do?

Over the past four years, average development approval timeframes for projects with a value exceeding $20 million have increased by 100 days, to 357 days.

According to the DPIE website, the PDU will act as a central point of escalation for projects which are currently under assessment or in post consent approval phase that are experiencing unreasonable delays due to:

  • concurrence or referral requests undetermined by a government agency within the statutory time limits permitted under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Regulation 2000;
  • unresolved council assessment matters are preventing determination with assessment time exceeding 120 days; or
  • multiple complex or significant environment issues such as flooding, bushfire, contamination, heritage, ecology, transport, infrastructure or natural/ mineral resource constraints.

DPIE has indicated that the PDU team will:

  • operate a project management service for industry, councils and other government agencies;
  • ensure agency involvement at appropriate levels, focusing advice on relevant issues;
  • ensure appropriate resources to support assessments, fix backlogs and build capacity in councils and agencies including a “flying squad” for councils and dedicated co-ordinators in agencies;
  • realign agency referral processes in collaboration with councils and agencies to support continued rollout of "ePlanning" and "back of house" process improvements; and
  • focus on collaborative whole of government solutions to projects and when needed will also operationalise the use of the Planning Secretary’s legislative step-in powers.

How will it do this?

So far, there is very little detail on how the PDU will become engaged in a project and how will work to deliver results. To some extent, this reflects the need for flexibility and the troubleshooting nature of its role. Further explanation of the mechanics of the PDU, and how to involve it in projects, would be welcome.

Is this a green light for development?

While the PDU will focus on fast tracking priority projects, the NSW government has emphasised that it is not a green light for approvals or the lessening of planning assessments. NSW planning laws have not changed with the establishment of the PDU. The same checks and balances which seek to achieve transparency, community consultation and evidence-based assessments will continue to apply.

What are PDU’s priorities?

The NSW Minister for Planning and Public Spaces has indicated that the PDU’s four priority projects over the next eight weeks are:

  • the Parramatta Road Corridor Strategy (including the facilitation of transport and access, and the provision of up to 27,000 new homes);
  • the St Leonards Crows Nest 2036 Plan (including progress on the new Metro Station at Crows Nest and unlocking an extra 6,800 homes and significant new green space);
  • the Glenfield Precinct (including "re-imagining" the Hurlstone Agricultural College site to allow a new mixed-use precinct, with a sporting hub, enhanced local centres, and up to 7,000 new homes);
  • Marsden Park North (and West Schofields) Precinct (including finalising a Voluntary Planning Agreement to help unlock up to 10,000 new homes, provide 18 new playing fields and local parks, as well as improved road and pedestrian connections).

These are very complex and long term projects and, while the PDU’s involvement is a very positive sign, some stakeholders have flagged the need to ensure that these will not consume the PDU’s resources, at the expense of other projects across Sydney and other regional centres in NSW.

An opportunity for infrastructure co-ordination?

One area in which we think the PDU could deliver significant value is in the co-ordination of timely delivery of critical infrastructure to enable earlier site development. Often the development of greenfield and urban renewal sites can be delayed because essential enabling infrastructure is not available at the same time as development is poised to proceed. This can result in delays in rezoning, development consents, post-consent approvals and the finalisation of infrastructure contribution arrangements (such as VPAs).

If the PDU’s brief includes co-ordination with developers, State government agencies and councils to facilitate the delivery of infrastructure in areas with urgent development opportunity, this could yield major benefits for the State.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.