6 June 2024

Chief Planner and Director-General roles to be split due to potential 'vulnerability' to governance

| Claire Fenwicke
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Mick Gentleman and Ben Ponton

ACT Chief Planner Ben Ponton (right, pictured with former Planning Minister Mick Gentleman) is also currently the Director-General of the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate. This will change in July. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

An independent review has recommended the roles of the Territory’s Chief Planner and the EPSDD’s Director-General be separated due to “potential conflict of duties”.

PEG Consulting was contracted to undertake a governance review of the ACT Planning System following a motion by the Canberra Liberals. This was off the back of a committee inquiry into planning system changes that found the review was needed to ensure governance arrangements were “best practice and fit for purpose”.

The resulting ACT Planning System Governance Review: Final Report found that the dual role arrangement where one person was both the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD) Director-General and Chief Planner resulted in a “significant concentration of responsibility in one individual” and noted these responsibilities weren’t always “compatible”.

“The review’s conclusion is that there is an element of incompatibility between the functions of the Director-General of a public service directorate with wide policy responsibilities and a statutory role that has significant powers and responsibilities, such as those of the Chief Planner,” it noted.

“This incompatibility would be minimised if the statutory powers and responsibilities were not so extensive, or if the dual role was held by a senior public servant who is not also a Director-General.”

The review couldn’t determine whether better outcomes would be achieved by separating the two roles but noted that the current governance structure could be improved.

“Good governance is currently reliant on the integrity of the person who holds the role, rather than good governance being achieved through structural design,” the report noted.

“This presents a vulnerability to the governance system.”

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As part of the ACT Government’s response to the report, Chief Minister Andrew Barr emphasised that the review didn’t raise any concerns regarding the actions or decisions of the current Chief Planner.

“However, it did find the potential, and I emphasise potential, for the legislative responsibilities placed on the Chief Planner to conflict with the duties placed on a Director-General,” he said.

“This represents a potential conflict of duties for these roles. This is different from a conflict of interest … there is no evidence that the integrity of decision-making in the planning processes has been compromised by this dual role arrangement.”

The roles will be separated from 1 July.

Mr Barr said the review had found the “integrity of the planning system governance is sound” and instead had identified areas for improvement, including enhancing governance and increasing transparency in the new planning system.

The government has supported the intent of all the recommendations, agreeing to six of the eight recommendations. Work is already underway to satisfy these recommendations, with several key actions due for completion by 1 July.

These include publishing updated information about the role of the assessment advisory panel in the new planning system; progressing the development of an evaluation framework for the in-built review periods in the legislation; publishing a planning system governance framework; publishing more information about decision-making in the system; and publishing changes to data reporting.

The government agreed in principle to the recommendation calling for a strategic advisory body to support achieving the objectives of the Planning Act outside the Territory Planning Authority.

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Governance of the planning system had originally been ruled out of scope for its four-year review.

Shadow Planning Minister Peter Cain said it should have always been part of the original examination.

“[This] review should have happened at the instigation of this reform in 2019,” he said.

“This is a sign that the government made a mess of the review of the planning system.”

ACT Greens Planning spokesperson Jo Clay also labelled the original decision to review the planning system without looking at governance “astounding”.

“I don’t understand why it took so much effort from so many people to review our planning system’s governance,” she said.

Ben Ponton was appointed the ACT Chief Planner and EPSDD Director-General in 2017.

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As Chair of the Belconnen Community Council during 2018-2022, we made many submissions over the last decade about these problems as part of budget and direct project issues. When the opportunity came to offer our views on the planning system in 2022, our view was consistent with many of the other councils and stakeholder groups that there was too much power concentrated in this role. Nothing against Ben, but when you don’t have enduring input from the affected communities through a panel process, you become less likely to hear those voices.
I now live in regional NSW but keep a close eye on the ACT knowing they are moving ever closer to the NSW structures: RiotACT should keep calling this out because the other media outlets don’t seem interested.

Ponton has surely proven to be Canberras worst Chief Planner in our hundred year history. So wishy washy and ineffectual.

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