The Better Planning Network is also concerned about the proposed reforms.
The state government’s controversial proposed new planning system not only favours developers, but is a major threat to sensitive environments and rural lifestyles on the north coast.
That’s the firm belief of the Nature Conservation Council (NCC) whose chief executive officer Pepe Clarke visited the region at the weekend to promote a new report about the risks involved.
Mr Clarke said the proposed new laws ‘will skew the system very heavily in favour of developers at the expense of local community rights and environmental protection’.
He was in the region as part of an east coast tour to launch a report that highlights the hidden risks in the NSW government’s proposed new planning laws.
The report, entitled Nature in the Balance: Environmental protections at risk under the proposed new planning system for NSW highlights serious flaws in the draft Planning Bill 2013 which will be debated in parliament early next month.
Mr Clark drew parallels between new state and federal government agendas for a ‘one-stop shop’ approach to planning laws which he says will weaken environmental safeguards and community rights.
Mr Clark told Echonetdaily that a growing number of local councils were also concerned about the impacts of the changes which also include loss of local decision making.
Councils and their umbrella body Local Government NSW (LGNSW) have been heavily engaged in the consultation processes for the planning review and made submissions.
At the recent LGNSW conference in Sydney, the business paper reflected the weight and urgency of the fears in relation to the proposed changes to planning laws, with member councils passing a motion expressing a strong concern about them.
Under the proposed new laws, developers will have new rights to override local plans and challenge council zoning decisions.
Local councils are concerned about the reduction in council powers to determine many classes of development and the removal of the community to have a say in local developments.
Further significant areas of concerns are infrastructure and developer contributions, resourcing and transitional arrangements and sub-regional board representation.
Mr Clark said that ‘NSW deserves a planning system that is fair and delivers positive social and environmental outcomes’.
‘This reform has been captured by the development lobby.’
The reform process started shortly after the state election where NSW premier Barry O’Farrell promised that his government would develop a new planning system that would place communities at the heart of planning.
Mr Clarke acknowledged the significant effort the government has put into the consultation process.
‘The government has conducted extensive consultation,’ he said, ‘but the problem is that they don’t seem to be listening.
‘When they released the draft laws in their White Paper there were more than 5,500 submissions that so far the government appears reluctant to change some of the basic elements. There have been a few small concessions but those are still in favour of development.’
Leader no more
Mr Clarke said that NSW used to be a leader in the development of environmental laws when the current planning legislation was introduced in the 1970s.
‘It was considered very progressive at the time,’ Mr Clarke said. ‘NSW was one of the first places in the world to introduce an emissions trading scheme for electricity generators.
‘We believe these proposed planning laws represent the most significant backward step in environmental protection and public participation in the planning system in more than a generation.’
In the federal landscape, Mr Clarke identifies common themes that the NSW government put forward and the proposals that the new federal government have put on the table.
‘Both the O’Farrell and Abbott governments are talking about what they call a “one-stop shop”. The new environment minister Greg Hunt has proposed transferring most federal environmental approval powers to the state,’ he said.
‘We are deeply concerned about this, as federal environmental laws play an important role in safeguarding nationally important environmental values, including nationally listed endangered species and world heritage listed areas.
‘This transfer is an abdication of the Australian government’s responsibility to protect the nation’s environment.
‘The O’Farrell government on the other hand with their “one-stop shop” approach in planning laws are proposing that, for example, ‘if there is a development that currently requires approval, not only development or planning approval, but approval from a specialist environmental agency like the Environment Protection Authority (EPA), Office of Environment and Heritage or the DPI Fisheries, that approval under the new system would be granted instead by the Department of Planning.’
Mr Clarke believes that under these planning changes these agencies will no longer have an approval function.
‘They could give advice but could not say no,’ said Mr Clarke, ‘which is what happens with state-significant developments. This logic would be applied on a broader scale of development.
‘We are concerned because the Department of Planning have a track record of downplaying the advice of specialist agencies when issuing approvals, which has resulted in unacceptable air and water pollution and serious risks to community health in some cases.’
Mr Clarke was clear in his support of efficient decision making but added that it needs to be effective.
‘If your only criterion for success is how quickly you grant an approval then there is no delivery of meaningful environmental protection and social outcomes,’ he said.
The state government, he said, had provided little detail in the planning reform white paper and draft exposure bills, which undermines the confidence of many including local government and NCC.
‘What has been released has been very general and probably won’t be detailed until the legislation is passed through parliament,’ Mr Clarke said.
‘What we are seeking is a guarantee that the current environmental protection is maintained or strengthened in the new legislation.’
Mr Clarke acknowledged that a general assurance has been issued by the state government regarding environmental protection but ‘given what we know about the draft planning bill our assessment is that that statement is not supported in the document’.
There are currently at least 12 state environmental planning policies (SEPP) which will be reduced to one in the new planning proposals.
‘Going from 12 to one is okay if they contain the same amount of protection,’ said Mr Clarke, ‘but there is real concern that these will be watered down in response to developer pressures.’
To read the report go to http://nccnsw.org.au/sites/default/files/Nature_In_The_Balance.pdf.