Local government concerns over state planning powers aren’t limited to the Byron Shire Council, with the neighbouring Ballina Shire Council due to discuss the matter today.
Independent Ballina Shire Councillor and recently elected Deputy Mayor Eoin Johnston says the NSW government has been ‘drip-feeding’ local governments information about recent and proposed changes to planning regulations.
Recently introduced state planning powers to approve so-called ‘complying development’ exempt from traditional local government application processes is one of Cr Johnston’s main concerns.
‘Alarm bells have been ringing for some time,’ Cr Johnston told The Echo on Wednesday, ‘neither I nor the planning staff are fully au fait with the government’s plans’.
State planning reform agenda accused of lacking local consultation
Council staff notes in this week’s Ballina Shire Council meeting agenda referred to ‘significant’ government-imposed planning and development changes that had been ‘constantly rolling for several years’.
The changes were summed up as a ‘planning reform agenda’ from the Department of Planning, Infrastructure and Environment [DPIE].
But staff noted it had been ‘difficult’ for councils to engage with the department about the changes.
‘The DPIE engagement with local government has been inconsistent,’ staff noted, ‘and often does not have regard for Council meeting cycles to enable reporting or the overall demands of the reform agenda on councils’.
Environment law, LEPS, SEPPS and DAs all subject to change
Staff said the agenda included multiple changes to:
– environmental planning law and regulations;
– local environmental plans [LEPs] and controls;
– LEP amendment processes;
– State Environmental Planning Policies [SEPPs];
– exempt and complying development;
– and processes for the assessment and determination of development applications [DAs].
The council needed to be able to consider the impacts of the changes in terms of how they aligned with ‘local strategic planning’ outcomes, staff said, or how the council would ‘otherwise adjust’.
‘The program would be better if the DPIE had more recognition for the needs and interests of local government,’ council staff notes concluded, ‘and acknowledged that meaningful involvement in the reform agenda means the application of resources’.
Ballina Shire Council under unprecedented DA pressure
But perhaps the most telling note was that conveyed in a final staff comment on local government planning resources.
Ballina Shire Council staff said their planning department was ‘currently fully engaged in managing the current development boom’.
‘The planning department has tried its hardest to put on extra staff,’ Cr Johnston told The Echo, ‘but the demand is all over Australia’.
Cr Johnston said the department had faced staff shortages at the same time as a high increase in the number of locally lodged DAs.
‘People have been pulled out of retirement,’ Cr Johnston said.
His concerns over the pressures on local government planning departments echoed those expressed recently by Greens Byron Shire Councillor Duncan Dey.
Council investigates state-approved unit block in Alstonville
In Ballina, self-described former ‘Labor party fellow’ Eoin Johnston, who also supported former Nationals Member for Ballina Don Page and current Greens Member Tamara Smith before running as an independent for Ballina’s C Ward, was calling on the council to write to the government seeking ‘clarity and details’ on the DPIE reform agenda.
But Cr Johnston wants more than an explanation: his motion in this week’s council meeting agenda calls for staff to seek assurances ‘the unique and specific aspects’ of ‘diverse local government areas’ aren’t condensed under what he calls an ‘insensitive “one size fits all” philosophy’.
A recent controversial block of four units in Alstonville, approved by the state government as a ‘complying development’, had raised ‘community concerns regarding the State Government’s powers’, Cr Johnston’s notes read.
Cr Johnston told The Echo the concerns centred on the size of the block on the Bruxner Highway, parking provision and an alleged lack of community consultation.
The block had four garages, Cr Johnston said, but residents complained there were consistently thirteen cars parked on the street outside.
Visitors to a local swimming pool needed to park in the street, Cr Johnston said, adding to local frustration with the state approved development.
Staff were investigating compliance of the project, the deputy mayor reported.
‘State government approves it and then washes their hands,’ Cr Johnston said.
His motion noted councils still bore the cost of investigating alleged compliance breaches or ‘enforcing remedies’ when it came to state approved ‘complying development’, despite a lack of consultation.
He called for council staff to request extra time to ‘properly consider’ proposed reforms.
‘I don’t want Macquarie Street to dictate the development we have in our diverse shires,’ Cr Johnston told The Echo.
Ballina MP to take planning reform concerns to parliament
His concerns over state interference in local development regulations seemed to echo those of Greens Byron Shire Councillor Duncan Dey, although the two local government representatives had responded in slightly different ways.
Cr Dey wanted the Byron Shire Council to seek public feedback on how the planning application process might be improved and expediated.
Cr Johnston said he’d expressed his concerns to Member for Ballina Tamara Smith and local upper house member Ben Franklin, a member of the governing coalition.
‘It may be something that needs exposure in parliament,’ Cr Johnston said, ‘I do know that Tamara Smith asked if she could reference my motion’.
Ms Smith confirmed she’d be bringing the matter to parliament at the next siting as opposed to the current one.
‘Taking planning decisions further away from communities is a recipe for disaster,’ Ms Smith wrote to The Echo.
‘Macquarie Street does not know what is best for regions like ours,’ Ms Smith wrote, ‘and bypassing community scrutiny is dangerous for the environment’.
Cr Johnston said he hadn’t yet heard from Mr Franklin.
The Echo has asked the upper house member for a response to Cr Johnston’s motion, as well as the newly-reinstated planning minister, Anthony Roberts.