David Lovejoy, co-founder of The Echo
The Regional Planning Panel (RPP) booked the Byron Theatre last week in order to give local people the opportunity to let off steam with verbal objections to the West Byron development proposal.
However, when the meeting began the agenda had changed. The panel had already decided, after considering Council’s arguments, to reject one of the two DAs covering the land, subject to the applicants’ response. In the event it was the applicants’ representative who let off steam, criticising Council for political rather than scientific decisions, and framing the residents’ 2,500 or so written objections as lacking the technical knowledge to be relevant.
The decision of the panel was as unexpected as it was welcome. Most of us remember that when this planning authority was set up ten years ago (and known then as the Joint Regional Planning Panel), it was a notorious state government boondoggle stuffed with retired politicians and designed to override local councils that had legitimate concerns about unsound developments.
Fortunately the system has moved on since 2009, the act it operates under has been amended to give more transparency, and membership is now based on expertise rather than political nepotism. It is still a mechanism for the furtherance of development rather than conservation, but it can make the occasional responsible decision. After all, if this grotesque example of developer greed and heedless environmental ruin isn’t worthy of rejection it is hard to imagine what is.
The struggle is not over, with a court hearing still to come, the second DA to be determined, and all avenues of appeal likely to be taken by the applicants. However, a win is a win; Council is to be thanked for their planners’ report and the community congratulated on a rare victory of common sense over cash.
But even if West Byron is spared, the Shire will continue to suffer the death of a thousand cuts. Planning processes are stacked in favour of developers, no matter how environmentally irresponsible or socially destructive their plans might be.
Live in Sydney, buy an investment property here and instead of renting it out, replace it with a block of units that spoils the street’s amenity with height, shadow and traffic issues. Council will ignore your neighbours’ objections and petitions. If there is the slightest legal loophole to justify your profiteering, you and not the objectors will be given the benefit of the planning decision. And the affected residents will wait in vain for councillors to call out the DA for individual determination.
This story is unfortunately a recurring one. Planning instruments are insufficiently strong, and almost invariably interpreted in favour of change rather than the status quo. Councillors, with a few honourable exceptions, consider it proper to defend staff decisions blindly rather than examine them. And God forbid if Council is called upon to spend ratepayers’ money in court defending sensible planning against the arrogant demands of wealth.
Last week’s favourable outcome was owed to the absurdity of the development under scrutiny, but it is hard to avoid a general sense that in planning matters the dice are loaded, the cards marked, and the game already bought and sold.