Developers and community councils don’t often agree.
But an inquiry into the draft “outcomes-based” Planning Bill has heard both are in lockstep on the fact the community must be provided with easy avenues to have its say.
Ahead of a public hearing this week, the Combined Community Councils of the ACT (CCC) said in a statement that the new Planning Bill should not be approved until concerns about governance, a lack of clarity and ensuring proper community engagement had been resolved.
Peter Elford, who convenes the peak body for the ACT’s eight community councils, said the Bill should not be treated in isolation from the other components of the planning review.
He said the Planning Bill was just one part of the new planning system.
“It should not be approved until other key components such as the new draft Territory Plan and draft District Strategies, and their interaction with the Planning Bill, can be subjected to full public and independent expert scrutiny,” he said.
Mr Elford said councils were concerned about how much power the Bill gave the bureaucracy, particularly the Chief Planner and wanted to see more checks and balances to manage governance risks.
“Land is the ACT’s greatest natural resource and residents expect strong stewardship of that resource,” Mr Elford said.
He said the shift from a rules-based to an ‘outcomes-focused’ planning system was the most significant change in 15 years and there needed to be greater clarity about how it would actually work in practice.
The Bill’s scrapping of the pre-development application community consultation was a mistake.
“While there have been problems with the current pre-development application consultation, it would be better to fix them rather than jettison the process completely,” Mr Elford said.
“For example, such community consultation should occur at the same time as the Design Review Panel is considering significant development proposals.”
Mr Elford said the planning review was supposed to make the system easier to understand but the opposite seemed to be the result.
“The Planning Bill alone now has 648 sections compared to 517 sections in the existing Planning Act. The Planning Bill and its interaction with other components needs to be clearer and simpler.”
Developers agreed the removal of pre-DA consultation was problematic and could just result in sending more cases down the route of a lengthy legal process.
Director of Canberra Town Planning Peter van der Walt said he worried that, if this avenue for consultation was removed, the only avenue left for the community would be to take their concerns to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACT).
That was something he said he was no stranger to, and it “hardly ever” led to good outcomes as both sides were forced to compromise.
Concern about spending more time in ACAT was echoed by Imogen Featherstone from Riverview Group – the developers behind the Ginninderry project.
Ms Featherstone said this often led to development just being delayed, rather than being meaningfully changed.
Molonglo Group head of planning Gordon Lowe conceded it was an expensive and resource-intensive process to try to consult with the community right from the early stages of a project.
But he said this paid dividends “when you get to the pointy end of the development process” and good results could be achieved if trust was built up between the community and the proponents of a project.
Inner South Canberra Community Council chair Marea Fatseas told the committee that while governance was taken off the table in the review the planning authority had proposed to increase its own power.
There were also potential conflicts of interest with one person filling both the Chief Planner and the EPSDD Director-General roles.
These roles should be separated to avoid the “scope for undesirable consequences”.
“The concentration of power is a recipe for disaster,” Ms Fatseas said.
Ms Fatseas backed community involvement in the actual Design Review Panel process before a DA is lodged.
She worried that the guidelines for consultation in the Bill did not ensure the level achieved in NSW or South Australian legislation.
Weston Creek Community Council chair Bill Gemmell echoed these concerns.
“How do we get our voice heard in the current framework?” he said.